A Time of Reckoning for Israel's Haredi Public Opinion Leaders: ‘We Are Guilty’

Until very recently, the Haredi media focused on the ‘incitement’ against the community — but the such a large number of COVID victims led to a change. Ultra-Orthodox figures from the health system, education and the media speak out about the failures that led to such high rates of infection

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Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police in Jerusalem, January 20, 2021.
Ultra-Orthodox men clash with police in Jerusalem, January 20, 2021. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

For most of the period since the coronavirus pandemic began, the main discourse concerning the pandemic in ultra–Orthodox media and social networks was directed outward: the secular media that was “persecuting” the Haredim, the police that were conducting “selective enforcement” and violations of regulations by secular Israelis during anti-Netanyahu protests.

But recently, there has been evidence of a change. The record–high morbidity, the frequent funerals, and most of all, the reports of young women, some in advanced stages of pregnancy, who are hospitalized in serious condition, seem to be having an effect.

More and more voices in Haredi circles are calling for self-reckoning in the community, that members look within and admit regret. Senior Haredi leaders’ remarks in prviate conversations have been unusually resolute. No one is pointing a finger directly at specific rabbis and Hassidic rebbes (admors) — this is still a red line for every Haredi — but the criticism is sharp. One argument being heard is that Haredi society “broke all the rules” during the crisis as far as the rest of the country is concerned – and as a result, the silent agreement to Haredi autonomy is now beginning to crack.

“The behavior of the Haredi public during the coronavirus crisis has caused unprecedented hatred against us,” says a senior Haredi leader. There is no doubt, he said, that when a low-infection non-religious city is under lockdown because of a nearby high-infection Haredi city, “and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is afraid to implement a differential lockdown because he is scared of the Haredim, it harms us a great deal.”

A reflection of this change in direction over the past week can be seen in actions of lawmaker Moshe Gafni, the chairman of the Degel Hatorah party, which is part of United Torah Judaism. Until now, Gafni has mostly spoken during the crisis about the “incitement” and “strict” enforcement against the Haredim. But this week, he released a video in which he called on the Haredi public to follow the instructions of the Health Ministry, with no excuses.

Haredi media outlets, which for months have focused on claims of discrimination, have also begun a widespread campaign with the slogan “We are guilty.” Some may say that it came much too late, but is still an important turning point. Nonetheless, quite a few in the community fear that the effects of this soul-searching will evaporate quickly, as if it had never happened.

In any case, such a change is not a simple thing for many in Haredi society. They have found themselves on the defensive, fearful that any admission of large-scale violations of social distancing and other rules will immediately confirm the hateful rhetoric directed at them.

This is the fine line walked by the public opinion leaders and education and health officials who are trying to enlist the public to save lives.

Snakes and ladders

Rabbi Shimon Ragobay, chairman of the Mazor organization for medical consultation

Rabbi Shimon Ragobay, chairman of the Mazor organization for medical consultationCredit: Eliyhahu Hershkowitz

When I was a child, we would play a game called “snakes and ladders” – the ladders would lead you up to the goal, the snakes made you fall and go back down. Over the past few months, I felt we were in the same “game,” just this time for real – life and death.

The metaphor of the game is incredibly symbolic for the present situation– the ladder is the ladder of values; the snakes are the causes of disease and death.

As a community based on the observance of an ethical code that was given on Mount Sinai by the Creator of the World, we have a very clear and binding ladder of values. The value of life is one of the most important values in most human cultures; for us it is a divine commandment. It is for a very good reason the Haredi community has hundreds of nonprofits offering medical assistance – we are placing this matter at the top of our ladder of values.

As someone who has worked for three decades in medical consultation and who helps those who are coping with illness and suffering, I have seen the raising of tens of thousands of dollars to aid in the finest treatment, a willingness to contribute time and help everywhere and at any time without anything in return – things that you don’t see in every society and culture.

The way we're handling the present crisis is hard to fathom. How is it that such an ethical society slips on the snakes time after time? How is a society that is willing to do everything to save lives not willing to wear a mask or avoid gatherings? It seems the difficulty stems from confusion. There are other important values, some of them very important, not always can everyone recognize which rung of the ladder comes first, and this is how they become confused between the rungs and fall onto the snakes.

Most of the public and its leaders are not confused and are continuing to climb up the ladder step after step. I hope and wish that those who slipped down will rise up again on the ladder of values leading to the goal: “Choose life.”

Not just the extremists

Rebbetzin Pearlstein, principal of the Be’er Miriam seminary for girls in Beit Shemesh

Police conduct raid on a yeshiva open against restrictions in Jerusalem, January 19, 2021.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The coronavirus hit us without any notice. The initial feeling was that it will pass and we’ll forget about it. When we read that the virus will still be with us on the coming Purim holiday, we thought that was impossible. Thinking back, we need to ask where all of our historical knowledge vanished, how is it that all the hair-raising descriptions of the polio virus did not come back to us.

