With Israel in “lock-down” for three weeks already and at least another week to come, many of us are trying to stay within the safety regulations, but at the same time to explore the limits of the lockdown rules and sometimes breaking them if “we think it is OK”. And with the rules often designed haphazardly by our incompetent leadership, and with political considerations often taking precedence over health, it is not surprising that many Israelis are trying to find out what is best for them and act according to their own judgement and not according to the rules. Without judging anyone, it does appear problematic that people find it necessary or desirable to jinx official rules and limitations and decide for themselves. But it is done mostly on the fringe of the regulations, and the Police is active in attempts to stop the violations and fine people when caught. It cannot be justified that people do not wear masks, that a shop is opened when it is supposed to be closed or that more than ten people gather at a friend’s house, but the (health) consequences of such infractions are generally minor.
There is one group of people in Israel who have taken violation of rules established by the authorities to a new level. In the Ultra-orthodox communities all over Israel, in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh, Ashdod and other cities, life appears to go on as if there is no corona. Schools are open, Kollels and yeshivot are open, people go about their business with complete disregard of the corona and the limitations that are being imposed on the population. In particular, the opening of the schools and Torah-study institutions is a serious problem because it involves a very large number of people who spend their day in mostly very cramped surroundings and return home (at least some of them) to very small and cramped surroundings. The opening of the educational institutions is a blunt violation of the corona rules but is not something that started in this latest lock-down. The rabbis who lead these communities made a decision to ignore the rules and the people will listen to them only.
And that is the basis of the problem Israel has with the ultra-orthodox population. The people do not recognize the authority of the State of Israel and its chosen leadership and will listen only to their rabbi. If the rabbi decides that the study of the Torah is more important than people’s health, than apparently he knows something regular mortals don’t know and he is the sole authority as far as the simple man is concerned. The State of Israel is a convenient entity, if you need healthcare, if you need child support, if you want your men to be paid for studying Torah, to mention just some of the benefits the State grants the ultra-orthodox community (like all others in Israel), but when it comes to doing your part as a citizen (Army service for instance), the ultra-orthodox will politely decline.
Israel as a State is not of interest or importance to the Haredim. According to some, it shouldn’t even exist, because it prevents the Messiah from coming. As far as the Ultra-orthodox population is concerned, their rabbis are the ultimate authority and the only authority, and their word is the only word that counts.
The leadership of these Ultra-orthodox communities, while at odds with each other on most issues, and at the same time defying the authority of the State of Israel, did recognize the strength of politics in Israel, and, without believing in the State nor contributing in any way, they have formed political parties that have growing strength (the ultra-orthodox population has tripled in size since 1980) and quickly learned the game of political extortion. The result has been that for many years now, these religious parties have been in a position to make or break a politician’s career and they have exploited this to the hilt. The reign of Netanyahu has been made possible only by the support of the religious parties. Support that was acquired through political extortion and arm twisting.
And this is exactly the reason that Netanyahu and his Internal Security minister Ohana have been extremely reluctant to act forcefully against the corona rule violations that are routine in the Ultra-orthodox communities and thus also the Police have mostly refrained from stopping these violations. So, while we see pictures on TV of Police officers apprehending people on the beach for not wearing a mask, fining them for being more than a kilometer from their home without authority, or being in a store that should have been closed, the next item on the news usually shows throngs of religious children being dropped off at their schools for an (unhindered) day of Torah study.
Apparently it has become politically problematic to have pictures of gross violations on TV every night, or more likely it is to hurt Netanyahu’s changes in the election more than it will help and the Police has been ordered to act, and have done so forcefully. But the (mostly) failed attempts at closure of the religious schools and Torah institutions have led in many cities to violent protests whereby the hooligans in black used sticks and stones, burned garbage bins and cars and shouted “Nazi” to the police officers, forcing the Police to use water cannons, tear gas and in some instances stun grenades. It is not clear why that would look better on TV than just the violations, but the violence is reaching new levels every day. And, while it is plausible that the majority of the |Haredi population doesn’t want or approve the violence, they are all aware that the hooligans are doing their dirty work. After all, they are sending their kids to the schools, right.
And the Haredi politicians? They are screaming “gewalt” and demand inquiries of the Police violence. But they are simply making it very clear that if they need to choose between their Rabbi masters and the State of Israel, they will go with the rabbi.
The real culprit here of course is the State of Israel. From the agreement that Ben Gurion made even before the establishment of the State with the Haredim, assuring the “Status Quo” (no changes in religious character or behavior throughout the State), the Haredim have exploited their growing strength, as well las the “we are all Jews” syndrome, to extort the State and have their way on almost every issue, from financial support for the Yeshivot, to the exemption from army service for haredi men.
The Corona crisis has shown once again that Israel cannot afford to have a “State within the State”. The Haredi population must be brought into the fold, at least as far as it concerns issues that wield their effect beyond the borders of the Haredi enclaves. Today, hospitals are struggling to take care of the overwhelming number of patients, but 40% of the daily identified new patents are Haredim, while they barely count for 12% of the general population. The Haredim have every right to live their lives as they see fit, but not on account of the rest of the population. Having no public transportation on the Sabbath is one thing (aggravating as it is) but dying because the hospitals are filled up with people who don’t care about anything and anybody and will do only as their rabbi pleases is another.
And people are dying, at a rate of about 50 per day.
I hope you found this article interesting and I welcome any comments you may have.
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