At the crossroads: The ultra-Orthodox community and Israeli society

The last two weeks and very likely — the weeks ahead are likely to be one of the most dramatic — and most seminal — periods in the history of the State of Israel. Israel’s rates of COVID-19 infection and mortality are among the highest in the world, and there is a clear and present danger of collapse of the health system’s capacity to provide routine care. The recent imposition of a harsher lockdown is strangling the economy and threatens to inflict financial ruin on hundreds of thousands of Israeli households. After six months of the pandemic in Israel and around the world, it is clear both to our country’s leaders and to its citizens that the only way to curb the impact of the virus, in both health and economic terms, is by strict compliance with lockdown regulations, and, by adhering to the rules on social distancing that significantly reduce infection.

Israel has been a bright “red” country (in terms of its COVID-19 infection rates) for some time, but within its boundaries, one community stands out for its high rate of transmission of the virus: the ultra-Orthodox community. The large ultra-Orthodox cities have been classified as “red” for weeks now, as have been cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations. The percentage of the ultra-Orthodox among all those infected, is a staggering 40%, some three times higher than the community’s relative size in the overall population of Israel. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis also constitute a large share of the country’s critically ill COVID-19 patients, and ultra-Orthodox mortality from the virus is also rising, having been kept relatively low only due to the fact that the ultra-Orthodox population is very young (with a median age of just 16).

The reports and videos of the behavior of large and significant ultra-Orthodox sub-communities (and it should be noted that not all ultra-Orthodox Israelis belong to these groups) have engendered frustration and rage, but also a lack of understanding. Though it has been clear for weeks that infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox population are very high, many of its members marked the High Holidays just as they would every year. Despite there being an almost full lockdown in place on Rosh Hashanah, and despite the full lockdown imposed for Yom Kippur, ultra-Orthodox yeshivot continued their studies and prayers with only partial observance of the “capsule” strategy that was agreed upon; the large Hasidic sects and other communities held mass prayers as usual, with thousands of people crammed into a single hall, many of them without masks; and similar scenes could be seen in many synagogues as well. In the coming week, we can also expect mass celebrations of Simchat Beit Hasho’eva (special celebration during the Intermediate days of Sukkot), in which at least some of the many participants will refuse to abide by government restrictions.

True, at the same time, there have also been mass demonstrations against the prime minister, crowds of secular Israelis on the beaches, and Arab Israelis celebrating large weddings, in violation of the restrictions. But there is a significant difference between these groups. While these other violations have been limited in size, and are mainly a result of the individual decisions of the participants, the violations in major ultra-Orthodox communities have been organized and at the behest of the communities’ leaders, who in some cases have called on their followers to disobey government restrictions and the rule of law. The behavior of these ultra-Orthodox communities, beyond being extremely harmful to the general population of Israelis, is also extremely surprising. Don’t the Hasidic rabbis of the Belz, Vizhnitz, and Gur sects, or the leaders of the Jerusalem Faction and other rabbis, care about the lives of their followers? Do they not understand that Israel as a whole will not be able to emerge out of the lockdown and the crisis if they refuse to carry their share of the public health burden and abide by the restrictions?

Ultra-Orthodox society in Israel numbers some 1.1 million people. It is extremely diverse, with significant differences among its three main streams — Lithuanian, Hasidic, and Sephardi — and among the various communities that make up these streams. A small percentage of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are well integrated into the Israeli mainstream, and hold a dual identity — Israeli and ultra-Orthodox. Another segment of the community identifies with the State of Israel and its problems, and presumably takes no part in the criminal activities described above. But the majority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis — around 60%– the conservative ultra-Orthodox core — self-identify exclusively as ultra-Orthodox, considering their Israeliness to be secondary to, or even a threat to, their ultra-Orthodox identity. Ultra-Orthodox behavior during the pandemic can only be understood in the context of the way in which many ultra-Orthodox Israelis view life in the State of Israel in routine times.

