You gotta love the haredim

In the US haredim do not control who can get married and divorced, and where you can be buried.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX men – one masked, one not – are seen in the haredi enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, on October 6.  (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX men – one masked, one not – are seen in the haredi enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, on October 6.
(photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
Long before the bat that bore the coronavirus was born, haredi entitlement was already an issue.

I remember years ago taking part in a stormy public discussion where I questioned their (mostly) wriggling out of army duty and (large) avoidance of taxpaying employment. In the midst of the heated acrimony – “You’re worse than the antisemites! A racist; a creep! / They are cultists who hijack religion!” – a visitor from New York raised her hand to speak. “In my community ultra-Orthodox mix happily with secular and Reform Jews,” she purred. “We live and let live; at work, in the parks, on committees. Why can’t Israel do the same?” Aw, so sweet, but (I pointed out) in the US haredim do not control who can get married and divorced, and where you can be buried. They do not get state subsidies to study forever in yeshivot or get paid to have multiple children, who grow up not to earn or do their military duty. Here, some sects of this burgeoning, unsustainable population group are pulling the whole country down; Efraim Halevy, ex-head of the Mossad, famously claimed they are a bigger threat to Israel’s existence than our enemies.

Pretty good reasons for the secular, employed, army-going population to resent them, no?

Our American guest was not convinced.

Corona has put paid to the cuddly-wuddly tolerance toward a population that is terrifyingly spreading the disease in New York, London, Amsterdam and Israel. The middle of the second lockdown here saw an 8% infection rate in the general population; identical in the Arab towns. Among haredim the rate was 23%, and Sukkot gatherings and mega-rock-star-rabbi funerals will probably puff up the percentages.

Prof. Mordechai Ravid, director of Mayanei Hayeshua Medical Center in Bnei Brak, recently exploded. “They are a community that is killing people,” he declared. “I do not understand the connection between Judaism and religion and what they are doing.” Ravid then resigned.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu, the corona “czar” of Israel, attempted months ago to close off the “red” areas of infection to quash skyrocketing rates. Nursery schools and restaurants in Tel Aviv, for example, could possibly have remained open; the vast majority of Israelis could have continued to work. Yet the ultra-Orthodox, accustomed to holding the political balance of power, refused to let their areas be locked down, unless the whole country went down with them.

Our Supreme Ruler chose to keep his coalition intact – he needs every possible vote to keep himself out of prison if he is ever found guilty – rather than keep his country healthy and functioning. So he kowtowed to black coats and long, gray beards and shut gyms and beaches and businesses and bars, although special dispensation was given to synagogues to stay open (under guidelines which are too often totally ignored).

It’s hard to feel the love.

AH, BUT what about the demonstrations? goes the counterargument. Why is it not okay to pray, but PC to crowd together chanting for a “crime minister” to resign? Why can “elitist leftists” throng through streets, while pious devout must sit, disconsolate, at home?

“This is a totally spurious argument,” claimed Frances Raday, professor emeritus at the Hebrew University, one of Israel’s top human rights lawyers.

Raday, who served for 10 years as an independent expert at the United Nations – and is the only Israeli ever to sit at the UN Human Rights Council as a rapporteur – has just completed an amicus brief for the Supreme Court of Israel on this very subject.

“International law is very strict on not allowing restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly,” Raday insisted. “This is a cornerstone of democracy.”

International law is stricter than Israeli law on the issue. Whereas in the Holy Land demonstrations can be stopped for “a proper purpose and proportional means,” international law bans restricting demonstrations except when there is a compelling reason for public security or health reasons. In September 2020, during the pandemic, a joint declaration of all the UN human rights treaty bodies warned that “any health emergency restrictions should be guided by human rights principals, and must not under any circumstances be an excuse to quash dissent.” Hmmm.

Oh, and another thing: the UN Human Rights Committee also decreed, during the pandemic, that demonstrators should be allowed to voice their dismay in sight and sound of their target audience. Benjamin Netanyahu is the bull’s-eye, of course (alongside his corona-quaffed wife and twittering son); distraught citizens should be allowed to congregate in Balfour Street and shout at him “Lech” (go).

According to Raday, demonstrators largely wear masks, attempt to socially distance (difficult when hemmed in by police) and gather in the open air.

Haredim often are mask-less (in Brooklyn, recently, some actually burned masks in a bizarre show of rebellion) and pack into synagogues and wedding halls against all rules.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” she claimed. “The whole of Israel is in lockdown because the government wouldn’t close down red areas, due to political pressure. Our prime minister needs their support in his ongoing legal woes.” Raday fears that Israel, a country that she believed was once more egalitarian than most in terms of economy and the relationships between men and women, is in danger of losing these attributes forever.

“Netanyahu’s neoliberal economics has resulted in one of the most unequal countries in the OECD when it comes to the gap between rich and poor,” she explained, “and equality between men and women is threatened by concessions to the religious.” Women’s faces are routinely erased from the public space in religious cities (including Jerusalem). Haredi clout has succeeded in gender separating some educational classes in even mainstream colleges and universities, and lifestyle events such as marriage and divorce are controlled by ultra-Orthodox, unbending rabbis.

It’s an unholy mess.

Last Saturday night, far from the seat of power in Jerusalem, I stood with my neighbors at a junction, waving flags. Sympathetic drivers hooted endlessly and flashed thumbs up, a scene repeated on bridges and intersections throughout this land.

Perhaps, on Balfour, our elegant first lady heard the echoes, turned to her husband and said, “Baby, I feel kinda bad. We flouted the first lockdown when we invited our son for Seder. I screwed up again by illegally having my hair done, when most hairdressers are stuck at home. You need time and space to keep yourself out of jail. I guess our time is up. Let’s just go.” Wouldn’t that be nice. 

The writer lectures at Beit Berl College and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. [email protected]