Haredi COVID-19 riots in Bnei Brak are not an intifada - analysis

Bnei Brak is no Jenin.

Police clash with Ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the police enforcement of a lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
Police clash with Ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the police enforcement of a lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
The images coming out of Bnei Brak are downright frightening.
Police officers in an unmarked car set upon by a frenzied mob, men pounding the car with fists and sticks, windows shattered, a door forcibly opened, a bag ripped from the vehicle.
Dozens of police officers, with shields, nightsticks and in full battle gear, running through the streets of the city, past turned over trash cans and garbage set alight. Police offices seemingly swinging their billy clubs randomly. A police officer followed by a taunting mob, being pushed, and then drawing his pistol and firing into the air. A bus set alight after its driver fled the vehicle in panic. Stun grenades.
The images – and what is behind the images – are infuriating.
What is infuriating? That with the coronavirus spreading like wildfire, with 1,000 of the nearly 4,500 coronavirus fatalities happening in January alone,  with the ultra-Orthodox community accounting for  40% of those currently infected with the disease, a segment of the haredi community is carrying on with life as usual: sending their kids to school, going to yeshivot, praying in synagogues, holding weddings.
A disease is ravaging the land, hospital wards are overflowing with the ill – many of them haredim – Israel’s gateway to the world, Ben-Gurion Airport has been closed, and in certain pockets of the country people are just flaunting the regulations. As if this whole thing is a fake virus, as if the sick are not really dying.
That is infuriating. But as infuriating as it may be, as much as there may be people who wish the police would just ride into Bnei Brak and bang heads, show them who's boss, show them who runs the country, it is incumbent upon all of us to remember that, after coronavirus, there will still be a country here full of people with competing lifestyles and values who will need to share the same small space.
In other words, everyone needs to get a grip and start thinking about the day after. For there will be a day after.
As maddening as the pictures are from Bnei Brak and elsewhere, it is a mistake to call this, as some have, an intifada – even with the bus going up in flames Sunday night, even with the stun grenades and the frenzied mob, and that shot being fired in the air.
A riot? Yes. An intifada? No. Bnei Brak is not Jenin
Why is it important to make that distinction? Because words matter, they frame reality and create atmosphere, and the atmosphere is toxic enough already without pouring more fuel on the fire with misplaced words and unfitting analogies.
The Second Intifada was an organized terrorist war against the state of Israel. Terrorists set out to blow up buses and coffee houses, and kill Jews. They set out to terrorize the country, to instill fear, to make people afraid to walk the streets. What we are seeing now is not an intifada. It’s bad, but it is not an intifada.
The government needs to assert its authority everywhere: in Bnei Brak, in Mea Shearim, in Beit Shemesh and in Ashdod.
And to those who say “what about the Bedouin areas in the Negev and in the Arab cities?” Yes, there too. But one does not contradict the other.  Just because there is lawlessness in parts of the Negev and in some Arab cities, does not mean that the police should not enforce the law in Beni Brak.
And -- because of the coronavirus --  it needs to be done now, urgently, as the lawlessness there is impacting on the health of everyone.
Not only should the police be involved, but the government should work to defund institutions – be they synagogues, yeshivot or schools – that are blatantly and consistently showing that they will not abide by the laws and regulations, and as a result are accessories in the spread of the virus that is stalking the streets and killing people.
It is tough to talk this way about a part of one’s own country, or one’s own people, but there needs to be deterrence. If, as haredi leaders and commentators are claiming, the riots are being instigated by a small minority of extremists and rabblerousers, they need to be dealt with severely and to the full extent of the law to keep others from joining their path.
And, at the same time, the police must use its head and not only its truncheon, and realize that alongside the demonstration of force -- to show that they are determined to implement the laws of the land --  they need to work to calm down tensions with the haredi leadership. What was the IDF’s slogan in removing 10,000 Jews from Gush Katif in 2005? With determination but sensitivity.
Sensitivity does not need to be shown to thugs jostling with the police, calling them Nazis or burning busses, but it should be shown to those who are not part of the mob, and who just happen to live in Bnei Brak and want to get through this trying period like everyone else.
What is desperately needed right now, but sorely lacking, is a respected national leader whose voice would carry some weight to reduce tensions. It’s ironic that there is so much noise in this country, so many people saying so much, yet not one person who both the general and the haredi public respect and would listen to.  
President Reuven Rivlin does not carry weight in the haredi community, and – unfortunately – a loud clarion call from the haredi rabbinic leadership is lacking. The Chief Rabbinate would be a great place for this, but – unfortunately – the Chief Rabbinate has for years carried little influence with either the general or the haredi publics.
To make matters worse, the country is in the midst of an election campaign. The campaign makes things worse not only, as some argue, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can’t take tough measures because he does not want to antagonize the haredi parties, an essential component of any future coalition.
The election campaign makes things worse because this issue is now being seized upon by parties to galvanize constituents and win votes. It’s tragic, but true: sowing division wins votes.
Politicians from all stripes – haredi and non-haredi – will have an interest in fanning the flames, rather than dousing them, while playing to their constituencies.
Here are just two random examples: United Torah Judaism’s Yisrael Eichler said in Bnei Brak on Sunday that no one really cares about the health of the haredim. “Those who come to hit us [the police] don’t want us healthy. The inciting media only want to see more and more sickness among the haredim.”
And a post bearing Meretz’s logo circulated on social media with the picture of the Vizhnitz rebbe, Rabbi Yisroel Hager, under the banner: “Danger to public health.”
To give Meretz the benefit of the doubt, this appears as a reference to Hager’s calls to keep his movement’s schools open, despite the lockdown. But that is not stated in the post, and what will an observer not well versed in the directives coming from the country hassidic dynasties  think when looking at a picture of an unnamed rabbi under the words: “Danger to public health?” And that from the country’s liberal party.
Both Eichler’s comments and the Meretz post are aimed at inflaming passions to win votes. That is good for the parties, perhaps, but bad for the country.
Over the last few days social media was full of cell-phone videos of the events in Bnei Brak. One video taken by a woman from an apartment in Bnei Brak overlooking the mob attack on that unmarked car carrying police officers last Thursday night was especially poignant.
After filming for a little more than a minute the bashing of the car with its passengers slowly trying to drive away, she said to someone else, to whom she was apparently narrating what was going on, “This is a complete desecration of God’s name (hilul Hashem), I can’t believe it.”
The vast majority of the country, including most haredim, would probably agree with that sentiment, and they need to ensure that sanity prevails. Because once the corona fades, Israelis of all types will still all be stuck here together, and will need – once again – to find a way to make this experiment in Jewish governance work.