The State of Israel long has faced an existential threat from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) separationist ideology. The tragedy in Meron last week, of which haredi men were themselves the primary victims, is a painful demonstration of the dangers involved in continuing to ignore the roots of conflict between Israeli society and the haredi public, and especially the rotten role of haredi politicians in exacerbating the situation.
Long before any committees of investigation issue their conclusions of criminal culpability or mere reckless disregard for the unnecessary loss of life at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai’s grave site in Meron, one thing is patently clear: The root cause of the disaster lies in aggressive assertion of autonomy by the haredi community; autonomy from the broader Israeli world in everything from education and national service to coronavirus lockdowns and safety regulations.
Any time Israeli leaders seek to nudge the haredi community, for its own good and for the good of the entire country, toward compliance with logical and necessary norms – like studying math, science and civics; going to work; contributing to the national security burden and upholding building standards in their neighborhoods and health guidelines in their communities – haredi politicians cry “gevalt.”
They term such ideas “czarist decrees” or “persecution,” and then protest violently in the streets, claiming to be victims of a domineering and decadent secular leadership. In fact, it is the haredi community that has become a dominant and all-powerful political force in this country. It is secular politicians who are afraid of haredi political power, not the opposite. Alas, this has allowed haredi politicians to carve out and protect an increasingly autonomous and ruinous society for themselves.
Everybody knows that had Meron been treated like any other site of mass gathering, like a music concert, soccer game or political rally, police safety regulations would have limited attendance to 10,000 or 20,000 people. Never would have 100,000 people been allowed into the site, not to mention the 250,000 worshipers and revelers who have attended in previous years.
But who is going to dare try to impose such restrictions upon powerful haredi politicians and their belligerent, often-anti-Zionist, rabbinical masters?
SHAS LEADER ARYE DERI is the ultimate expression of pugnacious haredi power; a super-self-confident politician who bulldozes over all legal, civic and moral boundaries to “bolster” (read: enfeeble) his haredi voting public. His brand of blithely sectorial, brusquely cynical politics is catastrophic.
Deri was one of the father figures of the haredi world of dependency, of living off the dole. He was central to the creation of the all-encompassing government-support system for those studying in yeshiva; a system so comprehensive that it simply does not pay for a kollel student to step out into the working world. He has never spoken positively about the higher education and professional training programs for the ultra-Orthodox that have opened in recent years, nor has he said one word about the importance of increased participation of haredi men in the army.
Deri also can directly be blamed for turning Rabbi Ovadia Yosef away from his earlier path of religious and political moderation. He whispered wicked things into the ears of Yosef, as needed, about religious-Zionist, Russian and Reform Jews, as well as secular politicians. Deri was almost certainly the person who suggested that Yosef call Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi Party the “Bayit (home) of Goyim,” not the “Bayit of Jews.”
Deri also was behind the infamous, racist “Kochavit Giyur” (Dial-a-Conversion) advertising campaign that Shas ran in the recent election. This campaign smeared Russian immigrants as counterfeit converts and slandered Religious Zionist rabbis as liberal destroyers of conversion standards.
Deri spawned the failed “stinking maneuver” in 1990, which attempted to bring down the unity government led by prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and install a narrow Peres-led government instead. Then, Deri bought the Labor Party’s support for haredi takeover of state religious enterprises (such as the Chief Rabbinate and religious courts) by backing the Oslo process – until the intifada made it too difficult for Shas voters to stomach.
Deri will cut a deal with anyone of any background to get his candidate elected, if it serves his momentary purpose – such as getting Moshe Lion elected as mayor Jerusalem. Deri collaborated with the oh-so-very-treif, staunchly anti-religious Russian party boss Avigdor Liberman for this purpose.
I conjecture that Deri would sell every settler to the Saudis, twice over, if that were to earn Shas-affiliated schools a 2% budget increase.
The fact that Deri has been caught in criminal violations more than once and gone to jail has not stopped him; nor the fact that once again today he is facing new criminal indictments. He brushes this off by presenting himself as a persecuted Dreyfus and wronged Demjanjuk rolled into one, and as a holy man whose concern for the poor will bring salvation to the downtrodden of Israel.
WHICH BRINGS US to recent events. Deri led and defended the haredi community’s separatist and defiant response to the government’s coronavirus restrictions, fiercely objecting in cabinet to application of the “traffic light” system of differential lockdowns. This, because hard-hit haredi communities would be most affected, and he argued, would constitute “persecution of haredi people.” As a result, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly imposed countrywide lockdowns – unnecessarily, unfairly and to great harm.
Deri also defended the fact many haredi schools stayed open throughout the lockdowns, while the rest of the country’s children were forced to learn on Zoom.
Deri’s successful attempts to “soften plan after plan” of the Health Ministry relating to the coronavirus pandemic continued into planning for the Lag Ba’omer festivities in Meron.
According to Deri’s long-time personal aide, Yosef Schwinger, Deri “fought like a lion” to have the event go ahead, despite Health Ministry warnings that it could be a coronavirus super-spreader event. (Guess what? Schwinger was appointed by Deri to lead the Religious Services Ministry’s National Center for the Development of Holy Places, which has responsibility for Meron.) “Rabbi Deri deserves credit for saving the Lag Ba’omer celebration from a more limited format,” avowed Schwinger on radio the day before the tragedy.
Religious Services Minister Ya’akov Avitan of Shas also toured Meron before Lag Ba’omer, and said he was “impressed by the comprehensive and professional preparation that is being made for the celebration.” Avitan then profusely thanked Deri “for the efforts he has made in the face of various complications to enable the ascendance of many to Meron this year without any restrictions.”
Deri himself went on radio on Lag Ba’omer morning to boast of his “achievement” and encourage anybody and everybody to participate in Meron festivities. “Bad things don’t happen to Jews on religious pilgrimage,” Deri pompously declared. “One should trust in Rabbi Shimon [Bar Yohai] in times of distress.”
I think that neither the righteous and long-deceased Rabbi Shimon nor the much less righteous and hard-kicking Deri can be relied upon to protect the Israeli public (including the haredi public) from the many rash and reckless mistakes made in recent decades, as described above.
Deri should be slammed with responsibility for these criminal failures, especially the Meron misfortune, and be shamed out of politics.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.