Opinion |

I Love My Haredi Community. But Our Persecution Complex Is Killing Us

I grew up on stories of Jewish suffering at the hands of hostile non-Jewish authorities, of resistance and self-sacrifice. Today, during the COVID-19 crisis, state authorities are pleading with us to save Jewish lives – but we’re not listening

Yehudis Fletcher
Yehudis Fletcher
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in New York. October 7, 2020
Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in New York. October 7, 2020.Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/ REUTERS
Yehudis Fletcher
Yehudis Fletcher

I am a Haredi woman. I live in the heart of Manchester’s Haredi community and my parents, siblings, cousins, and nieces and nephews are spread across the global Haredi community.

The framework we live in can feel harsh. It is meant to. Particularly in Israel, luxuries are shunned. There is pride in abstention. We live cheek by jowl. We live lives of love and laughter.

We may be afraid of death, of hate, of prejudice, but we live our lives in spite of that, and that suffering is part of our identity. Coronavirus has accentuated this, and now it is threatening our lives.

We circumcise our baby boys, and just like all other Jews, we name them and proclaim "by your blood you shall live" and all those present repeat those words together, "by your blood you shall live."

In kindergarten, we used to read from the blue and yellow "Tales of Tzadikim" series – there was always a greedy poretz (Polish landowner) throwing his Jewish tenant into jail as a way of exhorting more rent, or a cruel galech (priest) baiting the local rabbi into an impossible duel.

Residents walk along a street in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park on October 6, 2020.Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

After that, I read thick memoirs of Holocaust survivors. Night time escapes over borders, forged papers and long train journeys to safety, against a backdrop of genocide.

Later, I learned of women immersing in frozen Russian rivers to purify themselves after menstruating. I heard about girls pinning their skirts to their flesh to avoid exposing their legs when being dragged to their deaths as punishment by the gentile authorities. Harsh environments, long winters and baking hot summers were the constant theme in these tales of pogroms, massacres, and survival.

My identity as a Haredi child was infused with the bloody history of our nation. The maxim "Esau hates Jacob" was the simple explanation for any opposition we faced, or learned about. It was taught to me as one of the rules of nature.

Alongside this, I was taught the value of mesiras nefesh – "giving of the soul," or self-sacrifice in the name of religion. Throughout history, Judaism has been observed despite enormous risks and hardship, under Greek rule in ancient Israel, during the Spanish Inquisition, and in communist Russia.

My own parents, a rabbinic couple serving a small Jewish community, were often lauded as being shining examples of this faithful selflessness.

They had to manage without easy access to kosher food. My father got up early each morning to pick up the men who had agreed to be on his minyan rota, and he would pray with them. My mother would stay out till late at night; she was the mikve attendant, and she would help women immerse after nightfall. We lived in Glasgow, Scotland, and over the summer months, night didn’t fall until very late indeed.

For many Haredi parents, particularly mothers, their children’s weddings are the peak of their self fulfillment. It is a singular moment of gratification and ultimate nachas (pride) that they have been working towards right from the moment their child was welcomed into their family, with warm blessings ringing in their ears that they should bring this baby up to achieve "Torah, chuppah uma’asim tovim" – "Torah, marriage, and good deeds."

A sign requests customers wear face masks in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, one of numerous Brooklyn neighborhoods witnessing a spike in the number of COVID-19 cases. October 1, 2020.Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

When my parents celebrated these achievements at each of my siblings’ weddings, it was their mesiras nefesh, their self-sacrifice, that was praised over and over again.

That was their crowning glory. In safe 20th century Britain, self-sacrifice for Torah equalled social capital.

Jewish law places a premium on the life and health of all people. It was this premium that motivated and emboldened those over the generations who fled their homes in the face of persecution and antisemitic hate. Jewish law commands us to break the Sabbath, or indeed, any other restriction, if someone’s life is in danger.

Nonetheless, Jewish law and Haredi culture are far from identical to each other – despite their obvious overlaps.

Out of choice and necessity, Haredi culture has become increasingly isolationist, as society has modernized and become increasingly liberal and urban. This has led to new explicit and implicit rules for behavior that are nothing to do with Jewish law. The most obvious example is the banning of the internet.

