After a mass wedding party in a haredi enclave was broken up by the police at the end of last week and its organizers were handed significant fines, the prime minister issued a strong statement of support for the police, backing them for “taking action against people who flagrantly and selfishly ignore the rules.”
The chief rabbi went further. “This is a most shameful desecration of all that we hold dear,” he said. “At a time when we are all making such great sacrifices, it amounts to a brazen abrogation of the responsibility to protect life, and such illegal behavior is abhorred by the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community.”
If you’re scratching your head, wondering how come you missed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushing to applaud the police he has spent the past few years denigrating, while simultaneously criticizing the actions of the haredi community, don’t worry, it didn’t happen here.
Neither, sadly, did one of our two chief rabbis accurately and eloquently represent the views of the majority of Israel’s population in calling on all sectors of society to respect the lockdown restrictions in the common fight against coronavirus.
The remarks were made by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, the head of the UK’s Orthodox Jewish community, after a large wedding was held in a school building in Stamford Hill, the center of London’s haredi community.
According to local municipal officials, this is not the first time the school has been rented out for such events, even though its legendary and much respected principal, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, died last year after contracting coronavirus.
Such rule-breaking behavior has been seen elsewhere across the Diaspora haredi world. The Satmar community in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood has been involved in a long-running battle with state officials over government restrictions, mask wearing and social distancing.
At the end of last year, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio promised heavy fines and blasted the organizers of a wedding for the Satmar grand rabbi’s grandson as “amazingly irresponsible, just unacceptable,” while Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called the event “a blatant disregard of the law” and “disrespectful to the people of New York.”
But here in Israel, not only does our top political leadership remain silent in the face of constant flouting of COVID-19 regulations within the haredi community, our prime minister has reduced himself to begging at the knees of the grandson of haredi leader Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. In two humiliating phone calls over the space of two weeks, the elected leader of the sovereign Jewish nation preferred, as though we were back in the shtetl, to plead with a family functionary to intercede with his grandfather and request haredi schools remain closed during lockdown rather than simply impose the rule of law.
It took an unprecedentedly violent attack on a police car in Bnei Brak last Thursday night for Netanyahu to finally condemn lawbreaking in the haredi sector. But rather than single out elements in this community for their constant undermining of the country’s battle against COVID-19, the prime minister meekly called on “all Israeli citizens, without exception,” to follow the Health Ministry’s safety guidelines.
The reason for Netanyahu’s deliberate failure to address continued haredi lockdown infractions is clear: His political survival – and potential escape from facing justice on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust – depends on his ability to form a majority coalition after the elections. For this to happen, he needs the support of the haredi parties. Without United Torah Judaism and Shas behind him, Netanyahu is history, condemned to spend the next few years on the defendant’s bench of the Jerusalem District Court, facing the very real prospect of a prison sentence.
And so, in every instance, Netanyahu has put his own interests ahead of those of the country. Putting to one side the shameful personal example he set last Passover when he hosted his nonresident son around his Seder table in blatant disregard of the regulations he called on the rest of the country to follow, when faced with the choice of serving his haredi coalition allies or doing what’s best for the country, the haredim have always come first.
From ignoring Prof. Ronni Gamzu’s proposals to introduce differential restrictions to clamp down on rising COVID-19 outbreaks in haredi municipalities without shutting down the rest of the country, to refusing to increase the fines for those keeping schools open or holding mass weddings, Netanyahu always chooses not to antagonize his haredi allies.
During one of the pandemic’s peaks last year, at the urging of his haredi partners he even allowed 12,000 yeshiva students from COVID-stricken Brooklyn to enter the country to study here, regardless of the risk involved.
Such failure to tighten Israel’s borders is one reason Israel has over 4,260 COVID-19 fatalities, while other countries – which, like Israel, have easily controlled points of entry – have suffered much less (for example, Cyprus, 179 deaths as of this weekend; New Zealand, 25; and Singapore, 29 deaths).
Which is why, when entering the polling booth in March, the anti-Bibi voters should ask themselves not only which party won’t sit in government with the indicted Netanyahu, but also which party will not be beholden to haredi coalition partners. For Israel truly to move forward in a post-pandemic, post-Trump world, it’s not just Netanyahu who must be removed from the levers of power.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.