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Israel Must Deal With Its ultra-Orthodox Insurrection. Right Now

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Bus in Bnei Brak that was set on fire by a Haredi mob protesting police enforcement of Israel's COVID lockdown restrictions, Jan. 24, 2021
Bus in Bnei Brak that was set on fire by a Haredi mob protesting police enforcement of Israel's COVID lockdown restrictions, Jan. 24, 2021Credit: Ramush Lerner
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Israel is in the midst of a profound crisis, which threatens to tear its social fabric apart and throw its political system into turmoil.  

The crisis playing out, resulting from the Haredi response to the coronavirus pandemic, pits the apparatus of the state against ultra-Orthodox grand rabbis and the politicians who profess to speak for the Haredi masses.  

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The tension between the Israeli government and Haredim has generated enormous attention in Israel, but has been met mostly with silence from American Jewish leaders and organizations. 

Perhaps this is not the kind of feel-good story that the U.S. Jewish establishment prefers. That’s unfortunate, given that the outcome of this crisis will determine the kind of Jewish state that Israel will be.  

How serious is this crisis? Very serious.

Israeli COVID deaths continue to climb, and will soon reach 5000.  Despite an impressive vaccination campaign, the number of new infections in Israel continues to skyrocket. And Israelis realize that they are being held in a lethal hostage situation by one sector of the population, the ultra-Orthodox community, that has defied lockdown restrictions, literally breaking the law openly and brazenly, in a way that most Israelis have not — and with impunity.

Yes, not everyone in the Haredi world is breaking the rules. But a significant minority are. They are holding religious gatherings and attending weddings and funerals, as well as opening schools.  

And when the police finally make more than just a symbolic effort to enforce the most recent lockdown, Haredi thugs rampage through the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, burning buses and attacking police. The result? Law enforcement are in full retreat.

As the Israel police spokesman said this week about closing down mass Haredi funerals: "I’m not going up against 20,000 people because I can’t do it."

Non-Haredi Israelis, confined to their homes and wondering what happened to the mutual solidarity that they expect of their fellow citizens, are disgusted at the Haredi rule-breakers and their smug, irresponsible leaders.  

But the pandemic alone, as serious as it is, is not the real problem. The broader question is what this crisis tells us about how Israel’s Haredim relate to the society in which they live. To answer that question, a few observations about the situation:

* The Haredi religious leaders who profess to speak in the name of Torah are simultaneously violating the most fundamental Torah precepts.

Children being admitted into a Haredi Talmud Torah primary school in Jerusalem’s Sanhedria neighborhood. Many ultra-Orthodox schools are ooenly defying Israel’s COVID regulations.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, saving lives, takes precedence over virtually every other mitzvah. So what possibly could be the religious rationale for opening schools in the midst of a devastating pandemic? The answer of the so-called "Minister of Torah," Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, is that the sanctity of education comes before the sanctity of life; more than that, he suggests that failing to study Torah actually causes the loss of life.

This is turning halakha on its head. Israeli government restrictions for the purpose of saving life are not only permitted by halakha but are required by halakha.

And there is ample precedent in Jewish history for how to respond to a pandemic. As Rabbi Menachem Genack has noted, Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761-1837), one of the great rabbis of his generation, took the lead in confronting the cholera epidemic of his time. He enacted strict limits on the number of people allowed to pray together and even solicited police enforcement of those limits.

Some Haredi authorities justify their community’s (illegal) behavior by pointing to the (legal) between-lockdown crowds at Tel Aviv’s beaches and the weekly (and legal) demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence. But since when do religious people explain away their violations of religious principle by pivoting to the misbehavior and lack of observance of others?

Israel’s Haredi community has an infection rate that is four times higher than Israel’s general population. Its elderly members are dying at three times the rate of others, and its pregnant women are sicker than women elsewhere. To be sure, the relative poverty of the Haredi population and their overcrowded living conditions aggravate the spread of the coronavirus — but this is a reason for greater vigilance, not less.  

Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders are not parsing the Torah; they are consumed by preserving their own authority in a Haredi community that increasingly questions that authority.

* The real issue for Israel raised by the pandemic is not the coronavirus: It is the exposure of a Haredi state-within-a-state.

Israeli police uses water cannons as ultra-Orthodox Jews block the entrance to Jerusalem during a military draft protest. March 8, 2018.Credit: AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

The out-of-control pandemic response, both religious and political, of the Haredi leadership is simply the logical conclusion of a 40-year-old process that has exempted the Haredim from the laws and social norms that bind most Israelis together.  

