Regardless of the fastest vaccination in the world and the way out of the third “lock”, the pandemic in Israel is far from defeated – largely because of the wall that was erected by the community of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Hared.
Although people who dedicate their lives to learning the five books of Moses, the Torah, die proportionately more than other Israelites, a large number of them refuse to follow the protection measures prescribed by the state. The Haredes adhere most strictly to Jewish law, halacha, and tradition. They do not recognize the authority of the state, they live in isolated communities, a life that opposes modernity. That is why they refuse measures to fight kovid 19.
The neighborhoods and settlements of Hareda have become the biggest hotspots of the pandemic: as many as 40 percent of everyone in the country carries the corona virus – even though they make up only 12 percent of the population in the country of nine million. Of the approximately 47,000 students in their religious schools, more than a quarter are recovering patients.
No matter how many of them die, the yeshivas do not close. I can’t, because prayer and the Torah are life. The Torah protects and preserves. If you stop studying the Torah, the world will collapse, the Hasidic rabbis teach. Every death is a sacred sacrifice for a higher goal, say the Haredi, who consider themselves the most religiously authentic Jews.
Who, then, can control the boys’ joint ritual baths before prayer, before they start learning the Torah? Who tells them to wear a protective mask?
Ten months ago, when the first wave hit Israel, there was a short period when the rabbis agreed to close the synagogue and the yeshiva. Over time, the resistance of the ultra-Orthodox grew. They allowed mass weddings. The government that finances Harede failed to prevent the burial of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, attended by thousands of believers who violated all the rules of protection.
The Ministry of Health is investing millions of shekels in a campaign to encourage Hared to get vaccinated, but despite the fact that the crown mows them en masse, they refuse to submit to the rules that apply to everyone else. Haredi protested fiercely against the third lock last month. The streets of their neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Ashdod have been turned into battlefields against the forces of order. The night riots in front of the yeshiva in Bnei Brak, the “city of Torah” and the largest center of ultra-Orthodox Jews, were marred by shouts from the police: “Get out of here, Nazis!” The extremists became heroes overnight, new Jewish martyrs defending their autonomy.
An Israeli satirical TV show portrayed Rabbi Haim Kaniyevsky, the leader of the country’s Haredi community and the “Lithuanians” sect, as someone who effectively governs Israel: he approved the opening of a yeshiva contrary to the government’s decision.
Although no rabbi forces believers to break the rules, there is no external force that can dictate to the Haredes how they will live. This has been the case for a long time, although it is not remembered that any Jewish community is so openly opposed to the authorities as it is now. The Haredes refuse to accept government directives because, they interpret, they would thus agree to the existence of a higher power above their autonomy. At all costs, they want to preserve their extraterritoriality and the privileges they have acquired. Even while the crown endangers everyone’s lives.
Neither the rabbis nor their right-wing political allies – who gave Kanyevsky the title of “sar hatorah”, Minister Torah – wanted violence, but laid its foundations fighting the state to preserve Hared’s autonomy.
“I don’t understand the connection between religion, between Judaism and what they do,” said Professor Moti Ravid, director of an Israeli hospital. “They’ve been taught for years to get everything without giving anything, and this is now one of the results.”
Not many understand. The Hared community has become an incriminated part of society, accused by secular and religious Zionist groups of spreading the crown and endangering the country’s health system. This is not the first time that Israel has faced this kind of lawlessness. It has all been part of the challenging relationship between the state and Hared for 73 years. Immediately after the proclamation of the state, the ultra-Orthodox violently protested that the roads, shops or cinemas were open on the Jewish day of rest, the Sabbath. Then they fought against women being recruited into the army.
Two decades later, they launched a fierce campaign against autopsies and excavations of ancient sites, claiming that the graves were desecrated. They attacked pathologists and archaeologists. During the eighties of the 20th century, a real little war was started again over the rules of Shabbat. Vehicles passing near their Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim were stoned.
Then the violence subsided. Haredi received monopolies from the state regarding extremely important civil liberties, such as marriages and funerals. Their leading groups recognized that they could gain much more from growing political influence. Their parties have often been a tab on the scales in the fragmented world of Israeli politics.
Until the end of the 1960s, the main Jewish religious communities avoided political affiliation. The status quo lasted until the war in 1967, and two decades ago, the approach to Likud as the leading party of the right began.
Supreme Court decisions on Shabbat, religious conversion, LGBT community rights or military service – which were contrary to Hared’s wishes – slowly pushed them to the far right. Since 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has relied on Shas and the United Torah Judaism, two leading ultra-Orthodox parties.
In a pandemic situation, the partnership could do more harm than good to the prime minister ahead of the March 23 elections. He made all possible concessions to them, and he is not able to implement the health care directives. What to do when Hared parties oppose a law that would toughen penalties for those who do not adhere to pandemic protection measures? How can he rely on old allies when 61% of respondents say they are against the entry of ultra-Orthodox into the next cabinet?
It is clear to the Prime Minister that by refusing to subject Harede to stricter control, Likud loses part of the votes, which go in favor of his rivals from the right. It is clear to Haredim that the Prime Minister is behaving secularly in his private life – he does not follow the rules of kosher diet or Shabbat – but they would like to keep him because they are afraid that they might stay on the shore. The alliance that governs Israel today faces a serious challenge, but it will not surrender without a fight.
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