Opinion |

You Want a Revolution? Learn From the ultra-Orthodox

The anti-Netanyahu protests aren't a mass movement yet, mainly because they're not proposing an alternative – and they could take a page from the Haredi book regarding the legitimacy of the government

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
An ultra-Orthodox man stands behind police lines during a protest by his community against coronavirus rules, on Route 1, in Jerusalem, October 5, 2020.
An ultra-Orthodox man stands behind police lines during a protest by his community against coronavirus rules, on Route 1, in Jerusalem, October 5, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The theory of revolutions holds that every revolution goes through four stages before it either succeeds or fails. First is creating a solid community that crosses religious, class, gender and occupational lines. This is the stage in which people who don’t belong to the same milieu become allies in distress and unite ad hoc to extricate themselves from it.

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These allies in distress aren’t necessarily the “traditional” poor – people who suffer from poverty and have trouble in earning a living. They may include shop owners and lawyers, teachers and students, farmers and taxi drivers, people with college degrees and those who dropped out of high school. In other words, people who would normally never meet, and would even be rivals.

In the second stage, this community of the distressed acquires critical mass, thereby creating a sense of shared fate and internal faith in the goal.

In the third stage, this critical mass erupts in protest. The protest could involve demonstrations, posters, op-eds and media appearances, until the moment when frustration leads them into civil disobedience that may well develop into a violent confrontation between the people and their government.

In Israel, the distress has already passed the stage of creating a community, which rests on two firm foundations – a demand for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster and the economic restrictions the government has imposed in its battle against the coronavirus.The protest, in contrast, is still in the early stages.

A young ultra-Orthodox man looks at anti-Netanyahu protesters near his official residence in Jerusalem, July 23, 2020.
A young ultra-Orthodox man looks at anti-Netanyahu protesters near his official residence in Jerusalem, July 23, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Granted, the demonstrations have created an image of being a new and original movement, but they aren’t a mass phenomenon. They upset the government but they don’t threaten it, mainly because they’re having trouble presenting an alternative to it.

They have no prominent leaders; their activists and participants are wary of being painted as political; and their grievances are about the policies, not the people setting them. Aside from the demand for Netanyahu’s ouster, no other ad hominem demands have been made.

The government as a whole is still seen as legitimate, and also as the only body that can and should provide solutions to our collective distress. The growing strength of opposition politicians Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid is nourished by this view, which holds that it’s enough to replace the prime minister to make the distress disappear.

Admittedly, this would be an important achievement. But it wouldn’t be enough to repair the enormous damage that has already been caused.

The ultra-Orthodox have a different view, one that has worked far better for them. They don’t see the government as a legitimate authority that’s entitled to dictate their lifestyle, impose restrictions on their prayer services and weddings and force them to be partners with equal obligations to the country.

Nor does their participation in the government contradict this basic approach. They are there to supervise the government as representatives of authorities that are superior to and much stronger than any government elected by mere mortals.

And normally, their political power spares them any need for protest or civil disobedience. It enables them to gain economic and cultural benefits in exchange for supporting the government, which they view as an empty vessel.

Unlike the current civic protests, the ultra-Orthodox have a built-in leadership. They don’t need social media to mobilize. Their community is hierarchical, complete with commanders, intermediate ranks and foot soldiers.

Israel Police officers attempt to enforce coronavirus social distancing rules during the planned funeral of the Admor of Pittsburgh in Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.
Israel Police officers attempt to enforce coronavirus social distancing rules during the planned funeral of the Admor of Pittsburgh in Ashdod, Israel, October 5, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Moreover, their economic and medical distress isn’t the result of any government policy. It’s a permanent fact of life, a product of their lifestyle and beliefs, and they understand that it isn’t going to change. As Netanyahu put it, this is an anarchist, privileged community, one that rebels against the existing governmental order but also participates in it.

The irony is that this community is actually leery of open revolt, because such a revolt might only interfere with their continued anarchy. It needs the existing order, which defends its rebelliousness and even nurtures it.

This is the important lesson in how to run a revolution that the ultra-Orthodox could teach the civic protesters. First and foremost, the protesters must adopt the principle that the government isn’t necessarily legitimate, even if it was legally elected. It must also develop its own leadership and not be afraid of building clearly defined political power, which will arise from amid the distress.

What works for the ultra-Orthodox can also work for civic protest movements, and for ordinary Israelis in general.

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