Israelis Should Learn From the ultra-Orthodox How a Minority Behaves

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Ultra-Orthodox Israelis confront the police in Jerusalem's Sanhedria neighborhood during the coronavirus crisis.
Ultra-Orthodox Israelis confront the police in Jerusalem's Sanhedria neighborhood during the coronavirus crisis.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The third coronavirus wave is ultra-Orthodox to a large extent, and the rage toward that community knows no bounds. Of course it’s infuriating to the many Israelis sitting at home with their children, trying to maneuver through a maze like rats but bound to fail.

Meanwhile, the elementary schools for ultra-Orthodox boys are partially open as if nothing had happened. Some ultra-Orthodox people actually express frustration with the rabbinical leadership, or what remains of it, and with many people in their community.

But if you disconnect a moment from the tempting anger, from the gripping frustration and exhausting depression, remember that the situation in many countries is dismaying, not just in Israel with its Haredi community. And then you can notice other things.

We mustn’t hate the ultra-Orthodox, not only because generalizations and hatred for a collective are ugly and certainly don’t adhere to liberal and pluralistic principles. We mustn’t hate the Haredim but rather should learn from them – not how to violate regulations but how to act as a minority.

For years they’ve been hugely successful, above all in achieving an autonomy based on their views, values and desires. This success, which the majority of secular, traditional and religious-Zionist Israelis see as untrammeled chutzpah, arrogance and tone deafness, is actually a result of modesty. The modesty of the minority.

They may have received from the state a monopoly over extremely important civil matters like marriage and burials, and are battling over the status quo; railway and other construction work on Shabbat has jeopardized governments. But the truth is, Israel has undergone a vibrant secularization process over the years, as the crowded shopping malls showed before the current awful period.

The most important fact is that the ultra-Orthodox community has never aspired to lead the state and shape it in its image, even though it certainly would be delighted to have supermarkets closed everywhere on Shabbat. Some Haredim don’t even recognize the state. What they care about, what they’ve always cared about, is to have the autonomy to do things their way.

Religious Zionism, whose pretensions to lead are more ambitious, is  endowed with a different kind of modesty. This is a hungry minority that protects its interests, chalks up achievements hill by hill, and is driven by an extraordinary ambition to integrate and influence from within while sending its sons and daughters to build outposts in all the elite’s institutions.

Paradoxically, Likud voters too have a minority’s modesty, even though they’ve been voting for the ruling party for most of the past 40 years. They’re still afraid of the Mapai dad who’ll take away the remote control and send them to their room. So they rally behind their leader and are actually keeping him alive – even though some of them don’t like him and are repelled by him, his family and their way of life.

Secular Israelis, especially the former Labor electorate, haven’t yet realized that they too are a minority and that to lead the lifestyle they desire, to educate their children according to their views and “protect them” from undesirable influences, they must wean themselves off the illusion that the state is theirs.

The state is indeed theirs, but certainly not only theirs. It hasn’t been stolen from them. Israeli society is traditional for the most part, or at least sympathetic to religion, mostly rightist, and large parts of it advocate conservative values. That’s the reality, and recognizing this is vital to dealing with it.

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