COVID-19: Fighting peaceful, violent ultra-Orthodox lockdown resistance

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: How both extremists and the mainstream have created an unprecedented challenge to the State of Israel

HAREDIM STAGE a fiery protest in Bnei Brak on Sunday. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
HAREDIM STAGE a fiery protest in Bnei Brak on Sunday.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
A grim and somber atmosphere prevailed over the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim this week following a bout of severe violence amid its warren of narrow alleyways and cramped streets.
The usually teeming crowds were absent, and the stench of “skunk spray” used to disperse rioters was all-pervading.
Several people, either wearing their festive shtreimels or holding them as inconspicuously as is possible with a large fur hat, made their way furtively to an alleyway and in through a gate beyond, likely to attend some kind of celebration.
A butcher on Mea She’arim Street itself reflected the dark mood of the neighborhood by telling this reporter not to take photos outside or disclose the nature of my work, due to the risk of getting attacked, as have so many other journalists in recent days and weeks.
And, indeed, just a couple of blocks away a gaggle of hooligans were busy burning a rubbish dumpster and pushing it into the middle of a street, as part of their war with the police amid the heightened COVID-19 enforcement measures.
But while the extremists are implacably opposed to any intrusion on their autonomous territory, members of the ultra-Orthodox mainstream have become increasingly frustrated and indignant toward the police, the government and the media.
Eli and Naomi, a young ultra-Orthodox couple from Givat Shaul who were passing through Mea She’arim, expressed this frustration with a series of claims against these different institutions.
The police’s heavy-handed methods push moderates into the hands of extremists, said Eli, and argued that those engaging in violence were a small minority which should not stain the rest of the community.
Naomi criticized what she said was the hypocrisy of the secular residents of Tel Aviv for flocking to the beach-side promenade last Shabbat while criticizing the ultra-Orthodox, and accused the press of failing to properly cover such events, focusing instead on haredi infractions of coronavirus rules.
And both Eli and Naomi insisted that observing social distancing and lockdowns is far harder for large ultra-Orthodox families living in small apartments without television, Internet and computers than it is for the rest of the country.
All of these arguments undoubtedly have more than a kernel of truth to them, but the violence witnessed in the ultra-Orthodox sector over the last seven days has drowned out such claims and led to a severe swing in public opinion against the community.
Last Thursday in Bnei Brak, a mob of Vizhnitz-Merkaz Hassidim attacked plainclothes police officers looking for COVID-19 violations in Bnei Brak and smashed up their patrol vehicle.
Then, on Sunday, extremists took to the streets of Bnei Brak to protest police enforcement of Health Ministry regulations at a prominent yeshiva of the same extremist group in Ashdod, leading a police officer to fire a live warning shot in the air.
Later that night a full-blown riot took place in the city, with streets blocked, rubbish bins burned, a bus driver assaulted and his bus set on fire and incinerated. Riot police eventually broke up the rampage with stun grenades.
On the same day, Satmar Hassidim violently resisted the dispersal of their prayer services in Mea She’arim, lobbing rocks and even a synagogue bench at police officers carrying out the enforcement, while a larger riot took place in the capital on Monday night.
Similar incidents took place in the extremist hotbed of Beit Shemesh, while ultra-Orthodox radicals in Betar Illit have also flouted coronavirus regulations, leading to confrontations with the police.
But beyond the sound and fury of these riots, and the often fair and justified claims of the ultra-Orthodox mainstream, two separate problems must be identified.
The first is the violent resistance to government regulations of the extremist ultra-Orthodox communities, which make up about 12% of the overall ultra-Orthodox community, and which are in large part responsible for much of the recent violence.
The second and greater problem, both in the short and long term, is, however, the generally more peaceful resistance of the mainstream hassidic and “Lithuanian” non-hassidic communities, which have, to greater and lesser extents, kept schools open and continued to hold mass celebrations.
IN LOOKING at the problem raised by the extremists, there are two groups to consider.
The first is the Jerusalem Faction, which until 2012 was part and parcel of the non-hassidic, ultra-Orthodox mainstream, but which broke away during a leadership struggle within the sector and has become increasingly violent and antagonistic toward the state ever since.
Constituting about 6.5% of the overall ultra-Orthodox population, it does, however, participate in elections and obtain state funding for its various institutions, according to Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute.
It is the Jerusalem Faction that has been responsible for numerous violent riots over ultra-Orthodox conscription to the IDF since 2013, and has for the most part ignored coronavirus regulations.
And it was this group that was responsible for the violent resistance to the closure of one of its yeshivot in Ashdod Monday morning, and the subsequent riots in Bnei Brak Sunday evening.
The second major group is that of the pre-state, anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox communities, many of which are connected to the Eda Haredit communal association, and which constitute by a rough estimate some 5% of the total haredi population, according to Malach.
These communities have a long history of violent resistance to state authority due to their religiously ideological antipathy to the secular state. For a long time these communities resided almost exclusively in Mea She’arim and other close-by Jerusalem neighborhoods, but have in recent years moved to Beit Shemesh and Betar Illit, too.
