By Victor Rosenthal
About 12% of Israel’s population are Haredim, often referred to as “ultra-orthodox,” an expression which they strongly dislike. The Haredi population is growing rapidly with a birthrate of about 7 children per woman, and if this growth rate continues, Haredim will be 32% of the population in 2065 (this estimate, however, is high because it does not take into account “dropouts” from the Haredi lifestyle). Their religious ideology varies, including Chasidim, Sefaradim, and Misnagdim (sometimes also inaccurately called “Lithuanians”). Among these major groupings there are numerous groups and sects, with strong differences in their beliefs, politics, and ways of life. It would be a mistake to generalize about “those guys in the black hats.”
On the other hand, some things are true in general, and they are not good things for the future of the state of Israel. Haredi schools mostly teach secular subjects like English, the sciences, and mathematics very poorly or not at all. The native language of many Haredi communities is Yiddish, not Hebrew. Most Haredi young men do not serve in the military, and prefer to study Torah in yeshivot than to work at a secular job. These facts make the expected increase in the percentage of the population that is Haredi extremely problematic for the future economy of the state.
These are closed communities, which sometime allow social pathologies like sexual abuse to continue, especially when the perpetrator is an important person in the community. The external society and its police, social workers, and others are only (if ever) invited to intervene in truly horrific situations.
There is a current of contempt for the (perceived as secular) state and its laws in Haredi society. This is encouraged by the Haredi parties in the Knesset, who have taken advantage of their ability to hold the balance of power between the Right and the Left. Their critical position in most recent governments makes it possible for them to demand concessions that they would not otherwise get, like money for their schools and exemption from national requirements to prepare students for 21st century life, and avoidance of military or non-military national service. The Haredi parties have ensured that it is possible for a non-working “scholar” to have 10 children and be supported to a great extent by government child care allowances (often the women work too).
I think many Haredim feel that they can ignore the rules and laws of the state because they are loyal to a higher law. Some believe that Torah study is a more efficacious way to defend the Jewish people from the various threats facing it than the IDF and the police. And they think that congregating in large groups for prayer or other observances is a better response to the Coronavirus than following the recommendations for social distancing that come from the apikorsim (secularly educated, Jewishly ignorant Hellenists) in the government.
This is the kind of reasoning that led the Hungarian Belzer Rebbe to tell his flock that they didn’t need to worry about the Nazis, that Hashem would take care of them. He was tragically wrong. My personal view is that Hashem sometimes does miracles for the Jewish people, but he uses normal physics and biology to do them, and he expects the Jewish people to do their part as well. So in 1967 Hashem made use of the IAF, the military planners who developed the attack on our enemies’ air forces, and the brave pilots who carried it out, to save the Jews of Israel from another Holocaust. Of course I don’t understand Hashem’s intentions today, but perhaps he is working through our Ministry of Health, and yes, even our flawed Prime Minister, to save us from the virus (after all, the Minister of Health is a Gerer Chassid).
Many Haredim see the state as anti-Jewish, no different from any of the diaspora regimes under which they mostly suffered and rarely thrived. The fact that the rulers here happen to be Jews doesn’t change the adversarial nature of the relationship. To them, Netanyahu is indistinguishable from the Tsar. Like the Arabs, the Haredim have their well-developed narratives through which they perceive reality.
Criticism of Haredim is often muted because of a feeling that it is anti-Jewish (of course, in some parts of the Israeli political spectrum that is considered a plus). The Haredim themselves often call critics “antisemites” or even “Nazis.” Most Israelis take a live and let live attitude, which is only upset when Haredi extremists like the so-called “Jerusalem faction” riot and block roads in support of someone jailed for refusing to register for the draft and receive his exemption as a Haredi Yeshiva student.
Recently, however, the extremists – and I have no idea of how representative they are of the wider Haredi culture, just as I don’t know how many Arab citizens of Israel actually agree with the anti-Zionism of their elected MKs – have taken their attitude more than a little too far. Their disregard for the rules established to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus are endangering them, their communities, and everyone else in the country.
In the beginning, it was said that because of their isolation, they didn’t understand the dangers. But it is no longer possible to believe that they don’t know. PM Netanyahu met with Haredi leaders last week to try to convince them to close schools and synagogues. Some did, and some didn’t. Last night there was a funeral of a “Jerusalem Faction” rabbi in Bnai Brak, at which hundreds of mourners crowded the streets. Police, who now have the ability to levy fines on violators of the rule that no more than 10 people may congregate in one place, were present but did not issue any fines. But the authorities are considering quarantining whole cities, like Bnai Brak and Beit Shemesh, as well as particular neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
Will fear of Coronavirus do what years of negotiations and attempts at compromise have not, and make the Haredim cooperate with the state? I doubt it, not for those who believe that the pandemic is caused by women wearing wigs made from non-Jewish hair.
No, I think the way to get them to follow the social distancing rules will be widespread fines and arrests for violators. If they think the State of Israel is the Russian Empire of the 19th century, then we’ll just have to start acting like it.
The larger task of integrating all the Haredi communities into wider Israeli society seems to me impossible. There are exceptions, but generally Haredi attitudes toward male-female interactions are not compatible with the rest of the country, even with the religious-but-not-Haredi community.
There is an Israeli TV series about a dystopian future in which Haredim have established an autonomous area in Jerusalem, a “separation” not unlike what has been considered for the Palestinian areas. It’s horrifying, but I am certain there are those among the Haredim who would welcome it. And maybe it will come to pass.