COVID-19 highlights the haredi fissure in Israeli society - analysis

Deri realizes that the type of behavior being broadcast nightly into the homes of frustrated and angry Israelis could lead to a backlash against the haredi public.

POLICE IN Jerusalem detain a haredi protester last week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
POLICE IN Jerusalem detain a haredi protester last week.
Few in this country have a better read of which way the political winds blow than Shas chairman Arye Deri.
It is this skill, this great political acumen, that enabled him to become the country’s youngest-ever minister – and the country’s kingmaker at the time – when he became interior minister in 1988 at the age of 29. And it takes even greater political skill to return to the cabinet, as he did in 2015, after serving a 22-month prison sentence for taking bribes. He has held various ministerial portfolios ever since.
Deri knows politics, and he also knows Israel.
So with this in mind, it is instructive to listen to what he said Monday night as video footage was broadcast of the police breaking up a massive wedding at the Darag Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as some of those present shouted “Nazis” at the police who were enforcing regulations against mass gatherings.
“Those pictures of crowded celebrations and mass gatherings are against all the directives of the Health Ministry and the Torah commandment to ‘watch yourselves very well,’” Deri said in a statement. “In the midst of a severe epidemic with mutations that are promoting infection, this is a grave blasphemy like no other.”
Not only do these events endanger hundreds of families, he continued, “but they also lead to slander of the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] public, a public whose vast majority is adhering to the rules and dealing with them even with large families and overcrowded conditions.”
Deri called on public leaders and the heads of the ultra-Orthodox municipalities to stop such gatherings. “Please,” he pleaded, “spare your lives and stop the severe harm being caused to the entire haredi public. This is not our way.”
And the severe harm being caused to the entire haredi community was not, as Deri made clear, only the rampaging spread of the virus among the haredim, but also the frustration, resentment and anger that pictures of ultra-Orthodox Jews flaunting the regulations at large weddings or by sending their children to school triggered among much of the general population. And that resentment and anger, as Deri knows well, could rebound badly against the haredi community itself.
But, first, to the havoc the disease is causing the haredi community.
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the haredi head of the ZAKA organization who grew up Mea She’arim and was an activist in his youth in the anti-Zionist Eda Haredit, lost his 80-year-old mother to COVID-19 on Tuesday, within a month of losing a 59-year-old brother to the same disease.
“This is our leaders’ fault. I say this with a heavy heart,” he said in a Ynet interview. “I think they’re worse than Holocaust deniers. After all, Holocaust deniers deny history, and here, they’re denying the present.”
“What happened to these leaders?” he asked. “How can they say, ‘Our hands did not shed this blood?’ There is no house [in the haredi community] that does not have a dead body, no building, no neighborhood. You walk around the haredi neighborhoods and see billboards, and every few hours the billboard resets with new names of the deceased.”
And if that is how Meshi-Zahav is speaking, someone who himself is haredi, and who understands the community from the inside and has a reverence both for rabbinic leadership and Torah study, then what must people who do not share those values think when seeing images of haredim flaunting the regulations?
And it is to those whom Deri was referring to when he said that mass gatherings and not abiding by the regulations will bring slander upon his community. Deri, always a political beast, knows that this anger and frustration may very well go beyond people cursing and yelling at the images on the nightly television news and that it could have significant political ramifications.
For 38 of the last 44 years, going back to 1977, at least one haredi party has been in every coalition government. The exceptions were when Shas left Yitzhak Rabin’s government in 1993 for some two years; when Ariel Sharon formed a coalition for two years without the haredi parties in 2003; and when Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett edged haredi parties out of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government from 2013-2015.
And at least on the last two occasions, the experience of being outside the government was traumatic for the haredi parties and their constituents. It was during the period from 2003-2005 that Netanyahu, then the finance minister, dramatically cut child payments that propelled haredi women and then men into the workforce, triggering major changes in haredi society. And it was during the period from 2013-2015 that funding to haredi educational institutes was significantly cut, and steps were taken to bring about the enlistment of haredi men into the IDF.
Those experiences pounded home to the haredi politicians the understanding that they need to be in the coalition and that vital funding depended on it.
That is one reason why Deri is concerned. He obviously realizes that the type of behavior being broadcast nightly into the homes of frustrated and angry Israelis could lead to a backlash against the haredi public, which could end up freezing them out of a future coalition. Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman is already running on this idea.
Deri understands that the behavior of the haredi community, representing some 30% of newly diagnosed coronavirus cases, could lead to a groundswell of public support to “punish” the community by keeping haredi parties out of the next coalition and away from the budgetary pie.
More than most, the haredi MKs understand the value to the haredi community of being a part of the coalition. But while the Shas political leadership, as evident by Deri’s words, has been vocal in calling for the ultra-Orthodox community to abide by the regulations, the same cannot be said of the Ashkenazi haredi political leadership.
The coronavirus, at a certain point in time, will be defeated, and when that happens, there will still be a country to run. At that point it will be evident that the virus uncovered certain aspects about Israeli society that were either hidden, or that people simply did not want to see.
One of those aspects is that within tribal Israel, certain autonomous zones have sprung up where the law of the land is neither respected nor abided by, and where rules and regulations are not evenly or equally applied. And that is a fundamental problem that will need to be addressed if the country is to ever fully recover from the trauma that COVID-19 has left behind.