Opinion |

In the Role of Fifth Column: Israel's ultra-Orthodox Community

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews crowd for the funeral of the Admor of Pittsburgh, a major Hasidic rabbi who died of COVID-19, in Ashdod, October 5, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews crowd for the funeral of the Admor of Pittsburgh, a major Hasidic rabbi who died of COVID-19, in Ashdod, October 5, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The ultra-Orthodox (Haredim) have for years been a target of secular hatred. Their otherness, their insulation, their strange customs and mumbling leaders, their attitude toward women, the religious coercion and particularly the fact that they don’t serve in the army (God forbid), don’t study core subjects and in many cases don’t work, fanned the fire against them. The hatred of them was blind, burning, exaggerated and unworthy, at times resembling antisemitism. Some of the expressions used to describe them are among the ugliest and repulsive ever heard here.

Along with their own contribution to the fashioning of the attitude toward them, they have also been victims of dark, sometimes fascistic emotions. Israelis admired the settlers, who have done them far greater and more fateful damage, but hated the Haredim.

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Israeli Arabs are far more despised, excluded, discriminated against, humiliated and rejected. Unlike the Haredim, they’ve always been suspected of being a fifth column that undermines the foundation of the state and seeks to destroy it from within. Their loyalty is questioned, their contribution to the state isn’t recognized, their path to advancement is blocked and their freedom is conditional. They are clearly victims of the nationalism and racism that are deeply ingrained in this country.

Because of the coronavirus crisis, a reevaluation of society’s attitude toward these communities is required. This is the time to reboot, come to a piercing account with the Haredim for their wanton and inconsiderate behavior and to totally revamp our attitude toward the Arabs due to their contributions.

If there has been a fifth column in this particular campaign, it has been the Haredi community, with all the generalizations that entails. For the first time in its history the community’s behavior is indeed undermining the basis of society and doing it serious damage. The complete defiance of large sections of this community, the way the Haredim lord it over other Israelis and their blatant, arrogant indifference to the public’s distress, difficulties and suffering have changed their status in society. Even those who had admired them and thought the attitude toward them was outrageously improper can no longer ignore their disgraceful behavior.

This is what a fifth column looks like. These are the actions of a community that doesn’t think of anyone but itself, its needs, its faith and its idiosyncrasies. The Haredim will pay for this in a way that they’ve never paid before. Israelis won’t forget their behavior so quickly. The seeds of hatred that the Haredim have planted now with their own hands have created a situation in which the majority will no longer agree to play by the old rules of the game.

This lack of solidarity will come with a price. We must not forget the way they turned their backs on society while putting the health and lives of many people at risk. It won’t happen in a day, but the Haredim will yet miss the old arrangement. The hatred for them will increase and burst out.

On the other hand, this ought to be the hour of glory for the more excluded yet more loyal Israel Arab community. This community, at the beginning of the pandemic, also acted in a shameful, harmful way, ignoring the requirements and the rules, but as time went on it reset itself and changed direction. After months in which the rate of infection in the Arab community resembled that of the Haredim, they learned their lesson and have gotten their morbidity rate down to the national average.

This is the time not only to recognize the correction they made regarding the coronavirus, but also to appreciate their impressive contribution to the battle against it. Unlike the Haredim, whose contribution is minimal, the Arab community plays an important role in the health system. That’s not a fifth column. That’s a first or second column. Because of their other contributions to society and the economy, which are too numerous to list, Jewish Israelis must reverse their ungrateful attitude toward them.

In a rare, emotional televised moment on Channel 12 News, Arad Nir hosted two doctors from the coronavirus ward at Ha’emek Hospital in Afula. Only their names testified to their ethnic origins. Dr. Na’il Bisharat and Dr. Ehud Paz were arguing about the severity of the pandemic. The concept of equality between Arabs and Jews never had a better expression. Who knows, maybe it heralds the start of a change.