For Israel's ultra-Orthodox Society, Coronavirus Has Changed the Rules

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews in a Jerusalem synagogue, September 9, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews in a Jerusalem synagogue, September 9, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Over a third of young members of the ultra-Orthodox community feel their trust in their political representatives has severely eroded recently, a poll conducted in early August and published for the first time in Haaretz shows.  

The survey was conducted by the Askaria research firm, which specializes in the ultra-Orthodox public, along with researchers from the Israel Democracy Institute, and polled a representative sample of 484 ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 18 through 30. Findings show a high level of distrust of government policies.

Anyone familiar with the conversation in Haredi synagogues and WhatsApp groups will not be surprised by this sentiment – even if it is very unusual for Haredi society, where it has been common to unquestioningly obey community rabbis and leaders.

But the coronavirus outbreak, along with the growing power of social media and internet access – has led to a dramatic change, which has placed the ultra-Orthodox community into a position of power over its political leaders, for almost the first time. This change has even forced the Haredi leadership to openly rebel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after Haredi elected officials realized that if they don’t do so, the public would lose their faith in them.

A Border Police officer speaks to a man on an electric scooter at a checkpoint in the Old City of Jerusalem during the second coronavirus lockdown, September 21, 2020.Credit: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

Two weeks ago, left with no other option, three Haredi mayors – Avraham Rubinstein of Bnei Brak, Meir Rubinstein of Betar Ilit and Yisrael Porush of Elad – sent Netanyahu an unprecedented letter. The bottom line was that the three declared that if their cities were put under lockdown, they would not cooperate with the government. “The decisions you have made are clearly directed against the Haredi public,” they wrote, saying that they would no longer remain silent.

A short time later, Netanyahu met with the heads of the Haredi parties in the Knesset, reconsidered the government’s strategy, and the planned lockdown was canceled. But although the letter was signed by the mayors alone, behind them were the hundreds of thousands of Haredi residents who had made their anger and discontent that had been brewing for weeks clear to their elected representatives.

“There is disappointment, even a feeling of betrayal, that our representatives are not meeting expectations,” said M. from Jerusalem, a 28-year-old student at Jerusalem’s Mir Yeshiva. The anger that has accumulated during the coronavirus crisis has led some parts of the Haredi community to “develop an allergy” to their elected representatives, he said. “People saw how they abandoned us, when they imposed a lockdown on the Haredi cities and Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem two months ago, they didn’t do anything,” added M. He said the Haredi officials have no power, “so they should just hand over the keys and go home.”

But some are in less of a hurry to believe this is a revolution. A., 20, a yeshiva student from Bnei Brak, presents a slightly different picture. Even though he hears his friends talk about a lack of faith in the leadership, these views are marginal and have no influence, said A.. Some yeshiva students talk about losing faith in their MKs and curse them, “but there are always people who'll talk, they really don’t count,” he added.

Taking a U-turn

A woman crosses the street during the coronavirus lockdown, Jerusalem, September 21, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Even though this uprising is exceptional by any standard, in recent years a number of incidents have occurred that in retrospect may have heralded the change. The most prominent came when the Haredi leadership gave in to pressure from their constituents and withdrew their support for the Western Wall agreement, which was supposed to lead to the expansion of the egalitarian prayer area at the southern end of the complex.

Three years later, it seems that the realization that the masses hold the power has been succesfully internalized. “In a society in which political representatives are viewed as ‘emissaries of the rabbis’ – and to a certain extent criticism of them is criticism of the rabbis – we have never heard such criticism until recently,” said Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute. Malach participated in conducting the survey along with Dr. Or Anabi, a researcher at the IDI. “It is possible to understand the change in the behavior of the Haredi politicians in the wake of this criticism. They weren’t deaf to the criticism,” Malach said.

