The burning bus.
Torched and aflame on a main street in Bnei Brak, a haredi enclave abutting Tel Aviv, the bus was seen around the world in late January.
It has become an iconic image, seen by some to reflect the lawlessness and autonomy among haredim in Israel that has become somewhat regular in the COVID era. Not even the firefighters would rush to douse the blaze without a police escort.
Unfortunately, the bus was an extreme, but not isolated incident. Mass civil disobedience in haredi neighborhoods and a refusal to follow corona-related laws had been ongoing since the outset of the crisis. It was, however, a shocking new apex.
In the last year, there have been more than a few riots in hardcore ultra-Orthodox enclaves – among them Beit Shemesh, Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Violent reactions were sparked by state-imposed lockdown rules requiring school closures, among other measures, across all segments of society.
For many haredim – particularly the numerous hassidic sects as well as those submitting to the authority of the Lithuanian rabbinate – shutting down schools was a red line. Perhaps most notorious throughout this past year have been the numerous edicts issued by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a 93-year-old revered in his Lithuanian-based community as a Torah sage, committed completely to religious observance and learning.
His 30-year-old grandson, Yaakov – or Yanky – has become a household name in Israel during the last year, presented as the rabbi’s key aide and interpreter. Speaking recently to a reporter about the rabbi’s controversial pronouncements during the COVID year, Yanky stated plainly: “Nobody here is crazy,” adding that the “most important thing in the world is the study of Torah. Without that there is no point to anything.”
This interpretation, to be charitable, is extreme and certainly not aligned with the position of many other rabbis in Israel who counseled their followers to abide by all state directives; a more sober approach that would seem to adhere to the ultimate Jewish religious value: the preservation of life.
In the course of the last few months, I have made an effort to connect with haredi individuals and families to better understand this tension, from their perspectives, in their communities. And so, in February, I met with a woman who will be identified here as Batya, at her well-appointed, spacious apartment in Beitar Illit. A well-educated, articulate and spirited mother of quite a few, she shared the hardships of raising kids – particularly teens – who have been at loose ends for a year. Her family adheres scrupulously to the public health guidelines and her rabbi counsels strict compliance.
Our conversation meandered, at one point touching on “the bus.” She nearly exploded with anger. “It wasn’t us,” she insisted. “It was secular kids who don’t even live in Bnei Brak. They did all of this to make us look bad.”
As with every single haredi person with whom I met recently, Batya did not want either her name or photograph to be published. To a person, they insisted that their community celebrates pluralism of thought and, to a lesser degree, lifestyle, but they clearly feared the reaction should their unvarnished views be published.
Batya later sent me some news clippings and a homemade video taken from a balcony overlooking the site where a group of young men overturned a garbage dumpster and then set it on fire in the middle of a main street. One can hear the family on the balcony say that these young men are not from Bnei Brak. “They’re secular.”
THE VIOLENCE that night escalated, leading eventually to the bus torching.
We do not know for a fact that the young men were interlopers and not locals. But we can all see as well the scores of haredi men standing around and watching, not interfering. Not even resisting verbally. And one can’t help but think that it’s because this is not their first rodeo. Sadly, Israelis have become accustomed to scenes of violent haredi protests, including full-on abuse and assaults on law enforcement officers. It has become, alarmingly, routine.
A year ago, corona happened. Fear was rampant as all Israelis were confined to their homes, except for very brief and limited purposes. Little was known about the virus or how it was transmitted, but it was clear it had lethal potential as the death toll mounted. Israel’s health minister at the time, Yaakov Litzman, a haredi adherent of the Ger Hassidic sect, disappeared from public view. In the most crucial weeks at the onset of the crisis, the ministry’s director-general, Moshe Bar Siman Tov, became a nightly fixture on TV news: the voice and face of the government in the corona crisis.
Litzman seemed to have lost the plot, forgetting to even pay lip service to the fact that he was the top government official in the Health Ministry managing the most critical issue in the country. He owed a duty to all Israelis, not just his ultra-Orthodox constituents. Yet there he was, speaking with an interviewer on haredi radio in March. In response to the host’s concerns as to how difficult it would be to celebrate Passover under quarantine restrictions, Litzman assured him all would be fine.
