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Israel’s haredi voters are drifting hard to the right in a leadership vacuum | WGN 720 Radio

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 populations. .

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 parliamentary election. Polls show his religious Zionist party could become the third largest and help restore former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power.

His appeal is a reflection of the Israeli electorate’s steady shift to the right over the years, with Ben-Gvir and his party also attracting voters who previously supported other right-wing parties.

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

The community, known in Hebrew as Haredim, is growing at a breakneck pace, with an average birth rate more than double the national average. Half of their population are children, another quarter are young people aged 18 to 35.

Ben-Gvir’s appeal among young Haredim reflects a shift in the political preferences of a community that adheres to strict observance of religious traditions. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox have largely voted for two Haredi political parties, United Torah Judaism and the SCO.

These parties promoted the community’s interests in exchange for support for coalition governments of varying ideological hues—though the haredi favored center-right factions that were more culturally conservative.

But several prominent rabbis who served as spiritual leaders of these parties have died in recent years. Analysts say the young and middle-aged Haredi are disillusioned with the old guard.

“Most of the relatively young ultra-Orthodox — under the age of 50 — have become right-wing, sometimes hard-right, which was not the case in the past,” said Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at the Israel Bar. Elon University.

The haredi political leadership lacks a strong, charismatic leader, “and that vacuum allows (voters) to go in different directions,” Hellinger said.

Into this void steps Ben-Gvir.

Voting records in the predominantly Haredi communities show that since Ben-Gvir entered politics in 2019, his support in those areas has increased in four consecutive Israeli elections — though he still lags behind prominent ultra-Orthodox parties.

Ben Gvir’s campaign declined The Associated Press’ requests for interviews with him or officials who work with the ultra-Orthodox community.

Several factors seem to account for its growing popularity in society.

Some haredim prefer the religious Zionist party’s mix of Orthodox Jews and ultra-nationalist messages to Netanyahu’s Likud party, which, while hard-line, remains largely secular.

Recent years have also seen a surge in attacks by Palestinian attackers on ultra-Orthodox Jews as part of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In March, shortly after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on the streets of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, killing five Israelis, Ben Gvir arrived at the scene and addressed television cameras surrounded by a crowd of young Haredim. shouting racist fiddles.

The scene repeated itself in May, after a Palestinian killed three Israelis in the center of Elad.

At a recent campaign rally in Elad, Ben-Gvir rallied a gender-segregated crowd calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian militants. The spectators, many of them young men in white button-down shirts and black beanies, responded with cheers and whistles before chanting “Death to the Arabs” and “Death to the terrorists.”

David Cohen, a resident of Beit Shemesh, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city west of Jerusalem, said he would vote for Ben Gvir, comparing him to former US President Donald Trump and describing him as a straightforward man of action.

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

Ben-Gvir entered parliament for the first time in 2021 after the merger of his Jewish Power party with the Religious Zionist party. Jewish Power, which failed to clear the electoral threshold in the 2019 and 2020 elections, is the successor to the late ultra-nationalist politician Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kah Party.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the Religious Zionist party rose in the polls. He is projected to win twice as many seats as in the previous election and could influence whether Netanyahu returns to power or remains in opposition.

It will be the fifth election in less than four years, largely fought over whether Netanyahu is fit to govern as he faces corruption charges.

Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of crimes including inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, went on to pursue a legal career defending Jewish extremists accused of violent crimes.

He lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Until recently, he displayed in his home a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli-American who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded more than 100 in a shooting as they knelt in prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1993.

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

While a hawkish booster of Israel’s security forces — advocating immunity from prosecution for soldiers and the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of attacks on Jews — Ben-Gvir did not serve in the military; he was discharged due to extremist ideology.

In the run-up to the election, Ben Gvir told public broadcaster Kan that he advocated dismantling the Palestinian Authority government and annexing the West Bank, while denying the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians the right to vote in Israel’s Knesset.

“There is no Palestine, this is ours, this is our land,” he said.

Political scientist Shira Efron, who heads the Israel Policy Forum think tank, said she believed Ben Gvir’s rise was the result of what she called systematic incitement, mostly by Netanyahu and his Likud party, against the country’s large Arab minority. Israel.

Ben-Gvir is “insightful, charismatic, and expresses what unfortunately many Jewish Israelis are thinking but haven’t felt comfortable saying out loud until now,” she said.


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


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