Israel’s Haredi voters are drifting sharply to the right in the leadership vacuum

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JERUSALEM (AP) — One of Israel’s most extremist politicians, known for his inflammatory anti-Arab speeches and stunts, is attracting new supporters from a previously untapped demographic — young ultra-Orthodox Jews, one of the country’s fastest-growing demographics.

Itamar Ben-Gvir’s surge in popularity over the past three years has transformed him from a fringe provocateur to a central player in Tuesday’s general election. Polls suggest his Religious Zionism party could emerge as the third largest party and help bring former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back to power.

His call reflects the ongoing rightward swing of the Israeli electorate over the years, with Ben-Gvir and his party also attracting voters who previously supported other right-wing parties.

This shift is particularly evident among Israel’s 1.3 million ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13% of the population.

The community, known as Haredim in Hebrew, is growing rapidly, with an average birth rate more than double the national average. Children make up half of the population, and young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 make up another quarter.

Ben-Gvir’s appeal among young Haredim reflects a shift in political preferences in a community clinging to strict adherence to religious traditions. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox largely voted for two Haredi political parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas.

These parties promoted community interests in exchange for support for coalition governments with a range of ideological leanings – although the Haredim favored centre-right factions, which were more culturally conservative.

But several prominent rabbis who served as spiritual leaders for these parties have died in recent years. Analysts say younger and middle-age Haredim are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the old guard.

“The majority of the relatively younger ultra-Orthodox — under 50 — have shifted to the right, and sometimes decidedly to the right, something that didn’t happen in the past,” said Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at the Israel Bar Association’s Ilan University.

The Haredi political leadership lacks a strong, charismatic leader, “and this vacuum allows[voters]to go in different directions,” Hellinger said.

Ben-Gvir steps into this void.

Election records from predominantly Haredi communities show that since Ben-Gvir entered politics in 2019, support for him in these areas has surged across Israel’s four consecutive elections – although he still lagged behind mainstream ultra-Orthodox parties.

Ben Gvir’s campaign turned down requests from The Associated Press to interview him or officials managing outreach to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Several factors appear to be driving its growing popularity in the community.

Some Haredim prefer the Religious Zionism party’s mix of orthodox Jewish and ultranationalist messages to Netanyahu’s Likud party, which remains persistent but mostly secular.

In recent years, attacks by Palestinian raiders on ultra-Orthodox Jews have also increased as part of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In March, shortly after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on the streets of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb, killing five Israelis, Ben Gvir appeared at the scene and, surrounded by a crowd of young Haredi men, admitted to television cameras, Shout out explanations from racist screeds.

The scene repeated itself in May after a Palestinian killed three Israelis in downtown Elad.

At a recent campaign rally in Elad, Ben-Gvir whipped up a gender-segregated crowd calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian militants. The crowd, many of them young men in white buttoned shirts and black skullcaps, responded with cheers and whistles, then chants of “Death to the Arabs” and “Death to the Terrorists.”

David Cohen, a resident of Beit Shemesh, a heavily ultra-Orthodox town west of Jerusalem, said he would vote for Ben-Gvir, comparing him to former US President Donald Trump and describing him as a man of action who is genuine talks

“He seems like the only one who’s really going to achieve anything,” Cohen said of Ben-Gvir. “He’s a guy who says what he means and means what he says.”

Ben-Gvir first entered parliament in 2021 after his Jewish Power party merged with the Religious Zionism party. Jewish Power, which failed to cross the voting threshold in the 2019 and 2020 elections, is the successor to the late ultranationalist politician Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach Party.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the Religious Zionism party rose sharply in the polls. It is forecast to win twice as many seats as in the previous election and could mean the difference between Netanyahu’s return to power or remaining in the opposition.

It will be the fifth election in less than four years to feature a battle over Netanyahu’s ability to govern while facing allegations of corruption.

Ben-Gvir, convicted of offenses including inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, made a legal career defending Jewish extremists accused of violent crimes.

He lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, adjacent to Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Until recently, he displayed a photograph at his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli, who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded over 100 in a shootout as they knelt in prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1993.

On Saturday, a Palestinian gunman opened fire on Israelis in Kiryat Arba, killing a 50-year-old man and injuring several others.

While he was a combative augmentor of the Israeli security forces — who advocated immunity from prosecution for soldiers and the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of attacking Jews — Ben-Gvir did not serve in the military; he was granted a special permit because of his extremist ideology.

Ahead of the elections, Ben Gvir told public broadcaster Kan that he supports the dismantling of the Palestinian self-government government and the annexation of the West Bank, while denying some 2.5 million Palestinian residents the right to vote in Israel’s Knesset.

“There is no such thing as Palestine, this is our country, this is our country,” he said.

Political scientist Shira Efron, who runs the Israel Policy Forum think-tank, said she believes the rise of Ben-Gvir was the result of what she describes as systematic incitement, mainly by Netanyahu and his Likud party, against the big Arab minority of Israel described.

Ben-Gvir is “smart, charismatic and expresses what many Jewish Israelis are sadly thinking but have not felt comfortable saying out loud until now,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Eleanor H. Reich contributed to this report.

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