Josef Avesar

Coronavirus Exposes a Huge Gap Between Orthodox and Secular Jews in Israel

About 20 percent of the Israeli population consists of Orthodox Jews. Most of them vote for orthodox religious parties. Almost all of them follow the leadership of their rabbis. They are not consumers of secular media, they bulk at using the internet or smart phones, they reject traditional science, and they try to live separate lives from the rest of society. Many of them however, use the same public facilities such as transportation, supermarkets, streets and parks that are being used by the secular population. Orthodox families tend to be much larger than secular families. They live in smaller apartments and tend to live in congested neighborhoods. For the most part, Orthodox Jews do not serve in the military, tend to be poorer, and pay much less taxes than Secular Jews. Most of them feel that their mission is to study the Torah and obey God’s orders, particularly in the Jewish State.

Secular Jews however, resent Orthodox Jews and feel that they are free loaders that do not contribute their share to the Israeli society. This tension has grown and became much more pronounced in the last three elections. Especially so since Avigdor Lieberman, representing a large segment of Israeli society, called the Orthodox Jews messianic and delusional. The Orthodox Jews on the other hand, question the Jewishness of many Israelis, particularly new immigrants from Russia, and demanded their conversion to Judaism.

The Coronavirus pandemic occurred right as the animosity between Orthodox and Secular Jews was probably at its peak. Orthodox Jews who pray in groups several times a day were basically told, by their arch nemesis the secular government, that they must stop social gathering such as praying and celebrating major holidays in large groups.  Their chief rabbi issued contrary orders claiming that prayers and celebrating Purim is more important than the orders issues by the government. The Orthodox Jews naturally chose to follow their rabbi instead of the government. When most of Israel observed social distancing, Orthodox Jews continued to pray and celebrate the major holiday of Purim in groups. They continued to move in the streets and supermarkets without using masks or observing social distances. Within days of their infection, the death rate grow much higher amongst the Orthodox Jews than the secular population.

This led to the brinkmanship between Orthodox and Secular Jews and exposed a huge social gap. The Orthodox Jews felt abandoned and ignored. They also grew to resent their own leadership which failed to protect them. They began to question the alliance between them and the Secular Jews, as well as the motivation of their leaders in this alliance.  Many Orthodox Jews feel that living in a secular Jewish state is worse than living in a secular state elsewhere in the world. They feel that a Jewish state creates animosity between them and the government which would not exist in, for example, the U.S. They feel that because the country is in a constant military conflict and because it is run by other Jews, they are more of a target than they would have been in a country that separates church and state. They therefore cannot trust the secular establishment which is in charge of the Israeli government.

The Secular Jews on the other hand feel that Orthodox Jews are not Zionists, that they do not serve in the military, and do not deserve to receive huge benefits from the government which support their religious studies. With the Coronavirus pandemic, they have become even more resentful of Orthodox Jews: seeing them as potential transmitters of the virus who are adding pressure on the general health system and exposing medical personal.


About the Author
Josef Avesar is founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, which advocates for a mutual third government for Israelis and Palestinians. An American-Israeli of Iraqi background, he practices law in the U.S., but travels frequently to Israel and Palestine.
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