The sight of masses of young ultra-Orthodox students returning to class this week, in defiant violation of lockdown provisions, while Israel’s other pupils remain at home, where they have been for a month, symbolizes more than anything the disconnected existence of an autonomous Haredi population that lives according to its own laws, ignoring the state’s decisions. This sight also exemplifies the helplessness of the government and most of the Israeli public in the face of extremist rabbis whose authority is accepted by a minority constituting about 13 percent of the population.
The Haredi revolt takes it for granted that the funding for Haredi educational institutions that have opened in violation of the law will continue to flow from government coffers and that the public health system will continue to treat members of that community who are infected as a result with the coronavirus. It would be appropriate for the instigators of this to be punished, fined and indicted, but it is very doubtful that that will happen.
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On Saturday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that the police do not have the means to enforce the closure of ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. What Netanyahu did not say was that even if the police did have the means, he would not have ordered them deployed. The support of United Torah Judaism and Shas parties are the last branch on which his government rests.
The fact that Netanyahu’s political alliance with the Haredi parties is preventing him from concerted action against this irresponsible conduct only puts his personal leadership failure in dealing with the coronavirus into greater focus. Nevertheless, we should not be deluded into thinking that if there had only been a different prime minister, the Haredi community would have conducted itself differently.
Ultra-Orthodox autonomy was built with the support of every Israeli government since David Ben-Gurion signed the status quo agreement in 1947. What is therefore required is a historic correction. The principal victims of ultra-Orthodox isolation and the creation of this autonomy have first and foremost been ultra-Orthodox young people, male and female, who have been deprived of the right to a proper education.
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Public funding should be cut off from separate educational settings that do not teach the core subjects required to integrate into the work world. The budget should be transferred to settings that enable refugees from the Haredi education system who choose to do so to complete their educations there.
The disconnect of the ultra-Orthodox public from Israeli society is one of the main reasons for the national failure to deal with the pandemic. Even if it’s late to deal with this at the moment, it should be done in the future, after a vaccine is available for COVID-19. We must not reconcile ourselves with this disconnect. Rectifying the situation and healing society comes through education and integration. The state of Israel can no longer permit itself to maintain and finance an autonomous Haredi educational system and way of life.
In order to advance this important historic correction, another government, when it is formed, must repeal the status quo, which is past its time, and begin with the separation of the clergy from the leadership of the country.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.