They do not vote in elections and do not, in large part, accept money directly from the state for their institutions.
For the most part, it is the Jerusalem Faction and the Eda Haredit communities that are responsible for the large majority of the violence witnessed not just in the latest lockdown but during the entire COVID-19 crisis.
With regard to the Eda Haredit communities, there is very little that the government can do to cajole or coerce them into compliance.
The independence and autonomy of these groups and their rabbinic leaders is so deeply ingrained, historically, culturally and ideologically, that even attempts at dialogue are essentially pointless, other than various compromises with the police in which the police make most of the concessions.
The one tool that might have an effect is the consistent issuance, and critically collection, of fines against institutions violating regulations, but this has proven difficult to carry out.
In the years since the Jerusalem Faction splintered from the mainstream, its opposition to state authority has grown sharply, and is now reflexively opposed to any infringement by the government on the ultra-Orthodox way of life, including coronavirus regulations.
It is however more dependent on the state than the Eda Haredit, and therefore financial pressure – such as cutting off funding for its institutions – could be effective.
Critically, though, rioters from the Eda and the Jerusalem Faction cannot be controlled by the mainstream ultra-Orthodox rabbis who hold sway over the large majority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis, since the rabbis of radical groups themselves endorse the protests and turn a blind eye to the violence.
BUT THE greater problem is the more polite resistance of the mainstream community, which votes in elections, overwhelmingly for the mainstream United Torah Judaism Party, and takes money for its institutions.
During the second lockdown Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most revered leader of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic, ultra-Orthodox community, gave instructions to open schools despite a government lockdown, leading tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox families to defy the state and send their children to school.
Likewise, he refused to close schools in the first lockdown, and only with extreme reluctance did he tacitly agree not to tell principals to open schools in this current, third lockdown, although he has reportedly already approved some requests to restart classes.
At the same time, major, mainstream hassidic communities such as Belz and Vizhnitz have routinely defied the health regulations, as have many other hassidic groups also part of the ultra-Orthodox mainstream.
This Wednesday night, the grand rabbis of the Sanz (mainstream) Hassidic community and the Toldot Aharon Hassidic community, one of the largest components of the Eda Haredit, married their grandchildren in front of hundreds of hassidim.
Because the mainstream community represents the overwhelming majority of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox sector, the ongoing defiance of many hassidic communities to the lockdown represents a much greater danger in terms of the COVID-19 crisis and to the fabric of Israeli society.
The same is true regarding the problem with schools, with the danger of new civil disobedience from the tens of thousands of mainstream ultra-Orthodox families posing a much greater danger than that of the small minority of extremists, both in terms of the virus and the cohesiveness of Israeli society.
When the general public sees mass hassidic weddings, or ultra-Orthodox shuls reopen during the current massive wave of infections and the heightened danger posed by the British variant, anger toward the ultra-Orthodox community will become even greater.
Sensing the national mood, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said this week his party would not agree to extend the lockdown if fines are not increased for ultra-Orthodox educational institutions opening in defiance of the regulations.
“If Bnei Brak and Betar Illit are not closed, Herzliya and Rishon Lezion will also not be closed,” he said, summing up popular sentiment.
And the anger of the general Israeli population toward the ultra-Orthodox sector, mainstream and radical alike, was illustrated in a recent poll conducted by Channel 12 News in which respondents were asked if they wanted the next government to exclude the ultra-Orthodox political parties UTJ and Shas.
Fully 61% of respondents said they did, including 52% of those who defined themselves as right-wing, meaning that the ultra-Orthodox parties, on which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has built the foundation of his governments, is now undesirable as a political partner to the prime minister’s own political bloc.
But the problem for Israeli society runs even deeper, because while the general population sees the ultra-Orthodox as having ignored their societal responsibilities so as to take care of their own needs, the ultra-Orthodox community sees things the other way around.
Those in the haredi community like Eli and Naomi believe they have been made the scapegoats for the COVID-19 crisis, and insist that it is not the defiance of a few extremists that has caused the high levels of infection in the ultra-Orthodox sector but their cramped cities and small apartments.
They accuse the government of having applied coronavirus restrictions in a discriminatory manner; of permitting mass demonstrations against Netanyahu but not synagogue prayer and weddings; of failing to consider their cramped living conditions; and point out the police storming of yeshivot and schools while ignoring mass gatherings on the Tel Aviv Promenade.
Both sides are therefore looking at the same crisis but coming to two very different conclusions about who is to blame.
What can be done at this stage to reduce the tensions of this terrible fracture in Israeli society in the short term is unclear, especially while the COVID-19 health crisis continues.
Containing the extremists has proved nigh on impossible, while the political will to take on the defiance of the mainstream appears entirely, and predictably lacking, given the current election cycle and the dependence of the prime minister on his ultra-Orthodox parties.
But once the pandemic abates, the country will require, however, the country will require deep and profound introspection to evaluate how it has reached this impasse with the fastest-growing sector of its population, on societal and governmental levels.