Orthodox Jews following social distancing rules queue outside a shop in the London neighbourhood of Stamford Hill, as the spread of the coronavirus disease continues. April 6, 2020Credit: ANDREW COULDRIDGE/ REUTERS

The effect of these cultural expectations is ever increasing isolationism, compounding the "us versus them" mentality.

We pass on the tales of suffering and communal self-defense to our children. We tell them that generations ago, the government authorities wanted to kill us, and that’s why we mustn’t report sex offenders or indeed anyone to the secular authorities – because a Jew can never get a fair trial.

The impact of this is that either intentionally, or unwittingly, we create an alternate reality for our children: we must remain in a constant state of hypervigilance, hermetically sealed within our community.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads through my community, this dissonance has become a critical problem. The familiar narrative – that being virtuous and heroic means evading the authorities in order to save Jewish lives – has been reversed.

The authorities, far from wanting to kill us, are now pleading with us to save Jewish lives. But our ears are so full of the older narratives we’re not listening.

Instructions to stay away from crowded synagogues and forego celebrations and the weekly rebbe’s tisch become "antisemitic" restrictions of our right to religious expression. This fresh perceived injustice provides fuel for the outrage that is necessary to justify the continuing isolationism.

NYPD officers stand outside the Satmar synagogue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, after NY authorities ordered a Satmar wedding, due to include 10,000 celebrants, be closed down. October 19, 2020.Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

Some extremists seize the opportunity to demonstrate the ongoing necessity of their isolationist choices. Every video of police enforcement, shot on an illicit smartphone and shared on illicit social media, reinforces that worldview.

Confirmation bias compounds this further, in a Haredi world where science is often seen as subjective and even heretical. It is no wonder public health officials are struggling to get the message across.

Haredim are used to a certain level of risk and discomfort. Many feel the negative consequences of COVID-19, such as brief or medium-term illness, are worth risking, if it means we can carry on our lives uninterrupted. Suffering is considered to be decreed by G-d in any case.

There is also the obvious thrill in subterfuge and resistance against statutory regulations, especially when this is reinforced with approval from those around you.

But while coronavirus non-compliance is being reported around the world: there’s a spotlight on Haredi communities, for obvious reasons. Haredim are hyper-visible, and the stories are sensational. We make good headlines.

But this is not news. Non-compliance is not a new problem for us, or for those governing us. We struggle with conflicting values around secular education and individual liberty, and a deep mistrust of secular authority.

A group of Haredi Purim revelers in Gateshead, England, just before national COVID-19 restrictions came into force. March 10, 2020Credit: Peter Gatoff

At best, this leads to large pockets of Haredi citizens who simply don’t participate in secular society, and at worst, some Haredim who actively reject secular society. In some cases this will involve breaking the law, particularly with regards to education, the lack of which can be linked to widespread welfare fraud, and lack of cooperation with statutory agencies, including under reporting of domestic and sexual abuse.

Coronavirus non-compliance is a symptom of this much bigger problem. Only now the stakes are higher, not just for us, but for those governing us and those living around us.

Until now, it could be said that isolationist tendencies of the inward-facing extremists amongst us harmed only themselves and their families, though I beg you to spare a thought for the internal minorities and the vulnerable within these collectives.

In a global pandemic, with infection rates soaring, the problem can no longer be contained, or ignored. The solution is not simple or immediate, no matter how high the risk has now become, but it is obvious: that every child deserves a broad and balanced education, and Haredi children deserve that too. That is the starting point. That is how we break the persecution complex, that is how we heal. It is time to stop surviving, and to start living.

I have painted a picture of the people I know and love. If it feels bleak, that is because of the urgency of my message. I could write separately to tell you of the ways we love and support one another, of the automatic sense of belonging I feel and the value it brings me, and of deep inner peace that practicing religion at this radical level brings.

My hope is that this pandemic will inculcate these hard, necessary lessons for my community’s future, and that I will soon have an opportunity to extoll, rather than reproach, the people I love most.

Yehudis Fletcher is a social and political activist. She is an Independant Sexual Violence Adviser with Migdal Emunah, and co-founder of Nahamu. She is a student of Social Policy at Salford University. Twitter: @YehudisFletcher

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