“The Messiah is coming,” he declared, without a trace of irony. “Messiah will come and we will have a wonderful Passover.”
Throughout the first lockdown, more than a few haredi rabbis urged their followers to defy government orders and keep schools and many synagogues open. Among them, of course, was Rav Kanievsky. He was said to have confirmed repeatedly to Yanky that continuing Torah learning was imperative, no matter the consequences.
And, so, schools remained open in defiance of state directives. As leader of the Lithuanian haredim – about one-third of the ultra-Orthodox population in Israel – Kanievsky cannot be dismissed as some sort of fringe figure. In fact, his authority is so established that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to him on several occasions to implore him to rethink his corona-related comments. The Prime Minister.
Kanievsky’s conduct incensed the majority of Israelis. Furthermore, during the first wave in the early spring there was significant resistance in the haredi community to the state requirements to wear masks in public and maintain social distancing protocols. Excuses and justifications were legion: the government failed to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the haredi public; the communication with the haredi public was not appropriately worded; haredim were being targeted for harassment by the authorities and media; it was impossible for them to adhere to the government directives because they had such large families often living in cramped apartments.
Corona amplified everything and everything was elevated to crisis levels. Civil disobedience was not just a disturbance but became a “super-spreader event” where mass numbers congregated, accelerating contagion and leading to extreme health consequences.
The haredi community has been ravaged by corona. They make up 12% of the general population but account for more than 40% of the diagnosed cases. The death toll – particularly among the elderly – has been brutal. One out of 73 haredim over age 65 has died in this pandemic, an unspeakable toll.
WALKING THROUGH Jerusalem’s heavily haredi neighborhood of Bayit Vegan in early February, I was accompanied by “Shimon,” a middle-aged man who grew up in the area and remembered it fondly. Now and then he paused to exchange pleasantries with an old acquaintance – stopping to remember his carefree times in the old schoolyard where he ran around, now a jumble of portables to accommodate the burgeoning population.
This crowding, he sees as yet another very tangible sign of the way in which haredim are treated as second-class citizens. Children are crammed into makeshift classrooms, while fancy new schools are built for the non-haredi population. What he is less receptive to discussing is the fact that the cost of education for haredi boys is covered by the state, in spite of the fact that they study no core state curriculum after age 13. No math. No science. No English. This learning deficit, of course, prepares them well for life as full-time Torah scholars but far less so to enter the economy and become gainfully employed to support their large families financially.
“Ahhh,” he responds. “There is no greater value to the state than a man who devotes his life to Torah learning.”
Shimon stops to chat with a young man corralling his three school-age sons, asking the boys if they are in school. Sweet and shy, they shake their heads. Their father confirms this, saying they have been in and out of school, with no routine, for the last year.
Across the street is a synagogue, shuttered. Or so it seems at first glance. The side entrance is bustling, with people coming and going. I approach the main front windows of the building, which are blocked by curtains. Peering through a slit I see a room full of young boys, seated at desks, books open and being led in their studies by a male teacher standing at the front of the room. He senses my presence in a flash and instructs the boys to pull the curtains more tightly, blocking any view.
Around the corner is the neighborhood bulletin board: a hub for keeping current on local issues in most haredi communities. It is plastered with notices of funerals for the recently deceased, almost all of them taken by corona. Our talk segues into death and, inevitably, funerals.
Just a few days before our planned outing there were two funerals – one in Bnei Brak and the second in Jerusalem – for revered rabbis, taken by COVID. Aerial photos of these events showed swarms of black-garbed haredim jamming the streets in the funeral processions, causing outrage among the broader population.
“What you see when you look at those photographs,” admonished Shimon, “are ten thousand mourners.”
“What I see,” he continued, “are the twenty or thirty thousand grieving, like me, who went against every fiber of their being to stay away.” In other words, the essence of the haredi being, his DNA, is communal living, cradle to grave. To disconnect from that is to stop a beating heart.
