MODIIN ILLIT, West Bank — The business center in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit employs scores of strictly observant women in financial services and technology firms. It has long been touted as a sign of modernization and “Israelization” in insular communities.
Before this month’s parliamentary election in Israel, opinion polls and analysts suggested that integration among the younger, smartphone generation might have translated into less power for ultra-Orthodox parties and more openness to their more mainstream counterparts.
Instead, the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox Israeli population, also known as the Haredim — Hebrew for “those who fear God” — proved overwhelmingly that its voters obey the dictates of rabbis.
“In the Haredi community it’s only about the rabbis,” said Liora Cohen, 34, an ultra-Orthodox employee of a company that provides software services in the Modiin Illit business center.
“Only a minority of a minority act according to their own opinions,” she said, standing outside a photo store where an ultra-Orthodox couple sat editing pictures on a computer and people shopped for Passover to lively klezmer background music.
In Modiin Illit, an urban, almost entirely Haredi settlement of 70,000 people in the occupied West Bank, 97 percent of votes cast on April 9 went to the two main ultra-Orthodox Israeli parties.
Voter turnout was nearly 84.5 percent — more than 16 percentage points above the average.
Nationwide, United Torah Judaism, or U.T.J., the party that represents the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Israelis of European origin, and the Sephardic Shas Party, which appeals to Israelis from the Middle East and North Africa, won eight seats each, increasing their combined strength to 16 seats from 13 in the 120-seat Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, heading into a fifth term, is counting on both ultra-Orthodox parties to supplement the 35 seats won by his conservative Likud Party and build a coalition with a parliamentary majority.
The Haredi parties, in turn, are expected to exert ever more leverage over decisions about contentious issues of religion and state. These include increased budgets for religious institutions, the strictly Orthodox monopoly over marriage and divorce, and restricting public works, like railway repairs, on the Sabbath.
Disputes with the more liberal majority of North American Jews over a shelved agreement for a pluralistic, egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, and over non-Orthodox conversions, may be exacerbated.
“There is a very strong discussion about how we can strengthen the Jewish values we hold dear in this environment,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism. “I think we are going to see things we have not seen.”
More immediately, though, the emerging coalition faces a showdown over legislation to draft more yeshiva students into military service and limit the exemptions they have received for decades.
Another crucial coalition partner, Avidgor Lieberman’s ultranationalist and secularist Israel Beiteinu Party, which won five seats, insists on passing a relatively soft version of the Haredi draft law by July, a deadline set by the Supreme Court. But United Torah Judaism has rejected it, insisting that every student who wants to study Torah full time must be allowed to do so.
Mr. Lieberman and U.T.J.’s leaders have vowed to fight even to the point of forcing new elections, which would create a coalition crisis before the coalition was even formed.
The ultra-Orthodox sector makes up about 12 percent of Israel’s population of about 9 million citizens, and is growing rapidly, with an average of seven or eight children per family. Nearly 60 percent of the sector is aged 19 or younger.
The results in Modiin Illit were, with some variation, repeated in other ultra-Orthodox localities. Likud received less than one percent of ballots cast in Modiin Illit. Vote totals for other mainstream parties were in double or single digits.
If current voting patterns continue, according to calculations by Gilad Malach, an expert at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem, United Torah Judaism’s representation could reach 11 seats by the end of 2034. Support for Shas, which won 17 seats in its heyday by appealing to the less Orthodox but traditional Sephardic public, also is expected to climb.
The most conservative ultra-Orthodox are ambivalent about the Jewish state or reject it outright because they believe it should come into being only after the arrival of the Messiah. And yet, many have pursued secular higher education over the last decade, and more men have joined the work force instead of remaining in seminaries — and on welfare. Several thousand serve in the military.
The ultra-Orthodox also have created their own feisty digital media presence, with sites trading political news and gossip.
But none of this appears to have affected voter loyalty to Haredi parties.
Rabbi Yitzhak Pindrus, who was the eighth candidate on United Torah Judaism’s list, which allowed him to barely make it into the new Parliament, called talk of political change stemming from modernization among the ultra-Orthodox “a lot of baloney.”
“It’s an illusion, a fantasy that the Haredi community is falling apart,” he said in an interview. “Even if 500 drop out, I still have thousands more — 95 percent are staying in.”
Attributing U.T.J.’s success to its achievements in restoring rights and funding for the ultra-Orthodox over the last four years, he added: “I can send you a WhatsApp right now. It doesn’t mean I’m not religious.”
The ultra-Orthodox parties made efforts during the campaign to appeal to younger Jews. United Torah Judaism created a Facebook page; Shas did the same with a Telegram account. Octogenarian and nonagenarian sages helped, traveling around the country by minibus and helicopter to attend mass rallies.
In one widely circulated U.T.J. video clip, a disciple asks Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 91, a revered authority, in Yiddish, how to talk with voters who support parties that disregard the laws of the Torah. After a long pause the rabbi replied, “They will have children like that.”
The message clearly resonated.
“In the history of the Jewish people,” said Yaakov Rosenkrantz, an editor and a resident of Modiin Illit, “when people began to ignore the rabbis, they became non-Jews.”
“Those who vote for other parties and wear a skullcap are cutting themselves off, and the next generation will not be there,” he added. Like many in Modiin Illit, he carried only what he called a “kosher” cellphone, a basic model for only making or receiving calls, not a smartphone with internet access. Those are still scorned by the most strictly observant.
For the first time, an ultra-Orthodox woman, Omer Yankelevich, will enter the Knesset on the centrist Blue and White Party roster, led by Benny Gantz, a former military chief.
Israel Cohen, a political analyst for the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama, said that Ms. Yankelevich would have little influence (some Modiin Illit residents had not heard of her) but that the mainstream parties wanted to reflect the diversity of Israeli society, “like in a reality show.”
In the past, the ultra-Orthodox were swing parties, willing to join left-wing or right-wing governments. Their leaders were amenable to peace with the Palestinians and at first were reluctant about settling the West Bank.
In recent years, they have stuck with the right.
“Today there is no diplomatic solution on the table,” Mr. Cohen said, “and the left has adopted anti-religious positions like the recognition of Reform Judaism and civil unions.”
“You can have a smartphone, a television at home, your kids can go to karate, but at the end of the day what are you? Haredi or not?” he said. “With all the advancement, in the end people still listened to the rabbis.”
Orignially published in NYT.