The stench of “skunk spray,” the noxious liquid used by police to disperse rioters, hung heavily over Mea She’arim Monday afternoon, providing nauseating evidence of the violent confrontations there over the last two days.Extremists in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jerusalem neighborhood have been engaging in heavy resistance to police efforts to enforce Israel’s third coronavirus lockdown, particularly against measures to shutter yeshivas, schools and synagogues.And a pall certainly looms over the neighborhood, with few people on the streets, some businesses shuttered and other shop owners looking anxiously from their storefronts for some passing trade. But the extremists and bored youths are not to be deterred.Despite the lingering odor of the skunk spray, young men congregated close to a burning dumpster that had been pushed to the middle of a side street and set ablaze earlier in the day as part of a small confrontation with police.Next to it, one of the new garbage bins installed in the neighborhood was also smoldering.Further down the road, the synagogue and study center of the Satmar Hassidim on Yoel Street was bustling with men coming to pray Mincha despite the ban on indoor worship.The synagogue was the scene of severe violence on Sunday morning as police battled their way into the prayer hall where dozens of men were worshiping; they were met with violence, including having a bench thrown at them. As prayer services were underway Monday afternoon at the Satmar center, a police patrol vehicle drove up outside, but quickly did a U-turn and sped away as a gaggle of children and youths ran toward it.A Belzer hassid who was passing by said the lockdown restrictions were “the greatest crime there can be,” but he acknowledged that COVID-19 was deadly.“I don’t believe in coronavirus,” he said, even though he had just recovered from it.He did not believe that the measures the government was taking to stop the spread of the disease were worth the detrimental effects they have caused, he added.“Locking people in their homes is causing terrible damage,” he said, and the closure of institutions for Torah study was especially problematic.Another young man, from the so-called Yerushalmi community predating the establishment of the state, said the police were too violent in their enforcement measures, and this behavior alienated the haredi public and made enforcement harder.The youth, who gave his name as Yanki, said instead of entering into yeshivas and synagogues, the police should speak with those responsible at the scene to deal with illegal gatherings. COVID-19 is dangerous and the police are justified in carrying out enforcement, Yanki acknowledged, adding that he felt those violating the lockdown rules do endanger public health, including that of his family.He said his grandmother had been infected with COVID, but she recovered after being treated with oxygen at her home by one of the private health organizations serving the haredi communities.
The violence of extremists and resistance of the mainstream to coronavirus regulations and enforcement that has taken place in Mea Shearim, Beit Shemesh, Beitar Illit, Bnei Brak and beyond during the pandemic has highlighted the lack of control the government actually exerts over the ultra-Orthodox sector.But it is equally highlighting the severe lack of leadership in the community, be it rabbinic or political, as well as the schisms the community has suffered.Whereas in previous times, dominant figures such as Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, dean of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, were respected by large swathes of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic community and were able to assert their will on it, today’s rabbinic leadership is divided and greatly influenced by their advisers and assorted politicos.The split of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic community and the emergence of the extremist Jerusalem Faction has also caused grave damage, creating a large subsection that does not listen to the mainstream rabbis and delights in poking the state in the eye.Radical positions often generate legitimacy, or at least a fear by the mainstream, of seeming less strict in adherence to Halacha, so they hesitate to criticize the extremists.This is especially evident among the political leadership, which despite bemoaning the role of the radicals in the recent violence and asserting that violations are confined to the extremists, resists enforcement of COVID-19 regulations and the stiffening of penalties against them.The crisis that has emerged over the last year between the country and large swathes of its haredi population will not be resolved during the era of COVID-19, and confrontations such as those seen in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem will continue as long as lockdowns continue.But the pandemic has brought this problem front and center, and any new government must examine this broken relationship in an extensive and comprehensive manner to start resolving what has become one of the weightiest problems the Jewish state faces.