The modern state of Israel has been based upon a compromise – however wobbly at times – between the ultra-Orthodox and others. It is an imperfect entente, resented by all. Non-haredi Israelis chafe at the reality that they serve in the IDF and do national service while their haredi compatriots overwhelmingly do not. And they resent the tendency of the majority of haredi men to study full time rather than work. The economic and social implications of this are clear.
Many ultra-Orthodox see their devotion to Torah study as the most noble vocation for a Jewish man, and credit the prosperity and safety of Israel to the power of their prayer. So when the government ordered the closure of all synagogues and schools at the outset of the corona era, well, for many in the haredi community, that was a declaration of war of sorts.
PROF. YEDIDIA Z. STERN, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a member of the Faculty of Law at Bar-Ilan University, sees this as a watershed moment, when one of the greatest Torah sages of our era openly advocates civic rebellion.
Discussing this issue in November, Stern explained Kanievsky’s continued opposition to school closures as being in response to the devastating effect of corona measures on the haredi way of life. Controlled around the clock, there is little room for individuality of expression or habit. Once a wheel falls off the track, it threatens to derail the train.
The consequence of non-conformity, depending on the degree, can be extreme, with banishment being the most harsh but not uncommon. One haredi man in his late 30s, who I have known for many years, laments being trapped in a life he can neither live nor leave, because he cannot bear to consider the consequences of abandoning tradition, for his family and children. His fear is his trap.
Fear is also, interestingly, a central motivator for rabbis managing their communities, determined to keep them united, no matter the threat.
Israeli philosopher Micah Goodman casts the “fear factor” in historical experience. Speaking recently about his newest work, The Wondering Jew: Israel and the Search for Jewish Identity, Goodman explains post-Enlightenment modernity in Europe as having posed such an extreme threat to organized Judaism that it caused a collective “panic attack” among some ultra-Orthodox rabbis and communities. Their reaction to the potential disruptive consequences of intellectual enlightenment caused them to double down, retrench and further isolate. They feared the possible corruption of external influences and the impact they might have on loosening community discipline.
This tendency to isolate was further exacerbated after the Holocaust, when the surviving remnants of haredi communities, stripped of oral and familial continuity, took comfort and refuge in extremely legalistic, ascetic approaches to religion. They defaulted to what Goodman refers to as a freezing and closing of religious practice in order to preserve its essence. Rabbis feared.
When this closed European practice collided with the more flexible, less judgmental Mizrachi and Sephardic Jews in the early years of the state, the Ashkenazi leadership worked hard, for decades, to force-fit their paradigm on all Jews. To a large degree, they succeeded in doing so.
Ironically, their poster child in many ways is Shas leader Aryeh Deri, the upstart Sephardic politician born in Morocco and educated in the strict Lithuanian yeshiva system in Israel. To gain acceptance into one of these yeshivot was to access prestige, power, respect – qualities the Ashkenazim treated as their birthright. As the dominant religious authorities in the early decades of the state, the Ashkenazi rabbis strained to force their elitist paradigm on the Mizrachi and Sephardic newcomers.
The latter are heavily influenced by their Ashkenazi cousins but remain a distinct force with quite different communal values, serving in the IDF, doing national service and living a less ascetic life, managing to balance their spiritual beliefs with the pragmatic demands of daily life. By all accounts the Sephardic and Mizrachi communities have abided by state law throughout this difficult period.
But the vast majority of haredim, according to a recent survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute, have extremely high levels of trust in rabbinic leadership and quite abysmal faith in the institutions and leaders of the state; so much so that they believe that leading rabbis must be involved in setting health policy, particularly relating to the coronavirus. A shocking 90% believe the corona era has “greatly damaged” their relations with other Israelis.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a former MK, says that a “Jewish and liberal democratic” state is “not what the haredim agreed to in 1948.” Their vision, he cautions, was and remains a state in which Jewish law prevails over civilian law: rabbis over judges.
As for the bus: Who torched it is less important than the fact that it was. In the end, we’re all on that bus, together.
If corona brought home one thing, let it be that we resolve to find a way to get back on that bus and drive it in the same direction, veering from time to time, but eyes always on the road.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.