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- Jan 27, 2021
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TL;DR: Israel just had three elections in a row because of the ultra-fundamentalists who are being accused of spreading COVID endangering the rest of Israel and clogging their health care. Imagine Israel becoming #110!
Israel has based itself on two non-negotiable opposite identities. The homeland of all Jews, whether or not they are citizens of Israel. And the state of all its citizens, whether or not they are Jews. These two nations within one state have always been at war with one another for cultural supremacy. Democracy's basic principles require equal treatment of all those included as citizens of the State, the recognition of the core human rights, including dignity and equality, separation of powers, the rule of law, and an independent judiciary, are all drawn from these principles. In Israel there is an ethno-cultural division that Jews place themselves into of hilonim "secular", masortim "traditional" dati'im, "religious" or haredim "ultra-religious". An opinion poll released in March 2016 by the Pew Research Center found high support among religious Israeli Jews for a Jewish state governed by halakha, the Jewish fundamentalist bigotry of ethnic exclusion and injustice. The poll found that 57% of traditional Jews and 90% of secular Jews believe the best way to protect religious liberty is to keep government out of religion while 86% of Israeli Haredi "ultra-religious" Jews and 69% of Dati and Masorti religious Jews supported making halakha Israel's legal code.
The religious status quo, agreed to by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and minister of defense, with the Orthodox parties at the time of Israel's formation in 1948, is an agreement on the role that Judaism would play in Israel's government and the judicial system. The agreement was based upon a letter sent by Ben-Gurion to Agudat Israel dated 19 June 1947. Under this agreement, which still operates in most respects today:
- The Chief Rabbinate has authority over kashrut, Shabbat, Jewish burial and personal status issues, such as marriage, divorce, and conversions.
- Streets in Haredi neighborhoods are closed to traffic on the Jewish Sabbath. There is no public transport on the Jewish Sabbath, and most businesses are closed. However, there is public transport in Haifa, since Haifa had a large Arab population at the time of the British Mandate.
- Restaurants who wish to advertise themselves as kosher must be certified by the Chief Rabbinate.
- Importation of non-kosher foods is prohibited.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews check the health of a chicken that will later be slaughtered as part of a religious ritual in Bnei Brak, Israel, in September. (Oded Balilty / Associated Press)
However all of that was pre-COVID. The coronavirus crisis threatens to shatter a delicate social and political pact, between the haredim and the state, that has existed since Israel’s foundation.
The country woke up September 6th, 2020 believing that at a minimum, eight to 10 of Israel’s sickest cities would be locked down by the next day. Over the weekend, Israel surpassed 1,000 dead from coronavirus. But amid extreme pressure by the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, the government approved imposing only “night curfews” on the 40 “reddest” cities of COVID. “Citizens of Israel, I would like to update you on the decision made by the ministerial committee tonight,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had said late that Sunday. “In the last day, another 10 cities have been added to the list of red cities and we have already reached 40 red cities. In light of this, the professionals recommended imposing a uniform nightly curfew on all of these cities, and closing the education system in them, in addition to restrictions on gatherings. Tonight’s decision was considered responsible and realistic,” the prime minister concluded. However rumors circulated, Netanyahu told haredim that even if there is a holiday lockdown, they will still be able to pray en masse in synagogues.
The decision to avoid closures came after undue political pressure by the haredim on the prime minister. Netanyahu even pushed off the ministerial meetings to bring together Interior Minister Arye Deri (Shas), Housing and Construction Minister Ya’acov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu for an emergency meeting to discuss alternatives to the closures - as several haredi mayors sent a scathing letter to Netanyahu informing him that they would not cooperate with any closures. The letter came only hours after Gamzu arrived Sunday morning to the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee to defend his traffic light program and discuss what it will look like in the “red cities” that were expected to be locked down. That meeting also ended with no resolution, only an agreement to meet Monday at 9 a.m. to resume discussions.
