Opinion

It Only Makes Sense for the ultra-Orthodox to Call in a COVID Favor From Netanyahu

Israel Cohen
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The Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, one of Israel's most densely populated cities, and home to a large ultra-Orthodox population, September 8, 2020
The Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, one of Israel's most densely populated cities, and home to a large ultra-Orthodox population, September 8, 2020Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv
Israel Cohen

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave in to the ultra-Orthodox – so said the commentators on the news broadcasts and the newspaper headlines after it turned out that Netanyahu had ordered the coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu to replace the plan for a full lockdown on a number of “red” cities with a partial (nighttime) lockdown in 40 cities and towns.

A caricature posted by Amos Biderman on Facebook shows Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman holding Netanyahu by a sensitive place in his anatomy, suggesting that the Haredim are controlling and maneuvering him and he is acting according to their whims.

In recent years, criticism has been voiced from time to time against the ultra-Orthodox politicians, who were not necessarily identified with the right wing in the past, for choosing to hitch their political fate to that of Netanyahu, for better or for worse.

This manifested itself even in the election campaign, when the ultra-Orthodox parties publicized posters and slogans with pictures of Netanyahu, declaring their support for him publicly, despite the criminal indictments against him. The Haredim also created the right-wing bloc that until recently served Netanyahu as a protective wall against political and legal woes both near and far.

The claim that Netanyahu has now surrendered to the ultra-Orthodox does not take into account the sacrifice that his natural coalition partners made for him during his recent terms in office. Now it’s time to pay up. It’s only natural that a prime minister who was publicly supported by Shas and United Torah Judaism will heed the voices of their voters and prevent the lockdown and the suffocation of ultra-Orthodox cities and population centers.

What’s more, in my humble opinion, even before the sharply worded letter by ultra-Orthodox mayors addressed to him, and even before the demand by Litzman, Shas chairman Interior Minister Arye Dery and UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni to prevent a total lockdown, Netanyahu should have understood with his sharp political senses that he had gone too far, and that he might lose the faith – not to mention the enormous admiration – that he enjoys from this sector of society.

On his own initiative, Netanyahu should have stood up last week and said: I won’t let the Haredim, who are so close to my heart, be ghettoized. But better late than never, even if it’s done by threats and lobbying and against his will, and even if partially, because the nighttime lockdown remained in force.

The Haredim sacrificed quite a bit for the partnership with Netanyahu and their defense of him when times were tough. The least he can do is to be considerate of them and accede to their request.

As is, the nighttime curfew is doubly difficult: first, because it’s useless and won’t bring down the number of infections, and second because it creates a stigma on ultra-Orthodox society and brands them as spreaders of disease and outcasts.

Netanyahu had to lift at least the full lockdown, even at the cost of Gamzu stepping down. The Haredim gambled on Netanyahu in power years ago, and since then they’ve been walking hand in hand with him. It’s only natural that now, in their hour of greatest difficulty, he meet them halfway. That is not surrender, it’s a political partnership clear and obvious to all sides.

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