While most Israelis live in Israel by choice and their primary identity is Israeli, for many ultra-Orthodox citizens, the fact that they live in the State of Israel is by chance or the result of circumstances. Their relationship with the state is utilitarian. Some members of the founding generation of ultra-Orthodox society came to the country following the Holocaust and were driven by a strong desire to live in the Land of Israel, but for many members of the current generation of ultra-Orthodox leaders, living in Israel is a matter of convenience and inertia. They view a Jewish, Zionist State of Israel in instrumental terms, as a resource that should first and foremost serve what they believe to be most important: preserving the ultra-Orthodox way of life. From their perspective, if conditions were to change and their way of life was threatened, they would relocate their communities to any other country that suits their lifestyle, or would join their ultra-Orthodox brethren in the United States, and would continue to maintain their way of life, albeit in a different language. They have no interest in compromising on the values in which they believe, in order to shoulder their share of the public burden in Israel and ensure the state’s continued existence. Their commitment to tradition and values is absolute, and they utterly reject anything that might undermine these values, lead any members of the community to abandon it, or erode the walls they have built. This is true not only in economic and social terms, but even when it comes to human life. For these leaders, ultra-Orthodoxy is a sacred way of life, one which sometimes demands making the ultimate sacrifice in order to safeguard it.

These truths apply during the pandemic, just as they do in normal times. The rabbinical leaders leading their followers to mass infection, which means death for some, are not fools. Neither are they suicidal. Rather, in their eyes, they are making a rational decision, rooted in values. In the hierarchy of values according to which they lead their communities, allegiance to the ultra-Orthodox way of life ranks at the top. Torah study in yeshivot and batei midrash, uninterrupted studies for children in ultra-Orthodox schools, High Holiday prayers in the court of the rabbi or in synagogues, Hasidic gatherings, mass celebrations on Sukkot, and so on are the very essence and rationale for existence. Without them, there is no life. For these leaders, the fact that some followers will pay with their lives is a sacrifice worth making, as is the price that will be paid by all citizens of Israel. Their immediate responsibility, like that of the members of their communities, is to maintain tradition, and to reduce the risk of its abandonment. They consider themselves to hold little responsibility toward anyone outside their immediate community, let alone toward Israel’s citizens as a whole.

In the face of this grave behavior by many members of the ultra-Orthodox community, the state’s leaders and the law enforcement authorities have idly stood by, as usual. Instead of enforcing the law against the Vizhnitz rabbi, who led mass Yom Kippur prayers with thousands of worshipers (which is likely to have been a “super-spreader” event), the rabbi received a phone call from the Prime Minister, in which he is reported to have explained to Netanyahu that he considers the health risks to be less significant that the spiritual risks to his Hasidic followers. Despite the fact that these mass infractions were committed in an organized and brazen fashion, many synagogues did not close down on Yom Kippur, and the police made a show of a few arrests of members of the Jerusalem Faction, more as lip service than as an expression of effective enforcement.

Even in the best of times, the relationship between Israeli society and the ultra-Orthodox community is fraught with tension. As this community continues to grow and amasses more and more political power, it is clear to many Israelis (and certainly to those familiar with the demographic and economic data), that if the current trends of dramatic growth continue, while — at the same time — the willingness of the ultra-Orthodox to help shoulder the burdens of Israeli society remains low, the state might collapse under the strain. The pandemic has brought these issues into sharp focus, and illustrated the value-based decision-making of large portions of the ultra-Orthodox community. It has also demonstrated that, given that the lives of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews are inextricably intertwined with those of its other citizens, it is no longer possible to maintain an autonomous ultra-Orthodox “state within a state,” sequestered behind the high walls it has erected.

Today, the burden of safeguarding public health must be shared equally. Once the pandemic is behind us, the burden of Israel’s economic, social, and security affairs must also be shared equally. If not, it will be impossible for us to lead normal lives here in Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Shuki Friedman is director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer in law at the Peres Academic Center.
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