Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Corona and the Eternal Ghetto: Ultra-Orthodox Political Culture

The topic here is so fraught with emotion these days, that I need to declare this at the start: the following analysis is absolutely not a justification for, but rather only an explanation of, Haredi behavior during Corona (and in general), whether in Israel or abroad.

* * *

Imagine this: a baby is brought up as a slave; then is freed as a tweenager but has to deal with neighborhood bullies constantly pushing him around, as well as family members constantly telling him that he’s got to “blend in”; later as a teenager his home is burned down (twice!), forcing him to roam around for many years trying to find a safe place to reside in the way that he wishes to conduct his life. As an adult, he does occasionally find some such haven – only to be attacked again every so often, and then having to start the “roam” once more; later in life, some of his siblings decide to disown him completely, whereas others start behaving in a way totally different than what their parents taught; finally, approaching old age, a large part of his extended family is killed by a mass murderer – and the old man once again has to escape to start life anew.

Substitute the word “Jews” for this person and you have the narrative that today’s ultra-Orthodox Haredim tell themselves about their past (distant and near) – not altogether incorrectly. Their narrative has two main themes: the goyim are always out to harm the Jews; many fellow Jews are a big threat to the “true” Jewish way of life. In some Haredi circles, it’s not even clear which of these two threats is perceived as being the greater one.

What did Jews do to survive this horrendous history? Among other things, everything possible to circumvent gentile government restrictions and harsh edicts. Part of this involved a paradox of sorts: the foreign governments would force Jews to live among themselves, at some point even building “ghetto” walls to keep them in place. This led to a harsh, territorially restricted life; but it also enabled Jews to produce “autonomous” institutions of self-help, when governments refused to provide them with any services (other than collecting their taxes). With some variation, this “alternative system” way of communal (kehilla) life continued for 2000 years.

In the modern age (19th century onwards), another threat appeared from a different direction, inside the Jewish world: Reform and Conservative Judaism, as well as rampant assimilation into the secular world. This reinforced the ultra-Orthodox need to keep apart from anything modern, including non-Haredi, Jewish compatriots. Indeed, a new theological “principle” arose: חדש אסור מן התורה (“the Torah forbids novelty”). That not only included novel halakha but scientific wisdom as well – essentially relegating the Haredi world to socio-economic stagnation, if not worse.

Political psychology is hard to change – especially when it’s as deep-seated and long-lasting as it has been for the Jewish Diaspora. This is especially true when, as just described, the perceived threat comes from without and from within. “Without”: non-Jewish government and society; “within”: non-Orthodox Jewish movements. In such a case (again: as perceived by the Haredim), there is only one strategic choice: build your own ghetto walls – literal (municipal, e.g. Bnei Brak, Mea She’arim, Borough Park, New Square NY) and figurative (banning the internet, eliminating core education subjects in school).

Such an approach stems from a deep-seated distrust of almost any non-Haredi authority: political, scientific, social, educational etc. Among other things these days, it explains not only Haredi suspicion regarding external political leaders (e.g. Gov. Cuomo) but also of medical professionals (Dr. Fauci in the U.S. and Prof. Gamzo in Israel). Paradoxically, it can also explain why the one gentile politician the Haredim support is President Trump – the paragon of antiestablishment verbiage and behavior from within the establishment!

Moreover, their distrust is the basis for establishing a “pirate”, at-home, Corona treatment system in Israel for Haredim (https://www.timesofisrael.com/secret-haredi-program-treating-thousands-of-covid-patients-at-home-report/). And of course, it is the underlying source for flouting governmental health regulations and guidelines promulgated to prevent Corona infection (e.g. synagogues open despite official lockdowns; demonstrably burning masks). Indeed, this “political culture” is so ingrained in the Haredi psyche that it even overrides the single most important value in Judaism: pikuach nefesh (preserving human life). Seemingly, indirect “martyrdom” as a result of maintaining cultural and quasi-political autonomy takes preference over saving lives!

The bottom line: the greatest threat to a healthy Jewish future for the ultra-Orthodox is not antisemitism or assimilation; it is the stranglehold of galut (Diaspora) mentality that overwhelms all other forms of accommodation with modernity – even at the price of sacrificing Jewish life on the altar of socio-political and theological separatism.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see: www.ProfSLW.com
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