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How the Coronavirus Could Save Israel From Becoming a Third World Nation

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Funeral procession of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, leader of the Brisker Yeshiva in Jerusalem
Funeral procession of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, leader of the Brisker Yeshiva in Jerusalem, late JanuaryCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Who says that a little animosity can’t lead to good things? Quite to the contrary, we now have a chance to leverage the anger and division. The chasm the coronavirus has created between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israel may have created an opportunity to finally integrate the Haredim into the economy.

On the surface, it all looks hopeless. Many in the Haredi community have been flouting the coronavirus rules and precautions, holding mass weddings and funerals, and keeping schools open. Apologists for the community say that Torah study will protect them from COVID. But their occasionally violent resistance to restrictions also reflects ultra-Orthodoxy’s alienation from the state and distrust of government – they don’t feel they’re part of Israeli society and need to work as one with it.

It hardly seems the time for government-directed change, but appearances can be deceiving.

The Haredim see themselves as adhering to the age-old traditions of Jewish life unchanged over the centuries, even if some of the foundations of their society are recent innovations, such adult males prioritizing Torah study over getting a job. Conscious change would be acknowledging that maybe the rabbis were wrong after all and that the ultra-Orthodoxy can evolve and adapt.

But that doesn’t mean change can’t come. You won’t see pashkevilim (street posters) urging young men to enlist in the army or rebbes ruling that a God-fearing Jew must learn mathematics and science. But poverty and the strictures of ultra-Orthodox life in Israel have already been a catalyst for quiet change, as evidenced by rising rates of employment and (for girls at least) and secular education. Many have even begun to defy the ban on internet use.

The pandemic is almost certain to accelerate change. The months spent by large families in crowded apartments without the distractions of television, internet, or even a good book have no doubt given many Haredim time to think. The violence we’ve seen is directed against the authorities, but voices expressing a growing frustration with the mores the rabbis have imposed have been rising.

Despite the ravings of MK Moshe Gafni about the high incidence of COVID in Haredi communities (“It’s not our fault! You, who sent us to live in such crowded conditions, it’s your fault!”), the fact is the community’s problems are the community’s fault – it chose its lifestyle and fought government efforts to remedy its poverty, that resistance may quietly fall away.

Furious in Tel Aviv

The other critical part of the equation is the anger of the rest of Israel. No one in North Tel Aviv is torching buses or opening schools against government orders, as many Haredim have been doing. But the secular public is as galled at Haredi behavior as the Haredim are at being ordered around by the secular government. A recent survey found that the average Israeli would rather have an Arab family as a neighbor than a Haredi family.

It’s understandable. Haredi society has become a growing economic burden on Israel, but because its impact is only felt tacitly in the form of higher taxes for the rest and lower productivity, it’s mostly ignored.

On the other hand, the Haredi refusal to serve in the army has been a flashpoint in inter-communal relations precisely because it speaks directly to how the burden of life in Israel isn’t being shared equally.

The coronavirus pandemic and the special treatment ultra-Orthodox leaders demand for their community have underscored that difference.

The question is whether any willingness to change on the part of the Haredim will get help from the government. Without a policy of sticks (such as reduced allowance for yeshiva study) and carrots (such as aid in getting a higher education), any quiet revolution in the Haredi world will be doomed to falter in the face of the unbending determination of the Haredi leadership to maintain the status quo.

Unfortunately, Netanyahu has been quite happy to succumb to the demands of Haredi leaders to preserve the status quo. He might imagine himself as a strategic thinker, but when it comes to the long-term future of Israel, his short-term need to have them as coalition partners wins the day.

Fortunately, there is a constructive aspect to secular anger at the Haredim. A recent poll by Channel 12 television found that only 22% of voters want the next coalition to include the ultra-Orthodox parties. Even a majority of right-wing voters would prefer to keep them out of the government. The latest election polls (for what they are worth this early in the cycle) show an anti-Netanyahu majority excluding United Torah Judaism and Shas could win a majority.

We know from experience that when there’s a will, there’s a way. By a lot of parameters, such as employment, high school matriculation exams, and completing army service, the Haredim were making progress in the first 15 years of this century. The process accelerated during the third Netanyahu government in 2013-2015 when he was forced to leave the ultra-Orthodox parties in the opposition. It then went into reverse when his fourth government included UTJ and Shas.

But the clock to effect change is running quickly. Haredim account for only about 12% of Israel’s population today, but their share is forecast to rise rapidly over the next decades, to the point that the Israel we know today – a wealthy, high-tech economy – will no longer exist. Haredi poverty and low levels of education will simply overwhelm the rest of Israeli society and turn us into a Third World country. Thanks to, of all things, a deadly pandemic, we may just be in a position to avert the disaster we face.

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