Chaos Raging on Israel's ultra-Orthodox Streets Reveals Unraveling Leadership

Voices of rabbis, yeshiva heads and community leaders go unheard as thousands scuffle with policemen in chaotic streets

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Police disperse ultra-Orthodox Jews praying during the High Holiday lockdown, October 10, 2020.
Police disperse ultra-Orthodox Jews praying during the High Holiday lockdown, October 10, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

A father holding his baby is pushed by a policeman. An officer in uniform throws a bucket at a child’s head, while another law enforcer is pouncing on a person walking by and taking pictures of the violent events. There was shoving too, with a knee thrust in a Haredi student’s face, brutal arrests and widespread commotion. Videos coming out of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods this week cried out one word: Chaos.

The violence, which took place in the ultra-Orthodox cities of Betar Ilit, Modi’in Ilit, and even in the “city of Torah and Hasidism” Bnei Brak, was severe, say the people who witnessed it. The general feeling is of a loss of control, not just on the part of the police. Thousands thronged the streets, objects flew in the air, garbage cans were lit on fire and harsh words were spoken (“Nazis,” they called policemen). These weren’t extremists, not the usual rebellious “Jerusalem faction” of zealots. These were people from the Haredi mainstream.

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The violation of coronavirus restrictions among the ultra-Orthodox community was only part of the chaotic picture. Another part being the massively-attended events, such as Hasidic gatherings around their rabbis (Tish events), held unhindered in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, where it seems like they have not heard about the lockdown (or didn’t internalize its importance).

Different Hasidic streams such as Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Yitzhak stuck to their normal routines: they got together without maintaining social distancing, with policemen being personae non grata. The well-known thesis in Haredi society was proven true again – as it did in the gigantic wedding held by Belz Hasidim – the strong survive, bending the police to their will.

The main question relates to the missing, big piece of the puzzle: Where were the leaders of these communities? On the backdrop of the ambient noise, their silence was particularly roaring. The voices of rabbis and yeshiva heads were not heard as thousands of their students were scuffling with policemen in the streets. Haredi politicians, on the other hand, did speak out after realizing which way the wind was blowing in the Haredi street, and issued furious statements about police violence, thereby adding more fuel to the flames. What was missing was a shred of internal criticism and attempts to calm things down.

A fire is seen burning as members of the ultra-Orthodox community clash with police in Jerusalem, October 4, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg

Perhaps it was no coincidence. Looking behind the scenes reveals an insight that the Haredim try to avoid dealing with: An acute leadership crisis, which is rapidly spinning out of control. It didn’t start now. Its first buds sprouted in 2017, with the death of the last great Haredi leader, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, considered one of the last great spiritual leaders who managed to shoulder responsibility and assume leadership, with their rulings considered binding by almost all Ashkenazi Haredim.

In the ensuing three years, the Haredi power structure broke down. There was no longer a central leadership, such as in the days of Rabbi Shach or Rabbi Eliashiv, leaders who characterized this community since the state’s establishment. Leadership became decentralized with each community having a different leader, each Hasidic stream having its own spiritual leader and each city with its own rabbi. There were many reasons for this. There were growing difficulties in handling such a large population; there were online websites and breaching of privacy by social media, with behind-the-scenes revelations about decision makers and a “humanization” of rabbis.

This process will apparently not stop, but its implications are not clear yet, certainly not in their entirety. What is clear is that the decentralization of leadership gives more influence to the Haredi street, the general public, which is something that should be welcomed. On the other hand, this causes deepening rifts in Haredi society, which is splitting up and becoming increasingly fractious, with the main fissure existing between conservative and modern streams. While there are groups who will increasingly link up to the wider Israeli society, extremist ones are also growing. In the midst is the central stream, which will gradually diminish, as will its influence.

Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a tape cordoning off a high coronavirus infection area in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The change that began with the death of Rabbi Shteinman was covert until now, at least partly so. Now, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is coming to light, and even accelerating. Suddenly one can see growing numbers of communities that were considered mainstream Haredi, such as the Belz and Vizhnitz Hasidim, in direct conflict with “the state,” standing shoulder to shoulder with extremist factions in Mea she’arim and with the Jerusalem faction. These groups, more vocal and militant, willing to pay a higher price, will only grow, garnering more power and influence. It’s likely that these will dictate the tone for the sane majority (which will become a minority).

Here is where the recent days’ events come into the picture, as they show that this is no longer a future battleground. It’s already here. In the absence of a central leadership there is no responsible adult who will try to cool things down. What will happen in the coming years, in Haredi politics in general and in the United Torah Judaism party in particular? Here is the new chaos theory: This party will no longer represent the mish-mash of different streams, which will be more numerous than those existing today. Each representative will be loyal to his own community, and won’t represent a community he prayed with until recently. A preview of this was provided with the resignation of Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, who was already operating in a disconnected manner from his Knesset faction and its considerations. Perhaps in the next election everyone will be Litzman. That bodes ill for his party.

Even if this takes place only in closed conversations, there are already growing voices on the ground from people who have had enough, calling for disengagement from the Haredi parties. The epidemic plays a role here as well. Recent Haaretz reports show a sharp loss of trust between the Haredi public and its politicians.

Now, with the virus not having said its last word, with an increasing trend of decentralization, it seems that only a miracle will turn back the wheel. This miracle is nameless, but it can be described: A charismatic and powerful leader who will rise and unite all the factions. But as any Haredi pupil knows, the halakha says not to count on miracles.

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