“With pain and restrained rage, we see day after the day how the honor of the great men of the Torah, the life of the Torah... are trampled on by you in an unparalleled way,” the mayors wrote in a direct attack against the prime minister. “We hereby announce that we will stop cooperating with the various authorities regarding the lockdown.”
Two weeks later, as the Israeli government grappled with whether to lift its second national coronavirus lockdown, families frazzled over the shutdown of schools were treated to the jarring sight of ultra-Orthodox children boisterously returning to class. These children — or, more precisely, their parents — were following the edict of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the most prominent ultra-Orthodox voice in Israel, who ordered the talmudei torah to open on the same day that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government decided to keep schools shut. But it drew almost no pushback by Israeli authorities, who have cracked down only halfheartedly at best on the rule-breaking and virus-spreading activities in the ultra-Orthodox community, such as communal study and crowded weddings, that are fueling a massive second wave of coronavirus cases there. What to do about the haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are called in Israel, has now become the greatest test of Netanyahu’s response to the pandemic. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis account for about 11% of the population but more than 50% of the COVID-19 patients ages 65 and older who are filling hospitals, according to the Israeli Health Ministry.
If until now the majority of Israelis went about their business oblivious to the intricacies of Netanyahu’s political maneuvering, the coronavirus crisis made that then impossible. “As long as he accepted 100% of their demands in the domestic arena,” Yohanan Plesner, president of the independent Jerusalem think tank Israel Democracy Institute, said, “Netanyahu understood that ensuring they’re on his side will pretty much guarantee him something like a monopoly over political power.” That has led to increasing social tension that has produced some extraordinary scenes in Israel. National news station Kan Broadcasting posted video of a crowded ultra-Orthodox seaside wedding in Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, where masks and social distancing were in little evidence. Such videos have become daily occurrences, provoking sharp criticism of the police for lax enforcement of the lockdown — and of the ultra-Orthodox for their seeming indifference to public health. One week prior, a survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that only 31% of Israelis trust his handling of the pandemic, and another poll found that 64% believe the second lockdown was based not on science but on politics.
Police remove an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a protest over the coronavirus restrictions in Ashdod, Israel, on Sunday. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
The long-building tensions over pandemic restrictions within Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods finally gave way and erupted in violence on the night of January 24th as rock-throwing crowds pushed back police attempts to clear yeshiva classes and religious gatherings being held in violation of lockdown rules. Violent haredi (ultra-Orthodox) protests took place in several parts of the country that Sunday as police sought to enforce COVID-19 lockdown regulations. The haredi community opposed any/all efforts to shut down educational institutions and synagogues. Rioters burned trash and toppled street signs and light poles in several cities across Israel. In Bnei Brak, a bus driver was pulled from his seat and pepper-sprayed before the vehicle was torched, according to news and social media reports, leading to several buildings being evacuated as the blaze damaged electrical lines. At one point, a cornered police officer fired into the air to halt the advancing crowd. Angry citizens directed much of their frustration at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even as he was declining to step up enforcement in ultra-Orthodox communities fundamental to his right-wing coalition. The police said one of the officers was taken to a hospital after being hit in the head by a stone thrown by a rioter, and another officer felt someone poke him in the back with a blunt object, leading him to fire the warning shot. Outside the hospital, officers were pelted with various objects, police patrol vehicles were damaged, and rubbish bins were burned as hundreds of haredim protested.
In another incident in Bnei Brak, a Channel 13 reporter walking down one of the city’s main thoroughfares was jostled and hounded by a mob of protesters as he was reporting. Police arrested at least five rioters. The Eda Haredit communal association had called for more mass demonstrations that Wednesday night against coronavirus enforcement by the police and government.
