Understanding haredi defiance to COVID-19 regulations - opinion

Haredi leadership seems to prize communal autonomy above all, even at the expense of exposure to deadly illness

RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY speaks with students at his home in Bnei Brak in December. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
RABBI CHAIM KANIEVSKY speaks with students at his home in Bnei Brak in December.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Half a dozen times in recent months, the prime minister of Israel himself, Mr. Benjamin Netanyahu, has telephoned a young haredi (ultra-Orthodox) man in Bnei Brak named Yanki. Netanyahu called to beg, literally to beg, for Yanki’s indulgence.
Netanyahu has been calling Yanki, imploring him to convince Yanki’s 93-year-old grandfather, the haredi sage Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, to instruct his followers to abide by pandemic-related restrictions.
Specifically, Netanyahu was pleading with the elder Rabbi Kanievsky (who in his close circles is called “sar haTorah,” the minister of Torah) to instruct his many haredi followers to keep their schools closed as ordered by the government, and to avoid mass prayer and wedding gatherings, as also mandated by the government, to keep the virus from overwhelming everyone.
Netanyahu also repeatedly called the grand rabbi of the Vizhnitz Hassidic dynasty, Yisroel Hager, and other ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders with the same plea.
Of course, these rabbis should have been the first to demand restrictions and closures in infection hot spots like Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, to save their own flock from disaster and not to hurt others needlessly. They know that pikuah nefesh, the primacy of human life, is a fundamental principle of Jewish law and a core value of Jewish tradition. And they know that it is bad enough to endanger oneself; it is even worse to cause infection of another person.
Imagine the Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, in the Israeli public writ large that would have been engendered had rabbis Kanievsky and Hager made it clear that it was a mitzvah (an obligatory good deed) of the utmost importance to practice the strictest social distancing to the letter of the law of the land.
But they have not done so. Instead, they have prevaricated and given mixed messages to yeshiva deans and schoolmasters, winking at all sort of half-open schools and mass holiday and life-cycle celebrations. Worse still, they have not really tried (perhaps they prefer not to try) to control the haredi hooligans on the fringes of ultra-Orthodox society who have taken to the streets to burn buses and attack policemen.
We have been offered a wide range of explanations (excuses) for this baffling haredi behavior.
SOME HAREDI leaders and their devotees believe that Torah magna u’matzla, the study of Torah protects its adherents from all harm, so coronavirus restrictions are not necessary. This gives them what can be termed “unbearable lightness,” a preposterous and perilously cavalier sense of freedom. (See Milan Kundera’s 1984 iconic novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being).
But even if this is valid on some abstract theological level, it flies in the face of current reality, and is not a certainty. (The concept did not hold up during the Holocaust either.) COVID-19 is ravaging the haredi community at three times the level of the broader public.
Many haredi men and women live in denial. They do not believe that the pandemic is all that bad. They believe in conspiracy theories about the secular Israeli world over-dramatizing the situation to force change in the haredi world. I have heard such nonsense from otherwise intelligent haredi adults. But again, this flies in the face of pandemic reality that is ravaging the haredi community.
Haredi community leaders also will argue that they have no choice but to keep schools open. The average haredi family has no way to keep eight to 12 kids at home all day long under lockdown. And believe it or not, this week, haredi apologist MK Moshe Gafni had the chutzpah to charge the secular public with responsibility for the housing crisis in the haredi world, alleging that it purposefully confines large and poor haredi families to small apartments! (Has the secular world asked them to have large families and to refrain from higher education and gainful employment?)
Other haredi thinkers will admit that the elder sages of the haredi community are afraid of losing enrollment in the yeshivas if they stay closed too long; that the loosening of rigid and non-stop yeshiva strictures will lead to the fraying of haredi identity among their young adult cohort. In other words, haredi defiance is about maintaining the integrity of haredi life, which faces a real threat following a full year of COVID-19.
Some bolder haredi thinkers also will admit that the haredi world is suffering from a deep leadership deficit. It is stuck with a detached leadership that is not capable of computing the many broad calculations that go into complex decision-making during a once-in-a-century mega-crisis situation.
To my mind, none of these explanations or rationalizations sufficiently account for the injurious and offensive haredi stance regarding national COVID discipline. Haredi bull-in-a-china-shop behavior just does not make sense when the death toll in haredi circles and beyond is so high.
ALAS, IT seems to me that the main reason for haredi unwillingness to bow to government-mandated coronavirus restrictions is ideological. Haredi leaders need to defy secular Israeli society to enforce haredi separatism; to reinforce haredi communal autonomy.
In fact, haredi leaders value such autonomy – freedom from the national basic educational curriculum, from national military and civilian service, from national building codes and more – even at the expense of exposure to deadly illness, even when that illness affects religious and non-religious Israelis alike.
Nonconformity has become such a holy haredi principle, such a core marker of separatist self-identity, that it requires constant delegitimization of the secular Israeli state, its society, its strictures, its obligations and its rules.
Autonomy above all. So much so that when the secular state tasks its army officers to help the residents of Bnei Brak in a pandemic and sends in its police officers to uphold regulations that are meant to protect the residents of Bnei Brak in a pandemic (against their own mistaken priorities and the dangers these pose to all Israelis) – haredi leaders can no longer control their own street.
The haredi main street is so soaked with disdain for and disparagement of mainstream Israeli society, so used to shirking its national responsibilities, and so practiced at flouting laws and norms imposed by non-haredi leaders, that it is hard to put the defiant haredi autonomous mindset back in the bottle, even when it is rationally necessary to do so.
This awful situation did not develop overnight. It is the result of 70-plus years of neglect and terrible political choices made by mainstream Israeli politicians. It has been convenient to support near-absolute haredi autonomy in exchange for haredi support for whatever was the overriding secular priority of the day (ranging from Oslo withdrawals to Netanyahu’s legal defense).
The pandemic changes this calculus. When the haredi stance is obviously dangerous and unacceptably violent, the support of Israeli leaders for haredi autonomy may no longer be convenient or politically profitable.
I dare say that for most Israelis, the gig is up. We can’t afford such destructive behavior. We cannot have our prime ministers genuflecting before Yanki Kanievsky. We don’t want the haredi public to suffer nor have it wreak ruin on the rest of us. We need a new deal with the haredi world that is based on true solidarity, mutual support and sacrifice for the broader communal good.
The author is vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, jiss.org.il. His personal site is davidmweinberg.com.