There is nothing ancient or "traditional" about the Haredi opt-out from social solidarity. From 1948 to 1977, the great majority of Haredi men were employed, and young Haredi men went to the army.  

To be sure, there was a significant measure of separation. But only a small elite studied Torah full-time; others combined study with day-to-day family and communal obligations, as Jews had always done. In 1948, only 400 yeshiva students a year were exempted from army service, and that number was increased to 800 in 1968.  

But then Menachem Begin and the Likud won the 1977 election, and Begin needed Haredi support to form a government. So he agreed to lift restrictions on army exemptions for yeshiva bokhers. All Haredi young men who wished to keep studying would be exempt from the army for as long the studies continued.

The result? The rabbis who controlled the yeshivas took control of the lives of the young, forbidding them to enter the army and demanding that they remain in the yeshivas. Most schools for younger children declared their own "independence" and stopped offering the fundamentals of secular learning.

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

In a few decades, the entire social dynamic of the Haredi world changed. For the first time in Jewish history, religious Jews were not expected to work, support their families, or learn the practical skills needed for everyday life. And they were no longer asked to share the army service that secured the Jewish state. 

For Israel, the new arrangements were — and are — disastrous. The Haredi community now numbers more than one million people, and will soon be 15 percent of Israel’s population. Their men don’t contribute to the economy; their failure to work means the government bears the enormous cost of supporting them, and other Jewish Israelis resent them as freeloaders; their refusal to serve in the army likewise increases the burden on others.

So who benefits exactly? The Haredi rabbis and the political hacks who do their bidding. It is they who get and distribute the money from the Knesset finance committee on which their community is totally dependent. It is they who administer the Haredi fiefdom, or autonomy. And it is they who receive the secular politicians who regularly debase themselves to seek Haredi support in return for Knesset majorities.  

* Those secular politicians are, in many ways, the most despicable of all. And Prime Minister Netanyahu is at the top of the list.

Prime Minister Netanyahu flanked by ougoing Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, and Interior Minister Arye Dery at a conference of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Hamodia newspaper, November, 20, 2016.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

All politicians want the Haredi parties in their coalition, for the political stability they offer, and are prepared to pay a price. But at a certain point, the price is simply too high, and the political extortion runs out of road. That point has now been reached.  

Other Israelis are no longer able or willing to afford to support a community of a million people whose leaders scoff at their values, reject secular authorities, and are radicalizing, even as elements of its youth yearn for moderation. 

If Haredi leaders will not move their community toward greater integration into Israeli society, then secular politicians must do it for them.  

Netanyahu understood this once. In 2003, as finance minister in the government of Ariel Sharon, he spoke eloquently about the need to reduce child subsidies to enormous Haredi families because they encouraged these families to live on the government dole and not to work. And reduce them he did.  

But those days are long gone. In his last 11 years as prime minister, it is difficult to find a single instance where he demanded Haredi leaders commit to moderation and mutuality. Instead, he has offered them bigger budgets, better perks, greater privileges, and more positions of power.

Ultra-Orthodox men burn trash cans in protest against coronavirus lockdown measures in Jerusalem, July 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But a final word of optimism and hope: Following the March election, it is possible that the prime minister will be someone other than Netanyahu, and it is also possible that the coalition that is formed will not include the Haredi parties.

Several weeks ago, I argued here that the Haredim were virtually certain to be in the new government. But I now think that I was wrong.

Haredi leaders have behaved so abominably during the pandemic that a majority of Israelis, on both the right and the left, now say that they favor a government without them. If such a government were formed, it could do three things that would begin the process of drawing the Haredim back into the heart of Israeli society.  

First, require Haredi schools to teach math, science, and language skills — what is known as the "core curriculum." Any school refusing to do so would immediately lose all government funding.

Second, terminate government funding for yeshiva students 18 and older. If they wish to continue with yeshiva studies, they should do so at their own expense.

Third, suspend the military draft for yeshiva students for the next 10 years. These students do not want to serve in the army, and the army doesn’t want them. Anyone desiring to serve, of course, could do so.  But for the rest, they could work full-time or go to university, and they would have the education necessary to do either.

What would happen if these three simple steps were taken? The 40-year nightmare of Haredi separatism would draw to a close. Israel would return to being a single state with a single government authority and a common sense of purpose.

And Haredim would rejoin the mainstream of Jewish history—as God-fearing Jews, devoted to Yiddishkeit, but proudly self-supporting, and winning back the respect of their fellow Israeli citizens.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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