Sitting at home awaiting the news of yet another extension of Israel’s Third National Lockdown into a now fourth week, I received a request from a friend abroad who was shocked by what he was seeing on the news, as the events in Bnei Brak continue to reverberate a week later. Ultra-Orthodox insurgents burned a bus and beat a bus driver protesting police enforcement of lockdown.
Of course, this is not the only striking reaction. Despite issuing a proclamation to his followers to cease rioting and to not take part in violent demonstrations, the secular TV series “Eretz Nehaderet” (The amazing country), a show dedicated to comedy, put out a skit mocking the Rabbinical Sage Rav Chaim Kanievsky. This happens as anger is rising on both and all sides as many see the unfair treatment of the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). The Haredim view themselves as victims, the secular (Heloni) community view them as privileged and rule-breakers.
However, the picture is far from a straight forward one. The middle class in Israel has shrunk by double digits in the last year, the poverty rate has risen by the largest amount in known memory. Workers that before the pandemic would be kept busy with a never-ending stream of work find themselves locked at home on furlough not knowing when the next day’s pay will arrive. Unlike many Western countries, the amount of stimulus toward individual Israelis and families has been extremely low (I received 750 shekels worth of stimulus in the last year compared to thousands of dollars that my western counterparts have been given).
In the case of the Haredi, large families where 8-10 children are the norm in cramp living conditions make long term lockdown a logistical nightmare. The community structure that normally would raise the children, based on the saying, “it takes a village to raise the child” is taking a major hit due to the restrictions due to the lockdowns. When people see Haredi flout the regulations they should put themselves in their shoes: what would you do if you had eight children and had to be isolated in a two-bedroom apartment? The Haredi use seculars enjoyment of nature as a reason for them to flout the law: “if they can crowd on the beach we can keep schools and synagogues open”. For the Haredi study of the Torah is paramount. G-d will protect who needs to be protected they say as a response. (At the moment the majority of the seriously ill and infected are Haredi)
The last year has shown a breakdown of chessed or kindness that one would normally see in Israeli society. The usual hospitality seen in synagogues and during holidays and Shabbat has become nonexistent. If one is to throw a gathering it has become socially taboo, akin to spreading death. Weddings have become a source of vilification in particular and any normal religious rite that would normally bring joy has been pushed to the margins due to threats of spreading morbidity. People have begun to enjoy nature more, but even here there are limitations. A country that was once known for its “warm” people has become akin to a second Canada where polite courtesy aside, people are accustomed to their privacy and their four walls. To make matters colder still, what once was commonplace in the news, stories of anguish and suffering has all but disappeared as the numbers showcase a growing number of unemployed “forgotten” population. There is no mass mobilization, like during the first lockdown to help the misfortunate. They have become forgotten under the statistics of never-ending disease morbidity and raging political debate over extending lockdown. As of the time of writing Israel has become the top country in the world in terms of the number of days its population has been locked down.
So what is the answer? The Torah teaches us through the sage Hillel the elder that we must love our neighbor like ourselves. We should stop looking for scapegoats and begin to see everyone as suffering together under the hardships of the Corona epidemic. Whether it be the vilification of the Haredi for breaking lockdown rules so they can attend yeshiva or Tel Avivians strolling on the beach promenade we each have a human reason for acting the way we do, all of which is largely forgotten. One day the pandemic will end (G-d willing) but the social scars we are living through will remain.
The biggest tragedy of Corona is not the 4600 dead (which in itself is a tragedy), but the dehumanization of society. We need to stop hating each other and start viewing each other as a collective and with a kindness that once was more second nature. In the regulations, it is possible for us to be exempt from the rules if we come to the aid of someone else. Let us think of how we can help a fellow human being and recognize that person’s humanity. Let us buy food for the hungry, listen to a lonely person, buy a toy for a miserable child who needs something to play with. We are not all virus numbers and statistics but also beings of flesh, blood, and soul.
After the numbers begin to come down we need to strive to come together and start healing as a country. This will only happen once we see each other as equal human beings under G-d.