Haredi autonomy needs to stop so Israel can beat COVID-19

Netanyahu may almost have an easier time launching an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities than he would acting to stop haredi insurrection.

WHAT IN God's name are they doing? Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Lvov synagogue in Safed three weeks ago. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
WHAT IN God's name are they doing? Ultra-Orthodox Jews at the Lvov synagogue in Safed three weeks ago.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
On the corner of Kikar HaShabbat, at the seam where the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Geula and Mea She’arim meet, stood a man with a hard hat next to a loudspeaker.
“Father, save me,” a young child’s voice could be heard booming from the speaker on Tuesday afternoon. “Save me since I am drowning. Save me since I am burning.”
A father’s voice boomed across the intersection where five streets meet. “What is causing you to drown, son? What is causing you to burn?”
“The Internet,” the child responds. “The Internet and the movies. They are corrupting my neshama (soul).”
Internet and movies – that, if the loudspeaker is to be believed, is the true threat facing the ultra-Orthodox community today.
A walk through the two neighborhoods gives off that impression. Signs warning against the danger lurking on the Internet line the streets, which are bustling with activity: women out shopping pushing strollers or holding their little children’s’ hands, men running to and from kollels and yeshivas, and children of all ages getting off school buses returning home from another day in class with their backpacks and school work.
It was a stark contrast to the rest of Jerusalem. Downtown is empty, with stores shut and boarded up until this lockdown ends. But here in Mea She’arim the young, old, male, female, hassidim and Litvaks are out and about, and almost all the stores are open. And another thing: almost no one is wearing a mask, as if corona doesn’t exist, and if it does, definitely not inside these crowded neighborhoods.
 Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police after authorities closed a yeshiva operating in violation of lockdown orders in Ashdod earlier this month. (Photo credit: Flash90) Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police after authorities closed a yeshiva operating in violation of lockdown orders in Ashdod earlier this month. (Photo credit: Flash90)
The one indication that a pandemic is indeed raging across the country are the pashkevilim, the posters plastered along the walls throughout the neighborhoods.
One warned against taking the corona vaccine, with a long list of supposed rabbis and their endorsement of that irresponsible position. Other posters informed the public of recent deaths in the community: Baruch Kalinsky, Yankel Cohen, Binyamin Bamberger, Hana Gelertber, Tuvia Yankovich, Moshe Gersh, Yaakov Rubinstein and more.
What did they die from? Based on recent Health Ministry statistics, it is not hard to guess. Haredim right now make up approximately 40% of daily infections in Israel, an infection and death rate in the community that is out of control.
In haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem like Mea She’arim and Geula, 57 residents have died of COVID-19 in the last month, in comparison with seven the month before.
In Bnei Brak, 15 people have died over the last month, compared with three in the preceding four weeks.
ON MONDAY, 4,000 cases were diagnosed in haredi communities.
Think about that: 4,000 for around one million people, the approximate number of haredim in Israel. It is astounding when compared to the rest of the world, where the number of cases per million people – as infections are measured - barely reaches 1,000. If all of Israel acted like the haredi community, the country would be recording about 40,000 infections a day. As it is, we set a record high on Monday of over 10,000 new cases for the first time.
In a normal country, a government would take immediate action. With such a high infection rate, it would make sense for haredi towns and neighborhoods to be the target of fines against individuals and institutions that violate the current lockdown. But here in Israel, unsurprisingly, the opposite is true: haredi cities have the lowest proportion of fines, receiving only 2.3% of those issued even when they are the source of nearly 40% of the infections.
Alongside fines, it would have made sense for the government to do something. Israel is a world expert in reining in public disturbances, like sending in security forces as needed to impose curfews and break up riots.
If the government so wanted, it could dispatch police to break up mass gatherings and shut down schools. But besides the occasional attempt to shut down a yeshiva here and there – mostly done, it seems, to put on a show for the public that something is happening – the haredim have continued to live in their own little bubble.
