COVID-19 reveals Israel’s social contract is in need of repair

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: The real reason haredi and Arab issues have not been addressed for 72 years: Politicians just see them as a vehicle for political advancement.

POLICE OFFICERS clash with haredim in Jerusalem this week during the enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
POLICE OFFICERS clash with haredim in Jerusalem this week during the enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
An Israeli walks into a bar, goes one version of an old joke, and complains to the bartender that Israel is a country that can be broken down into thirds.
“One-third of the population does the army, one third works, and one third pays taxes,” he says.
“So what’s the problem?” the bartender asks.
“It’s the same one third,” the man replies.
Jokes hit home when – even though they exaggerate – they touch upon a truth, and that joke touched upon an inequitable distribution of obligations in this country that has existed for decades: not everyone, or not every sector, contributes equally to the collective.
The two segments of the population regularly fingered as not pulling their weight – neither in army service, nor in the workforce nor in carrying the tax burden – are haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) and Arabs.
The haredim respond that by studying Torah, they are doing more than their fair share for the collective in a metaphysical sense, as Torah is the country’s ultimate shield. And the Arabs say that they cannot be asked to carry an equal share of the burden, since they are not receiving an equal amount of the resources.
Now, in light of the coronavirus, the one-third breakdown to which this joke alludes needs to be updated. Today, one-third of the population are part of sectors where, to be generous, the coronavirus regulations are not strictly adhered to: again, the haredim and the Arabs.
But this time it is different because, by the refusal of minority segments in those communities to follow the regulations, it is not as if they are not positively contributing to the collective, but, rather, their actions are actually negatively impacting on the whole.
Again, it is not everyone, and to say that the haredim and the Arabs are not abiding by the rules would be a wild and unfair generalization, just as blaming them for the current health crisis would be ridiculous.
But enough members of those communities are flouting the regulations to explain that the 10 cities with the highest incidence of new COVID-19 infections are either haredi or Arab cities, and that the percentage of haredim and Arabs among the coronavirus ill is significantly larger than their percentage of the population.
The rapid spread of the coronavirus in the haredi and Arab locales – because the regulations are not being heeded – does not stop at the municipal boundaries, but, rather, affects everyone. And what this has done is reveal deep systemic problems in Israeli society that in the past have conveniently been hidden or ignored – namely, that significant numbers of haredim and Arabs feel neither part of society nor bound by the rules.
And this is a serious problem, since Arabs make up about 21% of the population, and the haredim some 12%, or – together – roughly one-third of the population (there is that one third again).
So how can the country function when one-third of the country – or, more precisely, some within this one-third of the country’s population – insist on following a different set of rules?
The answer is simple: Just as it has for the last 72 years, or until the other two-thirds of the population realize there is a serious problem and demand real change – which is where we might be headed.
As Maariv columnist Lilac Sigan wrote this week: “For many years there has been a tendency to hate these sectors [the haredim and the Arabs] or at least to get mad at them from time to time. But during the corona period, the problems that we ignored for many long years blew up in our faces in a manner that is impossible to ignore.”
AN EXAMPLE of demands for change emerged Wednesday, when Defense Minister and Blue and White head Benny Gantz held a press conference to announce an IDF draft plan that would include haredim and Arabs and give them the choice of serving either in the IDF or in National Service and charity organizations, for the sake of “national unity.”
The problem with the proposal is not its content but, rather, its timing – just before the elections. This illustrates how, for decades, politicians have been feeding off this issue for their own partisan purposes, and not necessarily for the good of the collective.
“In the Israel of 2021, more than 50% of the youth are not joining the army,” he said. “Army service is harmed; Israeli society is torn apart.”
All true, but the question is why is Gantz holding a press conference and waking up now? Simple, because now the haredi issue is hot, and now he sees it as a possible vehicle that could raise his party above the 3.25% electoral threshold needed to get into the Knesset.
This is a problem, and why the unsolved issues involving the haredi and Arab communities have not been addressed or resolved for the last 72 years: because politicians, rather than actually wanting to find solutions for these issues in a realistic and constructive way, just see them as a vehicle for political advancement.
Over the years numerous parties have waved high the banner of a haredi draft, to win votes more than to constructively address the issue. Meretz, Shinui, Yesh Atid, Yisrael Beytenu have all sought power by lashing out at the haredim, underlining the inequality in the nation’s existing social contract. But these parties have not actually put forward a realistic plan to solve the problems of the draft, or how to integrate the haredim more into the society – a plan that takes into account haredi concerns and sensibilities as well.
Likewise, the haredi political leadership has ensured a steady diet of 15-17 Knesset seats by pledging, among other things, to resist any change, rather than realizing – as many do – that the current situation is unsustainable in the long term.
The same is true of the Arab sector. Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu Party, with a plank now heavy with anti-haredi positions, was just a few years ago firmly rooted in an anti-Arab platform. It got him votes. But Liberman did not invent the wheel here; complaints and accusations against the Arabs have been used often in the past by other parties fishing for support.
And the Arab political leaders have, like the haredi political leaders, failed their constituents. They harnessed Arab feelings of being second-class citizens deprived of a fair piece of the pie into 15 seats for the Joint List in the last elections, but then squandered the power those seats could give them by an unwillingness to jettison the stridently anti-Israeli voices inside the party, a move that would enable it to work with the Zionist parties to address the real problems facing Arabs.
“The politicians have found a good way to make a living off the sectors, and it appears they don’t really have an incentive to solve the problem,” Maariv’s Sigan wrote. “In fact, our politics shows quite lot of interest in the sectors, but deals with nonsense that confuses rather than with actions that can correct the situation.”
Since COVID-19 has revealed just how problematic and serious the situation is, there may finally be an incentive to deal thoughtfully and realistically with these problems, and not merely sweep them under the rug or harness them for political gain.