The disaster on Mount Meron happened because of an attitude we’ve held for years: We don’t consider the ultra-Orthodox, the Haredim, regular people. We see them as “others,” vague figures who live totally different lives from the rest of us, with different rules. Haredi politicians exploit this outlook to the hilt; it’s how they build their community’s autonomy.
I first encountered this attitude as a member of the Jerusalem municipality’s planning and building committee. Every time a case connected to the Haredi community ran into serious problems, the decisions were different than they would have been in similar cases elsewhere in the city.
When dozens of Haredi families showed up to object to the expansion of a supermarket in the middle of a residential area, claiming that the additional trucks delivering goods would endanger the neighborhood’s children, the objections were dismissed. An elderly Haredi woman complained that she couldn’t sleep at night ever since a yeshiva housing dozens of teenagers was opened in the two-bedroom apartment above her.
But her complaint was dismissed on the grounds that “that’s how it is with them.” When a developer sought to put up a building that would take up most of the sidewalk in a Haredi neighborhood, the objections were dismissed because “that’s how it is with them.”
Every time I objected, the Haredi representative yelled, “that’s how it is with us,” and the secular council members would ask me why I was intervening. When I said that in any other place in the city we would have made a different decision, they all answered that the Haredim are different and have different rules.
In the Knesset I would hear the same arguments from both Haredi and non-Haredi legislators; for example, about the Food Quality Law in Educational Institutions. The law was delayed for six years because the Haredi Knesset members opposed requiring healthy food in their schools, so as not to impose more rules on their communities’ education officials. Non-Haredi MKs accepted this as obvious, and indeed, the law passed with Haredi schools excepted.
So it was with the law on gemachim – interest-free loan societies – which the Finance Ministry sought to oversee because there were cases where the gemachim managers disappeared with the funds. At the Knesset Finance Committee, legislators argued that with the Haredim the rules are different and intervention is impossible. The law was watered down so that supervision essentially doesn’t exist.
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In the struggle against the exclusion of women, I was again asked why I was getting involved – after all, that’s how they want to live. But I was also getting calls from Haredi women urging me not to give up the fight.
When I asked why they objected to gender-based seating on buses, one replied that she was worried about her elderly mother because the women’s section was always more crowded. Another said she knew we don’t consider them regular people but she also loves her family and wants to sit with them on the bus, like everybody else.
The tragedy on Mount Meron exposed just how much the politicians are more important than the public – the rabbis who want honor for their courts, the activists who dole out the charity money and the operatives who manage the site. All of them get more attention than the regular people, who suffer when safety rules aren’t enforced.
We must recognize that the logic and rules that apply to us all must also apply to the Haredim. That would be the first stage toward dismantling the Haredi autonomy that flourishes because we don’t see the ultra-Orthodox as ordinary people and believe that their wheeler-dealers best understand what works “with them.” We have to recognize that there’s no real “with them.”
Rachel Azaria is a former Knesset member and deputy mayor of Jerusalem.