Haredim in Israel: The anatomy of a schism

Lack of trust in the government within the haredi community is not new

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.
The images are jarring: haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth in Mea She’arim blocking a road and vandalizing a bus trying to maneuver through; a border policeman in Betar Illit throwing a pail at a 13-year-old boy and then dragging him away in a vicious headlock; police and haredim clashing in Ashdod at the mass funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, the Pittsburgher rebbe.
For Eli Paley, chairman of a think tank focusing on haredi integration into Israeli society called the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, and the publisher of Mishpacha magazine, these images – and others over the last few weeks – are not only jarring but sleep-depriving.
The pictures are horrible, absolutely horrible,” he said. “I see them and can’t sleep at night. They are embarrassing. I am embarrassed when I see them.”
And his comment came before Simhat Torah, that joyous holiday marking the end of the reading of the Torah which – because of the traditional dancing in synagogues and yeshivot that takes place – could turn into a corona mega-event if regulations governing mask wearing and social distancing are not followed.
While most yeshivot and synagogues are expected to adjust to the pandemic reality, there will be exceptions – and those exceptions in the haredi communities are likely to dominate the national conversation for days afterward.
It is precisely those exceptions that are creating a general impression that the haredim, a community that numbers an estimated 1.1 million people and accounts for roughly 12% of the nation’s population, are simply ignoring the coronavirus rules in a wholesale fashion.
While there are well-documented and filmed cases where this is indeed the case, it is not representative of the entire community. There are some hassidic dynasties, such as the Karlin-Stolin and Gerrer hassidim, that are very strict about abiding by the coronavirus rules, while others – such as Vizhnitz and Belz – are much less so.
The Shas Council of Torah Sages ordered the closure of all synagogues just prior to Yom Kippur, and the leaders of the non-hassidic “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community – the yeshiva world – called for compliance with the regulations, while stopping well short of calling for the closure of synagogues and yeshivot.
But in a world where image rules, when a husband and wife sit down in Afula to watch the nightly news and see a group of haredim flouting the regulations, that this group may be on the margins or a minority is inconsequential. This is what sets the tone.
“I THINK we are on the cusp of a huge societal rift,” Paley said. “I think much of the anger toward [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is that his government is weak because he can’t tell the haredim the truth, because he is afraid of them.”
Paley described the dynamic like this: There is tremendous anger at Netanyahu coming out both in protests and in the polls, and that anger is turned toward the haredim by people who are saying, “because of you Netanyahu remains in power.”
This anger toward the haredim – at a time of general political chaos – sits on preexisting anger over other issues and is creating a “very worrisome” situation which anti-haredi politicians, such as Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman, can be expected to take advantage of.
Paley said one common denominator uniting all segments of the country is the lack of trust in the reasoning of the decision-makers. But in the haredi community, he said, that lack of trust, that constant skepticism of the government’s motives, is not new.
The coronavirus crisis hit the haredi community already suffering from a massive deficit of confidence and trust in the government. This, he said, partly explains why, when the first wave hit in March, the haredi rabbinical establishment was slow to internalize the depth and seriousness of the issue.
Part of the problem, he said, was that the haredi leadership was not consulted or brought into the loop when the initial regulations were being drawn up. While this sounds odd considering that United Torah Judaism head Ya’acov Litzman was the health minister at the time, Paley was talking more about at the micro level.
The example he gave was the decision to close schools in the spring, a decision he said was made without taking into account the ramifications for the haredi world – where no infrastructure exists for remote learning – as there was no input from the local haredi communities.
Paley used the word “detached’’ to describe the government’s policy toward the haredi community, the same word that Netanyahu’s opponents use to describe Netanyahu and his government’s attitude toward the rest of the country.
The decision to send soldiers under the Home Front Command into Bnei Brak during the height of the first wave before Passover is an example of this detachment, Paley said.
While praising the soldiers for the work they did conducting COVID-19 tests and distributing food to those quarantined, Paley questioned why they were sent there in the first place.
He said the soldiers came equipped with Yiddish-Hebrew dictionaries, with Yiddish expressions such as “Vos machts du?” (how are you) transliterated into Hebrew.
“There is not even 1% of Bnei Brak who do not understand Israeli Hebrew,” Paley said, using this example to illustrate how detached policy-makers are from haredi reality
“The Home Front [Command] had three goals in Bnei Brak,” he said. “The first was to administer more corona tests, the second to distribute food to homes in quarantine, and the third was to enforce the lockdown.”
But, he asked, why did the country need soldiers to carry out the first and second goals? Instead, he said, it would have been more effective to use the thousands of volunteers in the community who were “dying to help.”
In this way, he said, you turn these volunteers “into being part of the story; instead of speaking over the community’s heads, you mobilize them. Why do you need to bring in Givati soldiers to distribute food in Bnai Brak’s casbah? Use Ezer M’Tzion volunteers,” he said, referring to a large haredi volunteer organization.
Paley said there is a need for the government to involve people at a grassroots level – not just to dictate to them regulations that seems incoherent and illogical.
“This creates unity and a sense that we are all together in the same situation. But when you feel that they [the government] are not listening to you, or that you are not being taken into account, then it doesn’t work.
TO ENSURE OBEDIENCE to regulations, there needs to be government transparency, cooperation, consistency, communication and enforcement. All those ingredients, he said, have been lacking, and there is a widespread feeling that decisions were not being taken on the merits, but, rather, as a result of electoral considerations and political pressure groups.
Had the government dealt with the crisis in a more professional, systematic and consistent manner, then the haredi community would have fallen more obediently into line, he asserted.
The proof, he said, is what happened in the beginning. “It took two weeks for the community to internalize the severity of the crisis, but once it did, it went by the book. There were violations, but those were on the margins.”
Problems began, he said, after the community saw that the “regulations changed every day, and after the government said it was okay to open a pool in a hotel, but not to open a synagogue; that you could go protest at Balfour [around the corner from the Prime Minister’s Residence] but not go to synagogue.”
Prefacing his remarks by saying that he believes the right to protest is an existential right in a democratic society, Paley said that the weekly protests at Balfour, which he called the “Balfour festival,” was the final straw for those in the haredi community who could find no logic in the regulations.
“If every week there are 10,000-20,000 people gathered in close quarters, some with masks and others not, with directives from the organizers to leave their phones in the car so they cannot be traced, can you then expect rabbis to tell their community to give up the most important things to them?”
Paley said that haredi society, which has many different shades, cannot be painted with one brush, and that it can roughly be divided up into Sephardim, hassidim and the Lithuanian yeshiva world.
Among those elements, he said, the Sephardim most adhered to the regulations, while the hassidim did so the least, and the yeshiva world took the regulations seriously after an initial lag period – trying to adapt to them, but then having a crisis of confidence after the regulations continued to change.
The Sephardim’s adherence, he said, can be explained by the fact that they feel the most a part of Israeli society. On the other end of the spectrum, the hassidim feel the least connected.
“Life in the hassidic community revolves around the community. If you take that away, the community’s oxygen; if you touch its holy of holies, they feel they are paying an unbearably high price, and then still get blamed for spreading the disease. This creates a reaction, people start rationalizing – talking about herd immunity – and start doing things davka [in spite]. It leads to people saying that they just have a different method of dealing with the virus altogether.”
A month ago Liberman said that the government regulations make no sense and that everyone should just follow the dictates of his own common sense. How ironic it is that it is precisely within segments of the haredi community – a community that Liberman campaigns against and that views him as an enormous threat – that some are actually heeding his advice.