A Flak Jacket for the Haredim

When suspects from the community are to be questioned or are arrested by the police, pressure is applied to treat the Haredim differently. Usually, it works.

The violent outburst by hundreds of ultra-Orthodox in Ashdod this week, under cover of which the corpse of a year-old baby girl was stolen from the purification room at the cemetery, made tangible once again the special status of the (Ashkenazi) Haredi public when it comes to law enforcement agencies. Too often, when suspects from the community are to be questioned or are arrested by the police, pressure is applied on the authorities to treat the Haredim differently, freeing the suspects from conventional procedures. Usually, it works.

In the case of the baby from Ashdod, there was a need to conduct an autopsy on the body to make sure her death was not caused by negligence or alternatively, to make sure the illness she died from was not contagious. Those are convincing enough reasons to conduct the necessary examination, but the Haredi community to which the dead girl's family belongs, together with reinforcements of yeshiva students from Jerusalem, rejected the powers of the authorities and used the Haredi world's usual methods for dealing with such situations: one arm began lobbying to remove the possibility of an autopsy, while the other organized a stormy demonstration meant to create facts on the ground.

The pincer movement worked: the state gave up its intention to conduct an autopsy and made do with photographs and blood and tissue tests; the police was impotent against the violent protests under cover of which the body was whisked away from the cemetery in an operation worthy of Sayeret Matkal. Either way, the orders by the health authorities and the court were not executed and questions remained about the reasons for the baby's death.

The usual excuse for the Haredi community under such circumstances is that they are God-fearing: they claim their people end up clashing with the law enforcement authorities because of religious law, and that they should not be treated as ordinary criminals. Thus, for example, a postmortem autopsy is considered a grave sacrilege that is worthy of "dying to prevent." But that approach is often meant to provide a flak jacket for unequivocally criminal behavior with no noble motives behind it. In this case, in any case, there still must be a determination if the baby died because of either medical negligence or a deliberate failure.

The same is true in the case of Yisrael Vales, arrested a month ago in Jerusalem on suspicion he caused the death of his newborn son. The law enforcement authorities believed they had the evidence to show that the three-month-old was the victim of abuse that led to his death. An effective lobby of Haredi politicians pressured the police and the district attorney while demonstrations flared in Haredi population centers in the capital.

The result: the suspect was released into the custody of his grandfather, even though there was reason to suspect obstruction of justice and violence toward his wife, herself a possible witness in the trial. Without going into the details of the case, the public could see how the usual pincer movement ? rioting by one side, aggressive lobbying from the other ? led to a result desirable for the suspect.

These are not random or lone examples of a rare phenomenon. This is the prevailing practice. A group of Haredim are involved, often by invitation, in creating public disorder. When the police put their hands on any of them, a wave of noisy protest erupts in the Haredi community, which manages to free their suspects from holding cells and prosecution.

That's how it works in Shabbat demonstrations in Jerusalem, in the protests over bones attributed to Jews found in archaeological digs, and in other clashes that take place against a religious background. Each of these are justifications, considered assaults on the very soul of a Haredi and therefore making them innocent in their own eyes and their community, and wins them special treatment from the law enforcement authorities. Unlike secular conscientious objectors, the Haredi religious freedom-fighters only are willing to sacrifice themselves to sanctify the Name at the threshold of the holding cells. For some reason, the state gives into these rules of the game.