Amid the mass demonstrations and rioting there were counterclaims of uneven enforcement of lockdown regulations, in which people sitting alone in parks in Tel Aviv got fined while large Haredi gatherings continued to take place and were largely ignored by authorities, figures released in February 2021 revealed that police were handing out proportionally far more fines in predominantly secular localities than in ultra-Orthodox ones. According to Channel 13 news, there were 110 fines given in Herzliya per 10,000 residents in the month of January, 117 in Bat Yam and 155 in Tel Aviv. All three locations have a mainly secular population and have generally had relatively low rates of infection throughout the pandemic. In contrast, there were just 59 fines handed out per 10,000 residents in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which had struggled with high levels of morbidity for large periods of the pandemic and was classified in early 2021 as a high infection locality.
The Health Ministry’s data, based on averages of new cases over late Jan 2021, showed that 23 percent of new cases were from people who come from areas that are predominantly Haredi, even though just 12% of Israelis belong to the ultra-Orthodox community. A battle of attrition was being fought with big black Hebrew letters on large white posters in Israel's most devout Jewish neighborhoods. Nearly every day this winter, a new pashkevil — Yiddish for street poster — would appear with a dire warning against the COVID-19 vaccine. "The vaccines for corona are suspected of dark conspiracies and grave dangers," one poster said. "Who knows if more than a thousand people who died in the Holy Land, may the All-Merciful protect us, would have stayed alive if they would not have taken the vaccine," lamented another. By June things had shifted into the political realm yet again, as elections had finally ousted Netanyahu, leading supporter of the Haredi. Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, one of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the country, lamented the new government’s plans over changes to religious life, alleging that it seeks to stop people being religious. Edelstein went on to say that ultra-Orthodox community needs to earn merit by assiduously observing the religious commandments and thereby earn divine grace to avert the decrees planned by the government. And the Members of the Knesset, the unicameral legislature of Israel, of the ultra-Orthodox political parties Shas and United Torah Judaism all signed a declaration promising not work with any ultra-Orthodox advisers who work with the new government. Due to the political deadlock from December 2019 until June 2021, when the new government was formed, many ministries have been stuck with whatever old budget levels were left to them as of 2019.
Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
As a result, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel Yitzhak Yosef paskened (issued a religious law ruling) that observant Jews in the Diaspora should not move to Israel if it means living in such non-haredi areas. In other words, it is better for Dati'im to live in galut (the Diaspora) than among Hilonim.
“When I visited the Tunisian Jewish community, I was asked to rule whether or not Djerba’s Jews should immigrate to Israel,” said Yosef. “I told them it depends on where they would live. If they are going to live in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood or next to Kisse Rahamim [a Bnei Brak yeshiva founded in Tunisia], then they should immigrate to Israel. But if they are to live in a place like Herzliya or another one of the secular locations... they should stay where they are.” In late June, Rabbi Yosef went on a rant against general education, arguing that science and math are “nonsense,” and therefore youths should study only in yeshivas that teach Torah subjects exclusively, “Myself, did I learn the core curriculum? Did I finish school? Even today I don’t have a graduation certificate – not a high school diploma and not a graduation certificate. Have I missed anything? No. And look at the position I have risen to! So [secular studies are] nonsense. The most important thing is our holy Torah.”
On the other hand, Hiloni think that Yitzhak Yosef is essentially promoting Haredi dependence on government handouts and charitable donations instead of advancing self-reliance and community dignity through basic education. The failure to give boys in the ultra-Orthodox sector core skills in English, math, science and good citizenship, combined with the high population growth of that community, means that Israel’s 21st-century, high-tech-oriented economy, and its Western democratic values, are in peril. David M. Weinberg, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, believes most of all that the system for choosing Israel’s next chief rabbis, and the criteria for becoming a chief rabbi, must be fortified dramatically, and long before the next vote in 2023. That Religious-Zionist commitment, a Torah worldview that embraces broad education, the dignity of difference and a fruitful problem-solving approach should be mandatory benchmarks. To ensure Israel elects cosmopolitan and reasonable chief rabbis.
TL;DR: Israel just had three elections in a row because of the ultra-fundamentalists who are being accused of spreading COVID endangering the rest of Israel and clogging their health care. Imagine Israel being #110 for Jews!