Malach noted that the Haredi public has taken a U-turn as a result of the coronavirus crisis, along with its elected representatives. At the end of the first wave of the outbreak, the Haredi leadership closed ranks with the government because of calls from the community for an in-depth self-assessment. At the time, segments of the community expressed anger, as they said they were not informed about the severity of the situation.

But during the second wave of the virus, the criticism took a different tone before the planned lockdown, which many saw as an act of discrimination against ultra-Orthodox Israelis. “As time went by, the Haredim returned to their element, being suspicious and critical of the state,” said Malach. “The feeling is that the state is screwing us, and the derivative of this is the feeling that the Haredi politicians are not doing their job of protecting us. This made all the difference. It is possible to see how, in the first round, the Haredim toed the line with the Health Ministry, and this time they fought over the red cities [with the highest number of coronavirus cases] and the synagogues. They realized the public wasn’t with them.”

The recent survey reflects these changes. It reveals that young Haredim are not critical about their own representatives alone – they are questioning the Health Ministry and the entire government. A number of surveys conducted by the IDI since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic reveal that the Haredi community’s trust in Netanyahu is at a low point. If at the end of March, 91 percent of Haredim and religious people trusted Netanyahu, this number fell to just 40.5 percent in a survey conducted this week. The largest drop was among those who voted for the Ashkenazi-Haredi United Torah Judaism party.

Police officers check cars at a checkpoint during the coronavirus lockdown, near Jerusalem, September 20, 2020.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP

It seems there is still no consensus in Haredi society on this matter. As with many others issues, the differences between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic ultra-Orthodox responses are striking on the question of whether the community is rebelling against its leaders. While only 25 percent of the Sephardic Haredim say their faith in their leaders has been seriously damaged, among the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi community, this figure has reached 41 percent. Among Hasidic Jews, the number is 43.5 percent.

This also reflects the differences between where these ultra-Orthodox Israelis are located on the axis between conservatism and modernism. For example, 55.5 percent of “modern” Haredi Israelis, or those with “a touch of modernism,” feel that the public’s trust in the Haredi parties has been greatly damaged. In comparison, among those more in the middle on the conservative-modern axis, the figure is only 39 percent – and 35 percent among those who consider themselves more conservative. Among those who consider themselves “ultra-conservative,” the figure drops to only 26 percent.

For now, the spirit of the rebellion has stopped before it has reached the rabbis, said Malach. For example, he says that in discussions with yeshiva students, they are careful to make a clear distinction between the rabbis and their political representatives. When the rabbi says something is holy, the question is only whether the rabbi really said what people are saying that he said, said S. This view is backed up by data from the survey, which show that 74.5 percent of those who were questioned said there has been no change in their trust in the rabbinical leadership, as compared to their faith in the political leadership.

In any case, this criticism is still not expected to lead to any real changes on the ground in the near future. “This frustration will not be expressed in practice,” said S., a student at a Bnei Brak yeshiva. When he put his vote into the ballot box, he said, he thought about the rabbis rather than the parties on the ballot. "As I see it, I'm fulfilling the commandment of the rabbies, who I'm voting for, not their representatives," the politicians.

The rabbis themselves are the holy of holies, and we are voting for them,” said M. “Even though the [Haredi] public is mad at its representatives, and knows they aren’t acting on our behalf and they are stuck hard to their [Knesset] seats, they will still vote for the Haredi parties because the Haredi public suffers from Stockholm Syndrome.”

M. says the Haredi community has undergone changes in the past few years. “They have begun to think, ask questions, sometimes even out loud, but it is still relatively marginal.” The real change will only come about when the Haredi public begins to challenge the system itself, in which the rabbis are the supreme and unquestioned power, he said.

A number of his friends, regular yeshiva students, have said they won’t vote for Haredi parties in the next election, and that in Haredi cities such as Betar Ilit and Elad, a large number of young people will act independently. “They are on social media, up to date about how things work behind the scenes and are behaving less like a flock of sheep. It’s not like it used to be,” said M.

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