Any responsible person realized caution is needed, but the general atmosphere in the Haredi public was that there was no connection between what was being said [about the virus] and day-to-day life. I’m not talking just about the extremist communities that mocked the rules and confronted the police.

The question is whether we were as careful as we should have been, whether we accepted the words of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who took a strict line and demanded sticking to the doctors’ instructions to the word, without any interpretation.

It is hard to estimate whether and how much we internalized that we were in terrible danger for our lives. Why didn’t we see the tip of the deceptive iceberg? To see the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem last week with its stores locked down is a terrifying meeting with reality that we never believed would come into our houses.

Maybe the question is why we didn’t treat this danger in all its severity, like leavened bread on Passover. Now, when everything is on the table and the danger is clear and immediate, will we be truly cautious – like we keep the Sabbath? After all, the commandment of life has such a strong extension: “Take ye therefore good heed unto your lives.”

Our reflection must climb a few stories higher, to take as full responsibility as we can, and to be careful.

Between weddings and funerals

Avi Mimran, anchor on ultra-Orthodox Kol Hai Radio

Without a doubt, high infection rates in the Haredi community have led to an internal self-reckoning. About 100,000 Haredi households listen every evening to the radio program I host on Kol Hai Radio, and time and time again they hear rabbis and people from the Health Ministry calling on them to comply with the guidelines.

Avi Mimran, anchor on ultra-Orthodox Kol Hai Radio Credit: Emil Salman

This week I gave a personal scathing monologue, directed at fringe groups in the community who have taken the law into their own hands. It is not likely these people are listening to the radio, and even if they are, they are not people whose lifestyles will be changed by a monologue, however aggressive and painful it may be. The message was to the vast majority of the community, the silent majority, that needed a dose of strength so as not to lose patience, so that there will not be a total breakdown of trust in the institutions that are managing this crisis.

Because of overcrowding and families blessed with lots of children, caution must be greater and stronger. Those who do not comply with the guidelines and continue to go to huge weddings as if there weren’t any funerals at the same time, who continue to crowd together in the synagogues as if there weren’t any new orphans among them – will continue this massive contagion without stopping.

The editorials in all the Haredi newspapers have never been so harsh; the headline – “but we are guilty” – cries out. From here I turn to my colleagues in the Israeli media: You are not helping us with your actions. We don’t have a problem that the protests at the prime minister’s residence are legitimate in your eyes, and the demonstrations in Mea She’arim are not. But the incessant attacks on the entire community are completely breaking the trust that still exists, and in the end – it costs lives. I am not repenting for my sins be beating on your chest, no. I am hitting mine, and hard. We know how to attack ourselves, no less than you.

Another home destroyed

Yishai Cohen, commentator and news anchor on the Kikar Hashabbat website

Yishai Cohen, commentator and host on the Kikar Hashabbat websiteCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

These days it is very hard to explain to the non-religious reader what is happening in the Haredi community. The average secular person is flooded with reports about violations of the coronavirus rules in the Haredi community, weddings and open schools, and asks, justifiably: Why are they allowed and we are forbidden?

At the beginning of what I have to say, I feel the need to make things clear: Yes, the majority of the Haredi public is following the rules. According to the estimates of the commissioner for fighting the coronavirus in the Haredi community, Roni Numa, 85 percent of the boys schools (Talmud Torah) are closed. The majority of schools that are open, the main Haredi leadership have no control over either. My children are at home, exactly like “your” children. And still, there is a looseness to our following of the rules. But the Haredi community has woken up in the past few days. No one can remain apathetic in the face of the fact that every few hours they report another Haredi has died and another home ruined.

The message is clear: It is true that they hate us and are inciting against us. They are looking for the scapegoat that can be blamed for the coronavirus. Nonetheless, it is not the media and those who hate us that have brought upon us the harsh numbers of new patients, those in serious condition and the dead.

The Haredi sector is in a sort of internal self-evaluation. But you, the journalists in the general media, public opinion leaders and the politicians – please, leave the self-reckoning to us. When the coronavirus deniers in the Haredi sector watch you hinting that the country is under lockdown because of the Haredim – a mistaken claim – they are turning the issue into a religious war. You are those who are serving the coronavirus deniers.

Yes, it is permitted and even necessary to criticize, but there is a way to do it. Another point that has kept the media busy in the past few days is the conversations between Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Netanyahu. Why does it bother you that the prime minister of Israel is talking to a giant public figure for the country? The coverage surrounding Rabbi Kanievsky sharpens the understanding that part of the debate may be about the coronavirus, but it is aimed somewhere else, an ideology.

After all, what’s the goal? For all the boys schools to be closed. For the public to come out and be vaccinated. For the public to carefully follow the rules – exactly what Rabbi Kanievsky is calling for the public to do. The Talmud Torah schools he is the president of are closed. So what do you care whether the order comes from a political minister or a spiritual leader? Stop the hate discussion now.

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