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Deradicalize Israel's COVID Insurgents Before They Incite a Civil War

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  Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters clash with Israeli security forces during the enforcement of COVID regulations in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mea Shearim
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters clash with Israeli security forces during the enforcement of COVID regulations in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Let’s imagine, in a Middle Eastern land far away, a man straps a bomb-rigged vest to his chest. He wanders into a seminary, where young men are gathered learning from the holy books. Or he enters a house of worship, where row upon row of men are praying devoutly. He might stop by a market, board a bus, or even mingle in the crowd of a wedding or a funeral. He closes his eyes and cries "God is Great!" The explosives detonate.  

This is what is happening every day across cities in Israel, except that the man is wearing a vest with ritual fringes, a black suit and hat, and the incendiary device is a cloud of invisible droplets laden with COVID-19.

Writing in the year that the Spanish flu gripped the world, German sociologist Max Weber famous wrote of the definition of a nation-state as an entity that claims the monopoly over the legitimate use of force within certain geographic confines.  

With buses being torched on streets, violent protests against both law-enforcement and journalists, the inability to implement effective crowd-control over thousands (and the admission that such control was effectively impossible), the complete failure to keep institutions closed and public gatherings within specified regulatory limits, and the abdication of enforcement mechanisms, it seems clear that the State of Israel has lost control over the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish, sector of its population. 

There are two Israels today: one that mostly obeys the rule of the state on COVID and one that flaunts its disobedience.  

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters clash with Israeli security forces during the enforcement of COVID regulations in Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

The problem is the pandemic does not obey the signs posted at the outskirts of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods imploring the ‘other’ to keep out. With new variants potentially up to 70 percent more transmissible  (and possibly 30 percent more deadly), the "good fences make good neighbors" strategy that the State of Israel has uneasily deployed since 1948 is no longer viable.  

Relations amongst the various sub-communities of the Israeli polity can no longer continue with only the usual resentments: that some constituencies shoulder the burden of the military, taxes, and institutions for the rest. Now there are those who are doing the fighting (against COVID) and those who are doing the dying (of COVID), but the sacrifices of each are not borne by them alone.

Meanwhile, Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to act as the Prime Minister of all his citizes and curb COVID-19 violations in the Haredi community, likely due both to his own electoral concerns, as much as because law enforcement and the State of Israel have come to the conclusion that they simply can’t impose the conditions required by law on a resistant and sometimes violent community of over one million citizens. 

Because there is no equal application of the law, lawbreakers win widespread impunity, and with no political leadership to ensure the primacy of the law, the national interest, and the safeguarding of life, Israel is well on its way to being a failed state.  

This breakdown of social and political relations should be understood as a civil war.

Despite high rates of infection within the Israeli-Arab sector as well, their behavior is less ideological – the results of overcrowding, poverty, essential workers on the front lines, and generational failures to address an underserved community (including in the Arabic language) and not necessarily as a  result of resistance to Zionism. The COVID-19 pandemic could be said to have re-oriented much of Arab-Jewish conflict, within the Green Line, over the past several months.  

Ultra Orthodox Jews gather to protest against Israel’s COVID restrictions in Jerusalem's religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim this month.Credit: AHMAD GHARABLI - AFP

Now it’s becoming the Haredim vs. the "rest of Israel" – whether or not they might have had much in common before or will after COVID-19, a plague ripping through society has a way of bringing about new intercommunal solidarities.

The ultra-Orthodox have their solidarities too – but they are not with the Jewish state itself, but with a global network of the god-fearing that spans the Western Diaspora.

They board flights without masks to visit each other, dance at illegal weddings together, mourn at unauthorized funerals side-by-side. They share dynastic leaders, transnational allegiances, and both local and international sets of rules and customs.

The behavior of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel is not especially notable – to them, the State of Israel seems to be just another manifestation of foreign rule which the Haredim neither recognize nor obey.  

In fact, if many of these characteristics were transplanted elsewhere in the Middle East, we might not hesitate to label the Haredim as transnational insurgency, or even as terrorists. Do these features sound familiar?

A policeman chases a young ultra-Orthodox man in the city of Bnei Brak in Israel, January 24, 2021.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

1) Follows religious law and interpretation selectively, reifying their version of the divine truth

2) Are loyal only to religious leaders, who use their positions as bully-pulpits to inculcate an ideology amongst their following – including a rejection of Western values

3) Radicalize youth in educational institutions

4) Offer members few alternatives to set norms and limit access to, information about, and skills for meaningful engagement with the the outside world

5) Try to gain (and in fact win) state-sponsorship for their agenda

What about their actions? When maskless individuals with high-rates of infection congregate in large crowds, there is no doubt they are setting off an epidemiological time bomb that has decimated not only their own population, but can spread to anyone who comes into subsequent close contact.  

The behavior of the Haredim, both by their willful disobedience of COVID restrictions and their now violent resistance, is effectively spreading terror amongst the Israeli population at large. And other Israelis – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, men and women, are afraid.

Ultra Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem protest in a fake jail against Israel's COVID-19 restrictions: Sign says: ‘Prisoner number 2385…Because I prayed in a quorum.’ Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

Further, it has become increasingly clear that COVID-19 is being used in service of ideological and political ends: No longer is this merely a matter of miscommunication or the actions of a "few bad apples." It is now a concerted, coordinated effort to embed and embolden Haredi autonomy from state control and wider social norms. Their leadership, if not all members of the community, understand that the subtext of the pandemic is about power.

I recognize that there may be profound indignation at this characterization, and I write this with pain in my heart. Like many scholars and journalists watching this phenomenon closely, I have experienced (albeit not immersively) the unique warmth and order of Haredi life and have deep empathy for the challenges that COVID-19 has wrought on the community. 

Those challenges are both material: the unacceptable poverty that many live that has made public health almost oxymoronic, and psychological: the extreme challenges of social distancing for a sector that lives as a collective, where prayer and study have primacy, without the kind of individualism that characterizes the rest of Israeli, and Diaspora Jewish, society. 

Drone aerial view of ultra-Orthodox Jews taking part in a Jerusalem funeral of a prominent rabbi in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. January 31, 2021.Credit: ILAN ROSENBERG/ REUTERS

A community with such low internet access has less access to information beyond their leadership and may be more exposed to misinformation, has few substitutes for in-person teaching and study, and has limited means to mitigate day-to-day difficulties for large families of living under lockdown.

But the time for patience and forbearance has passed. It is clear that the ultra-Orthodox are no longer acting out confusion, negligence, situational difficulties, or financial and spiritual strain.

There is a deliberate intent and concerted effort to wield Judaism as a weapon and to use the Torah in service of a kind of Jewish terrorism – and no regard to who may get hurt. There should be no space for a death cult – complete with the glorification of the martyrs – in Israeli Jewish society.  

Where do we go from here? The answers are unclear, but a transnational Jewish problem clearly requires a transnational Jewish solution. Maybe we can take a page from other guides to Haredi deradicalization (what in Israel has often been called "integration") and to broader practices of combatting extremism. 

For a state battling for its citizens’ welfare, and for a Jewish people that seeks to protect its integrity, the first step forward may be to acknowledge that a faith that declares both "emet" [truth] and the preservation of life as its highest values can no longer sanction such conduct in service of the divine, or in the pseudo-divine service of the performance of power.   

Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is Visiting Assistant Professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University and author of City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1

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