The haredi distrust

How can a community be so confident that she is not guilty when everyone else is resisting their claim?

With the haredi woman suspected of starving her three-year-old son, the evidence from doctors, social workers, and police appears to leave little room for doubt regarding the severity of the situation. The woman was allegedly a danger to her child, and thus measures were taken to protect him from further harm. The facts are presented; the evidence is concrete. Yet there are people rallying to her defense who are convinced of her innocence. They call the whole situation a blood libel, a condition of malicious slander and a vengeful nature. Whether or not her actions were intentional does not change the effects, yet the haredim purport to be certain. How can a community be so confident that she is not guilty when everyone else is resisting their every claim? The question relates to many tensions involving the haredim that have been present for decades. The relationship between the vocal haredi community and the Israeli institutions is notoriously unstable, as indicated by riots and other aggressive protests that spring up every so often against municipal and government policy. According to Aharon Rose, an expert on haredi customs and history at Hebrew University, this antagonism is a symptom of a deep-seated distrust and suspicion on the part of the haredim. In the case of this convicted woman it manifests itself as a denial of reality, he says. The general animosity between the haredi and secular communities is rooted in the State of Israel itself. While none of the haredim support the state, the mainstream sects at least cooperate with it and agree to participate in the elections. Gilad Malach, a Hebrew University PhD student in Public Policy, estimates that the radical haredim, members of the Eda Haredit group, make up a mere 5% of the community. They too refuse to recognize the state, and unlike their brethren will not cooperate with it. Dr. Tamar El-Or, professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Hebrew University, explains the frequency of the extremists' outbursts. "Every year, usually every summer, there are riots," she says. "It's nothing new." She attributes it to the fact that the more significant problems are not being confronted since no one is brave enough to approach them. Hence, the riots centering on issues like gay pride and parking lots being open on Shabbat are reflections of more serious problems that are not being taken care of by the leaders of Orthodoxy or by the Israeli institutions. Dr. Yehuda Goodman, a lecturer and anthropologist at Hebrew University, explains that the tendency to riot is a part of the haredi identity. "They feel it's invading and corrupting and fighting to break down their way of life," he says. The haredi community is not just a ghetto, set up to keep out those who would threaten their way of life, Goodman says, it must also fight and maintain the superior stand they feel that they have over the secular world. He explains that the haredim need these fights as a part of the formation of their identity, in finding a symbolic place to fight the social other. However, there is still the question of percentage. The Eda Haredit, and especially the woman's sect of Neturei Karta, is clearly outnumbered by the more mainstream haredim. How is it possible that these radical few can have such an impact on their society? Professor Ira Sharkansky of the Hebrew University political science department writes, "When one of the communities finds an issue that excites others, the whole ghetto is likely to respond. None can remain behind on an issue that gains traction as defense of Judaism. The woman charged with abusing her child is an example. She had starved her three-year-old boy to the point where he was severely undernourished and weighed only 15 pounds. She was affiliated with one of the smallest and most extreme of the congregations, but the involvement of the police and municipal social services with a pregnant woman was enough to recruit others. The protest spread when the police arrived with their truncheons and horses to clear the streets." While this opinion is generalized and based on a theory of adrenaline, it follows along with others' explanations of the haredi mainstream's silent compliance and inactiveness. The collective reasoning for protesting against the woman's conviction, however, cannot be based solely on a snowball effect. Goodman points to the dishonor that would follow on the heels of abuse accusations. "It's a terrible issue of stigmatizing the entire haredi community," he says. "… It's much more intense because it's not a huge community, and people know each other personally - it's an attack on their specific group. It's not the general haredi fight as they understand it." The haredim are wary of secular media painting their family life as dangerously irresponsible, saying that their family units are too big, he adds. Malach agrees with this assessment, saying, "Even though there are parts of haredi communities that don't like the points argued for parking and the woman, they're not sure she's right; despite that they wave and go in the way that 'We are haredim, so we have to defend ourselves; this is an attack against our community.'" The haredi way of dealing with psychological disorders or abuse is as low-key as they come, kept under private control when possible and dealt with in spiritual ways when not. The fact that this woman's actions are being splashed across public media is a breach of their communal privacy, and, as they would have it, fodder for the secular opposition. Public accusations reflect upon them directly, so they will take to the streets no matter what. Whether or not the haredim actually believe in the woman's condemnation is irrelevant at this point. They can testify for her character and they can portray her doctor as evil incarnate, but it is immaterial since their loyalties would not allow them to operate any other way. They will argue for her since to them, she represents their community to the outside world.