On Wednesday for example, when police arrived at a yeshiva in Jerusalem that was operating illegally, they were met by rocks, overturned garbage dumpsters, curses and violent resistance. Was the yeshiva shut down? Just for a few hours.
If this wasn’t ridiculous enough, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out looking helpless.
On Monday night he called Yanki Kanievsky, grandson of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and urged him to get his grandfather to issue a ruling shutting down schools. The younger Kanievsky told the prime minister that he would get back to him, leaving many Israelis wondering who runs the country – the grandson of some rabbi, or the democratically elected prime minister.
It seems that Netanyahu would almost have an easier time launching an attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities than he would acting to stop haredi insurrection.
It’s time we face reality: Israel has lost control over the haredi sector in the country.
I know what some people are thinking – that it is not fair to say that since it’s not everyone in the haredi sector and that there are many people who do abide by the rules. True enough, but it doesn’t mean much when considering the high rate of infections among the so-called minority.
SOMETHING IS broken in the relationship between the community and the country, and the entire nation is paying the price: when haredim in Mea She’arim send their kids to school or walk through their neighborhoods without masks, they are not putting just themselves in danger. When hundreds of Hassidim gather for a wedding in Bnei Brak, they are not risking just their own lives.
Israel’s hospitals are overflowing with COVID patients, including a group of pregnant women – almost all haredi - who found themselves in critical condition after contracting the virus. That’s what the virus does. It doesn’t stop at Kikar HaShabbat. It spreads, moving throughout the city and the country.
There are a number of reasons why we are seeing such gross violations within the ultra-Orthodox community. There is the failure of the rabbis like Kanievsky to set an example, and to properly instruct their followers; there is the general opposition to anything the state stands for on any matter, health or societal; and there is a concern that if schools are closed, students will fall to the side and leave the fold.
But what about the sanctity of life? What about the Torah commandment of preserving life, of pikuah nefesh? Don’t the residents of Mea She’arim see the death notices glued to the walls of their homes? Don’t they notice that the names are changed on an almost daily basis? It is wonderful that haredi kids are going to school, but what about having grandparents? Don’t they want them too?
While there is no doubt that the blood of the dead rests on the hands of the rabbis and haredi community leaders, they are not the only ones to blame. There is a complete lack of trust between the community and the state.
This is not something new. It has been the case for pretty much all of the last 72 years of Israel’s existence.
Consecutive governments for decades have grappled with the haredi question. They tried to legislate IDF draft laws and employment laws, and have cut and then increased state-provided stipends. When haredim hear about a new legislative proposal, they take to the streets. When they see a police officer, they are automatically suspicious.
This does not clear community leaders of responsibility for not ensuring that their people follow the regulations. There is no excuse for yeshivas remaining open when secular and national-religious schools remain shut. There is no excuse for synagogues continuing to operate when in other parts of the country people are praying outside.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we cannot ignore the political element. A few weeks ago, I met with a party head running in the upcoming election and asked what he would do as prime minister if the haredim were violating regulations. He spoke tough, and promised sanctions. When I asked why he doesn’t speak out now, the candidate said that it wouldn’t help him to say anything, but it would help him for others to talk about the issue.
This is irresponsible but also understandable. Like almost every other party head running for Knesset, this politician eyes a possible future partnership with Shas and United Torah Judaism. It might be right to speak out against the haredim, but it would not help anyone’s political career.
The same applies to Netanyahu, who has barely lifted a finger to do anything to stop what is happening. A phone call to Yanki Kanievsky is not serious. Neither is a tweet against mass weddings.
What we are seeing is mass insurrection. It is against the state, its institutions, its laws and its people.
This is Israel’s real challenge for the years to come. Not Hamas, Iran or Hezbollah. With those we will manage. It is internally that we are lost and divided. It is something that will not simply heal on its own. More and more people are feeling disenfranchised as they watch the haredim do whatever they want. Animosity is growing, division is increasing.
The haredi autonomy in Israel needs to come to an end. No one is above the law. Yes, it is hard. But if we don’t act now, it will only get harder.