In 2018, a five-episode miniseries called Autonomies aired on Israeli TV. The show depicts an alternate reality where, 30 years ago, a civil war between haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) and Israel’s secular majority broke out. Intense fighting over lifestyle, education and draft exemptions led the haredim to essentially secede from the State of Israel, declaring Jerusalem as the capital of a new autonomous zone.
A high wall with checkpoints was erected and travel documents were required to transit in and out of the autonomy, which was now responsible for its own tax collection, police and social services.
Autonomies, the TV show, is fiction, of course, but haredi autonomy is quite real in today’s Israel.
Non-haredi Israel, while complaining bitterly, has been willing to tolerate this autonomy because, if you don’t live in certain parts of Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, it could be ignored, especially when the economy was booming and the army, despite paying lip service to universal conscription, didn’t really want to draft tens of thousands of recalcitrant ultra-Orthodox men.
Then the pandemic hit.
The same opposition to the rules that has been mainstreamed by many haredi leaders is now killing the rest of the country – in some cases quite literally.
The alarming statistics at this point are well known: Haredim constitute 12% of Israel’s population but, according to January 2021 data from the Home Front Command, as high as 40% of daily COVID-19 cases. The percent of patients testing positive for COVID-19 in the haredi city of Betar Illit was 29% in January, compared with just 4% in Tel Aviv. Haredi elderly are dying at three times the rate of secular Israelis.
This translates into a serious impact on the country’s medical facilities. Hospitals in Jerusalem – which has the highest percentage of haredi Covid patients – are so overwhelmed they are sending anyone who needs treatment for COVID-19 out of the city. Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center reports that nonessential procedures have been curtailed as staff members are reassigned to the Covid department.
Meanwhile, despite Israel’s repeated lockdowns, in the de facto haredi autonomy, stores, schools and synagogues remain open, as though there were no corona and no law. The dual funerals of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik and Rabbi Yitzhok Scheiner attracted upward of 20,000 haredi mourners.
“A lesson of the pandemic that might be hard for the secular public to accept is that, in every sense, they and the haredim are living in different countries, writes Dr. Guy Hoshen, director of the coronavirus department at Sourasky, in Haaretz.
The counter to this dystopian prognosis is that the majority of haredim are following the rules, so why vilify an entire community?
That may be true, but it hardly means much when infection rates are soaring. As David Horovitz points out in The Times of Israel, “We are not talking about all in the community, but neither about an insignificant minority.”
Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Yaakov Katz puts it more bluntly. “What we are seeing is mass insurrection.”
WHAT CAN be done to shake up this intolerable situation?
Sending in the police clearly won’t work, as we saw when haredi extremists in Bnei Brak attacked authorities and torched a bus to protest enforcement of coronavirus regulations.
The key to making changes must come through economic incentives that bring the haredi world closer to the Israeli norm. It’s worked in the past.
Employment among working-age haredi men in the late 1970s was above 80%, Prof. Dan Ben-David, an economist at Tel Aviv University’s department of public policy, told me. That was before the ultra-Orthodox parties became part of Israel’s governing coalitions. Once money started flowing to their institutions, haredi participation in the workforce plummeted to just 40%.
When the short-lived 2013-2015 government that included no haredi parties cut child subsidies and grants to full-time yeshiva students, yeshiva enrollment plunged by 16%.
The cuts didn’t last long – when the government fell after just a year and a half, the incoming coalition restored the cash. The number of yeshiva students, including married men in kollel, subsequently grew by 37% between 2014 and 2018.
The pandemic may have triggered a tipping point in non-haredi Israel’s acceptance of this status quo. A poll published at the end of January found that 61% of Israeli voters would prefer that the next coalition exclude the haredi parties. That would, in turn, allow legislating desperately needed economic changes.
I despair that a simple alteration in Knesset arithmetic will be enough, though. It would only be a matter of time before the haredim are back in a future coalition and the autonomy would pick up where it left off.
In this respect, maybe full-scale autonomy, like that depicted in the TV show, is the best approach.
Autonomies cocreator Yehonatan Indursky suggests that what he put on screen is actually “not a dystopia [but] the reality that currently exists in Israel.”
Why not formalize it?
“The ultra-Orthodox should have a defined territory in which they can live their lives without being imperiled,” writes Carlo Strenger in Haaretz. “A federative structure might relieve Israel’s various cultures from [their] fears of being endangered. We all need spaces to breathe.”
I’m not convinced that’s an acceptable approach – neither practically (where would the borders be drawn?) nor ethically (isn’t it the Jewish people’s goal to create more unity, not less?).
But whether through economic incentives or radical separation, the haredi autonomy in Israel, as it’s currently formulated, “needs to come to an end,” Katz writes. “No one is above the law. Yes, it is hard. But if we don’t act now, it will only get harder.”
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers. brianblum.com