Can government enforce a lockdown on ultra-Orthodox schools? - analysis

What the rabbis decide remains to be seen.

Haredi men and their children protest government restrictions barring them from reaching Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer, in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood on May 10, 2020. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Haredi men and their children protest government restrictions barring them from reaching Mount Meron on Lag Ba’omer, in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood on May 10, 2020.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
As the country faces an impending third COVID-19 lockdown, questions are once again being raised as to whether the ultra-Orthodox community will comply with a nationwide closure of the education system should it be ordered.
During the second lockdown Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most senior rabbinic leader of the Ashkenazi non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community, told school principals who asked him what to do, to keep their schools open.
For Kanievsky, Torah study, the principal occupation in ultra-Orthodox schools, provides metaphysical protection for the Jewish people and so shutting the education system down harms this protection.
Regardless of the rationale, the rabbi’s position led to an unprecedented situation in which tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of families defied the government and the law and sent their children to school despite the national lockdown.
The situation was described as the greatest organized campaign of civil disobedience in the history of the country.
In effect, the government of the State of Israel proved either incapable or unwilling to assert its authority and enforce the law on a substantial section of the population.
Kanievsky and his associates are yet to issue a statement regarding what ultra-Orthodox school principals should do in the coming lockdown, although he has said that the community should be diligent about observing health guidelines and regulations.
But should he again tell schools to open, will the government have the inclination to enforce the law and shut them down?
There are several issues which will have a bearing on the answer to this question.
The first is that although the country has not yet reached the peak of daily infections witnessed at the end of September, the presence of the more infectious, so-called “British mutation” variant of COVID-19 in Israel and its rapid spread means the spike in infections could quickly exceed everything previously seen in the country.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said on Sunday that the coronavirus crisis was even more acute than it was in September before the second lockdown.
With new infections from the ultra-Orthodox sector currently accounting for some 30% of all infections in the country, and the identification of the British variant in the community known for its large families, cramped homes and high population-density cities, allowing ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open could lead to real disaster.
This could therefore stiffen the government’s resolve to act.
On the other hand, the situation cannot be divorced from the current political context and the looming elections.
The ultra-Orthodox community already feels that is has been discriminated against and scapegoated by the government for the COVID-19 crisis, and has chafed, rightly or wrongly, at restrictions on prayer and communal celebrations when mass political protests have been permitted, and at some stages restaurants, gyms and other leisure activities kept open.
The ultra-Orthodox parties – United Torah Judaism and Shas – have become extremely sensitive to this sentiment, and waged a fierce political battle during the second lockdown against increasing fines against schools that opened, and against targeted lockdowns of high-infection cities, which then included many ultra-Orthodox population centers.
Indeed, Roni Numa, head of the Health Ministry’s COVID-19 department dealing with the ultra-Orthodox sector, said just this week that he believed the ongoing failure to enforce government regulations in ultra-Orthodox schools was due to the political influence of the ultra-Orthodox parties.
This comes against the background of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s weakened electoral position since September, due to the split Gideon Sa’ar caused with his defection from the Likud Party and his formation of a right-wing party, as well as Yamina leader Naftali Bennett’s call to replace Netanyahu.
Even United Torah Judaism MKs have said that they would be willing to join a Sa’ar-led coalition if Netanyahu is unable to form a government.
Given this weakness, how willing will the prime minister be to further antagonize the ultra-Orthodox parties and send the police en masse into ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods and shut down their schools in defiance of their rabbis’ orders?
He and his government would certainly need to stiffen their resolve in comparison to their response during the last lockdown.
Another question is whether the country and the police force actually have the capacity to enforce a closure order on ultra-Orthodox schools.
During the second lockdown, a police spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the police simply do not have the requisite manpower to properly enforce the closure of ultra-Orthodox schools, since there are thousands of such institutions around the country.
But perhaps the more critical question is whether the country at large has the will to enforce the closure, and whether it even should do so should the ultra-Orthodox community and its leadership not cooperate.
A recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute demonstrated that 93% of the ultra-Orthodox community believes that its rabbis must be included in the decision-making process in setting COVID-19 policies.
Furthermore, a key component of ultra-Orthodox society, in Israel in particular, has been both to isolate itself from the general population and to maintain independence or control over certain key facets of life, including the religious status quo and, indeed, its own education system.
We have already seen that the loyalty of the ultra-Orthodox community toward its rabbinic leaders is greater than to the country’s political leadership.
Were the government to order a mass police action against ultra-Orthodox schools, the result could be a larger level of civil disobedience and insurrection than witnessed thus far.
The civil disobedience witnessed during the second lockdown was damaging enough to the rule of law in the country and the cohesiveness of Israeli society. Should mass ultra-Orthodox resistance thwart police from closing down schools during the coming lockdown, the damage would be far greater.
Ultimately, it must be acknowledged that without the cooperation of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leadership with the government, enforcing a lockdown of its education system will be nigh on impossible.
What the rabbis decide remains to be seen.