Amid COVID-19, the haredi shtetl lifestyle is dying in flames

MIDDLE ISRAEL: Ultra-Orthodoxy’s conduct in the face of the pandemic threatens its historic deal with the Jewish state.

YOUNG MEN watch a garbage bin burn in Bnei Brak on Sunday, during riots against enforcement of a lockdown designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
YOUNG MEN watch a garbage bin burn in Bnei Brak on Sunday, during riots against enforcement of a lockdown designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
“It’s burning,” wrote Yiddish poet Mordechai Gebirtig in what became, unwittingly, one of the Holocaust’s most iconic poems.
“It’s burning,” wrote the carpenter-turned-writer four years before he was shot by a German soldier in his native Krakow. “It’s burning, brother, it’s burning / Our poor little shtetl burns / Our poor little town, a pity, burns! / Furious winds blow / Breaking, burning and scattering / And you stand around / With folded arms / O, you stand and look / While our town burns.”
Millions of Israelis sang these chilling lines’ Hebrew translation as children in Holocaust memorial ceremonies; lines that were penned in response to a pogrom in Poland in 1938, and came to be widely seen as sensing the Holocaust’s approach.
Fortunately, nothing in the fire that was set this week in Bnei Brak’s Aharonovich Street is in any way analogous with any of the Holocaust’s circumstances and events. Gebirtig’s poem, however, did come to mind, for two reasons: first, because the anti-lockdown riot’s backdrop was our own proverbial shtetl, and second, because what crumbled in that fire was much larger than what its flames consumed.
THE PANDEMIC challenged ultra-Orthodoxy from the outset. Its high infection rates suggested that faith in its rabbis, politicians and the deal that governs ultra-Orthodox life in the Jewish state might erode.
Noting a major rabbi’s ruling to keep ultra-Orthodox schools open, and the seclusion, poverty and crowdedness that ultra-Orthodox leaders cultivated over the years, this column predicted (“Coronavirus is ultra-Orthodoxy’s Katrina moment,” April 12, 2020) that the pandemic would make many ultra-Orthodox Israelis wonder why, actually, they should dwell in the ghetto that exposed them to disease.
The plague, in other words, threatened the ghetto wall from within. Sunday’s events exposed it to attack from its outer side, where patience with the ultra-Orthodox deal may now come to an end.
THE DEAL is as simple as it is revolting: For the ghetto – maximum, for what’s beyond it – minimum.
That is why so few ultra-Orthodox men serve a full military service; that is why ultra-Orthodox women don’t serve at all, whether in the army or in national service; that is why ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are budgeted by the taxpayer; that is why studying English and math is avoided and work is discouraged; that is why there is hardly one ultra-Orthodox doctor, scientist, fireman or cop; and that is why, according to the Bank of Israel, an average ultra-Orthodox household pays a monthly NIS 1,517 in direct taxes, while the rest of Israel’s Jewish households pay NIS 4,371.
The ultra-Orthodox deal, crafted by Menachem Begin in 1977, was an abomination to a critical mass of the public, but the voters who fed Likud’s hegemony tolerated it. Not anymore.
ULTRA-ORTHODOX conduct in the face of the pandemic unsettled a majority of the public, as reflected in a Channel 12 TV poll this week which indicated that 61% of the public wants the next coalition to exclude both United Torah Judaism and Shas. That includes 51% of Likud’s voters.
Responsibility for this wrath lies with multiple layers of ultra-Orthodox Israel.
The rioters in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Ashdod were dismissed by some as unrepresentative of the ultra-Orthodox majority. That’s true. Stoning cops and hollering at them “Nazis”; torching one bus and attacking another’s driver; uprooting road signs, vandalizing train cars and pouring cement on the Jerusalem Light Rail’s tracks are not what most ultra-Orthodox Israelis do, or condone.
Yet the mobs that did engage in all this, besides counting thousands, were merely continuing through other means the absurd war their leaders had been fighting all along.
The mob was protesting the lockdown’s restrictions, and so were 16 ultra-Orthodox lawmakers for the better part of 10 months. Even after the rioting that shocked secular Israel, ultra-Orthodoxy’s politicians were fighting to water down legislation that would let police shutter and heavily fine schools that violated the lockdown.
Why would ultra-Orthodox leaders want the violations’ fines to be affordable? Because they expected, and implicitly encouraged, ultra-Orthodox schools to violate the lockdown, even if this meant spreading the disease we are all fighting to defeat.
It’s an attitude; an attitude in keeping with the historic urge to cement the ghetto’s walls, in this case by pretending that the plague raging outside the shtetl is not the business of those inhabiting its crooked streets.
This political egotism, like the vandals’ violence, was underscored by hundreds of rabbis who opened schools and attended large-scale weddings when the rest of Israel’s schools were shut and its newlyweds married in the presence of hardly a few dozen invitees. The most basic civic instincts – sacrificing for the other and protecting the public’s health – were beyond ultra-Orthodoxy’s leaders.
Though numbering less than 15% of the population, ultra-Orthodox Israelis comprised 42% of the infected population as of last month, according to an Israel Democracy Institute study. The people outside the shtetl have therefore good reason to feel attacked. And since we are Israelis, we will not sit idly in the face of this assault. We will fight back.
No, not violently, God forbid. We will fight you spiritually. We will go to your flocks and tell them all about your intellectual ignorance, crooked religiosity, sectarian egotism and social abuse. We will tell them what Zionist thinker Max Nordau wrote, that “the narrow Jewish street” deprived its dwellers of “all the elements of Aristotelian physics” – light, air, water and earth.
Ultra-Orthodoxy’s leaders are a lost cause, but their children are not. Salvaging them from the shtetl where they are trapped will now become a national goal, one for which we will scale the walls that their rabbis have built, and brave the flames that their mobs have lit.
Amotz Asa-El’s bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.