The US presidential election is closer than ever, with some states hinging on a handful of votes – and this time around some of these votes belong to Jewish Orthodox citizens.
In Israel, Shas and United Torah Judaism control the black kippa public, but in the United States those donning the skullcap do not necessarily go to the polls as one. In the battle between pundits and analysts there is some disagreement on whether the haredim will overwhelmingly support any one candidate – or rather split between the two.
Will those wearing black vote "black"? Or will the conservative element bring them to the Republicans?
Of the 650,000 Orthodox Jews living in the US (which comprise 11% of the entire Jewish population), 400,000 are haredim, concentrated mostly in the New York and New Jersey area.
Their growth rate is estimated at 4% annually, which has led to their expansion into other states, specifically swing states such as Florida and Ohio. In 2008, most haredi votes went to John McCain, much like in the 2004 race, but what will happen this time around?
'Almost all lament the tense relations with Israel' (Photo: EPA)
Journalist Binyamin Rose, editor of the English-language haredi magazine "Mishpacha", does not foresee a change. According to him, the question of relations with Israel and the conservative agenda make the case, and most of the ultra-Orthodox – like the Orthodox themselves – will support Mitt Romney.
A small minority, especially those coming from relatively lower social-economical means, will vote for the incumbent Barack Obama, as his administration holds the promise of wider economical support.
"There are those who feel more comfortable with the Democrats, and even if they dislike Obama and his policy towards Israel – they will prefer to stick with the benefits," says the haredi analyst.
"But the majority, which is better off and does not require this financial support, will vote Romney. They are quite frightened by the president's Middle East policy, and have grown tiresome of liberalism in regards to issues such as same-sex marriages."
Anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox for Obama
The radical wings of the haredi camp, which is based in the US, thinks otherwise: During the last few weeks, the anti Zionist Satmar sect has been leading an intense campaign on haredi radio stations and internet networks.
Their goal is to persuade voters to neutralize the pro-Israeli factor in the election, with some even specifically calling for the election of Obama, who is perceived by some as hostile towards the community.
According to them, it is incorrect to assume Romney as good for the Jews, and such an action might turn out to be the verboten "Hitgarut Ba'Umot" (a provocation of the non Jewish nations) and will thus lead to anti-Semitism.
A. W., a Satmar Hasid from Kiryas Yoel in Monroe, recounts how the Satmar organization "Natrina," which runs "True Torah Jews," launched a campaign three weeks ago aimed at Jewish and haredi audiences, calling on them to vote for President Obama.
He says the campaign is aired hourly on all major radio stations, with the intent of persuading the haredim, as well as the greater Jewish audience, not to allow Israel to enter into the election, "something that could spark anti-Semitism."
The campaign directly attacked Benjamin Netanyahu, arguing that the prime minister of Israel tried to influence the US election and that US Jews are deeply concerned by such an action.
This time, they say, the PM's gross interference has really crossed a red line and it is possible that he has actively hurt US Jews' image. Those who desire to fix the damage declare that the statements of Israeli politicians do not represent the opinions of US Jews.
Binyamin Rose does not anticipate the campaign will have a major effect. He clarifies that "only the most extreme will make such a political calculation. In Satmar there is actually a feeling of solidarity with Israel, as well as sympathy and concern for the safety of those Jews living in Israel – despite its anti-Zionist ideology.
"Those who will vote for Obama will do so for financial reasons and in spite of his Israel policy – not the opposite."
Precious votes of Florida and Ohio
At the heart of the haredi support for the Republican party, according to Rose, lies the fact that as a group they feel like "a minority of minorities," together with their natural inclination to identify with groups they feel politically comfortable with.
In this case we are talking about Evangelists, which hold hawkish pro-Israel views (in terms of national security), as well as a conservative social outlook (traditional-religious).
Summing up, Rose points out that in the states where the haredim have the largest electoral weight, such as New York, their vote is completely ineffective because of the historical and incontestable Democratic control of these states – regardless of haredi support.
Obama and Romney at the Western Wall (Photos: Ohad Zwigenberg, AP)
This seems to be the case in New Jersey as well, where there is also a high concentration of haredim. On the other hand, in Florida and Ohio, where the haredim are a minority, by virtue of that fact that these are swing states, the haredi vote might in fact be of paramount importance.
Despite all this, he recalls, neither one of the candidates has put much effort into persuading this group – maybe because both understand that the camp in its majority will vote republican.
"Romney has chosen to invest his resources in more influential places. Just this last week he spent $11 million on his Pennsylvania campaign."
Sandy throws some weight behind haredi vote
And there are of course haredim who do not vote at all – but not necessarily on principle: "In Israel everyone receives an envelope to their home, inviting them to vote and directing them to their local voting station. However, in the US, you have to register on your own, you have to be proactive.
"Naturally you need some sort of interest or incentive to do so, and as such there are some who just give up, but they cannot be characterized. It is not ideological."
Chaim Shaulson, an Israeli journalist living in Brooklyn for the last three decades, who publishes the spicy blog "In the World of Haredim," believes that the haredi community has been given a unique opportunity to influence the results of the election in New York as well, potentially granting Romney an additional 29 electorates.
"Both candidates have yet to step foot here, we barely feel the campaigns – but this might turn out to be a mistake on their part."
In his thinking, Hurricane Sandy, which according to most analysts boosted Obama's popularity in light of his perceived successful reaction and leadership to the untimely emergency, might actually come back to haunt the president, as most residents of Manhattan have yet to fully return to their normal routine, and as such will have a hard time to get to the voting stations, resulting in a low voter turnout – thus increasing Republican prospects for wining the state.
"There is no fuel, people are getting around by horse and carriage because the thousands of cabs have been rendered useless," says Shaulson. "The government says it is a matter of days, but in the meantime it has been like this for a week.
"There, in the city, the majority supports the Democrats, and if the residents will not or cannot get to voting stations, then the Republicans will attempt to exploit the situation and steal the victory – mostly through the haredi vote."
Nonetheless, the haredi blogger is skeptical that such a dramatic scenario will in fact take place, as the governor of New York, a Democrat himself, has announced that voting in the state would be extended to two days because of the storm's impact.
Hence it seems that the haredi potential influence remains larger in Florida and Ohio. "The difference in those states is very small, and I believe that even tomorrow night, after CNN's exit polls, we will not know who is going to be president."
And what is the main factor or consideration for a haredi on his way to vote? Neither Obama's stand on Israel nor Romney's conservative world view. Rather, Shaulson, is of the opinion that it is money on their minds.
"In Borough Park they had the opportunity to place a representative in the New York Senate, but they preferred to close a deal with another candidate only for this type of reason, and he won," he says.
According to him, the haredi community is never officially affiliated with one of the sides for precisely this reason.
"This is not an ideological issue, only a selfish one", he argues. "They say that the world rests on three pillars –geld (money in Yiddish) kesef (money in Hebrew) and money (paraphrasing Jewish oral law, according to which the world rests on three pillars: Torah, work and charity of the righteous).
Despite data pointing to a consistent support of the Republican party by religious Jews, Shaulson is uncertain. "Today the public believes Obama more on economical issues. On the other hand, almost everyone laments the tense relations with Israel – even Satmar."
He refuses to commit to definite conclusions and hints that nothing is final and all remains open. "You will not find a single haredi synagogue in which worshippers were told on Shabbat who to vote for."