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Good fences

Since we can't dissuade the ultra-Orthodox from their harmful actions, we must physically separate ourselves from them
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Pittsburgh Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral of Pittsburgh Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)

What should Israel’s response be to its Haredi communities’ wanton disregard of the coronavirus quarantine guidelines?

I know that by merely raising the question, I risk being accused of a form of anti-Semitism, unfairly singling out the liberal Jews’ favorite target. Critics may argue that the Haredim are not a monolithic group. Every community has its outliers. What about the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators, and so on?

All of the above counterarguments are true. The Sephardi-Haredi leadership unequivocally supports stringent quarantine as a religious obligation. Many within the Ashkenazi-Haredi community do the same. Many in Israel, including our ministers and leaders, are small-time quarantine busters. We all are.

It is also true that the anti-Netanyahu demonstrators are breaking social distancing regulations. I, for one, do not believe that Israel’s democracy will be threatened if demonstrations are limited to 20 people in thousands of sites around Israel, until which time the number of newly infected drops below 2,000 per day.

The simple fact remains, however, that 40 percent of new infections every day come from within the Haredi community, and there is no evidence of increased infection among the political Left. By contrast, the percentage of Haredim who are tested and come out positive is close to 25%, three times higher than every other sector in Israeli society, including Arab Israelis, who in August also led the anti-quarantine charge. Today the Haredi community leads both in numbers of critically ill and deaths, far in excess of its proportional size. These statistics require an accounting and a coherent public response.

As a liberal Jew, I have always been against the idea of the social melting pot. In the Diaspora, this theory constituted an existential threat to Jewish survival. As Horace Kallen rightfully argued, the uniqueness of America and the reason it was so hospitable to Jews was that it was a nation of nationalities.

I always bristle when Jews around the world are accused of dual loyalty, as if loyalty to the Jewish people and Israel cannot coexist with loyalty to one’s nation. We are all members of multiple communities and by definition have multiple loyalties. The challenge, as Louis Brandeis posited, is not the duality of loyalties, but conflicting loyalties.

To reject the Haredi right to be different is to violate the most fundamental principles of liberalism, pluralism, and democracy. Israeli society is a nation of communities and the Jewish people a community of communities. As such, difference does not undermine our social cohesion; rather, attempts to delegitimize difference is what frays our collective fabric. Our commitments to ideological and political tolerance are always challenged by those with whom we most significantly disagree. And, as Aharon Barak argued, we are challenged most by those who do not tolerate us, but who we are still, nevertheless, obligated to tolerate.

The dilemma we face today is not the right of the Haredi community to be different. At issue is not their commitment to Torah and communal prayer, or devotion to the holiness of the holidays of Tishrei, or to honoring their rebbes (alive or departed). Multiple loyalties are not the problem. Conflicting loyalties are, especially when the consequences are not limited to the Haredi community alone.

It is one thing when most of the Haredi community refuses to participate in the defense of the State of Israel. They truly believe that sending their youth to the army instead of yeshivah will lead to mass secularization. Many also believe that it is Torah study that sustains Israel’s survival.

The current quarantine violations, however, are not religiously and ideologically motivated. The halakhic obligation of pikuach nefesh (preserving life) is uncontestable and paramount. The violations are the product of their sense of self-alienation and disregard for any secular authority. While this may be tolerable in normal times, it is no longer so when the consequences are deadly — not merely to themselves, but to the rest of Israeli society.

Every night, as I watch an accounting of the clashes between the police and members of the Haredi community, I realize the futility of attempting to coerce collective loyalty. They are not concerned about the consequences of their actions upon others; and, as a result, those “others” will fail to educate them and certainly not through policing. The cohesion of a community of communities is dependent on each community seeing itself also as a member of a larger whole to which it is responsible.

Over the last few decades we have witnessed a process of seeming Haredi “Zionification.” While they are clearly a distinct community with particular interests and needs, they have become an integral part of the tapestry of Israeli society. Their political leaders hold national positions and responsibilities, and are often, especially during the coronavirus crisis, the adults in the room, challenging partisan politicians to act for the wellbeing of Israeli society as a whole.

The recent behavior of parts of the Ashkenazi-Haredi community, however, raises serious doubts as to the depth of this Zionification. As my colleague and friend Yossi Klein Halevi framed it, many Haredim place the interests of their community over those of peoplehood. Israel, as the homeland of the Jewish people, will always be second to them.

As a Jew for whom peoplehood is the foundation of my religious identity, and as a Zionist for whom Israel is the homeland of all diverse Jewish communities, to turn my back on the Haredi community is to violate my deepest Jewish and Zionist commitments. But what am I to do when it is clear that many of them have turned their back on me?

Some advocate for sanctions, principally economic. Cut funding to yeshivot and child subsidies from those communities violating the quarantine. Cut the political influence of those whose loyalty to their community is in conflict with the wellbeing of the country.

Such policies will lead us nowhere. They will only deepen our communal divides and entrench our partisan loyalties. Change will only take root when the Haredi community is committed to fully embracing the gift of Israel as a nation of communities and their role in supporting it.

My commitment to my community and to the State of Israel as a whole does not, however, allow me to passively await this transformation. Other communities are literally being infected. The economy as a whole is being weakened. Israel is being colored red instead of green.

If parts of the Haredi society do not see themselves as part of a larger whole, then I believe we must quarantine ourselves from each other. If some sectors of the Haredi community want to attempt the Swedish model of herd immunity, neither I nor the police can dissuade them. If others want to disregard science and believe that God will immunize them when honoring a departed rebbe or praying in a minyan, no one will convince them otherwise.

We can, however, physically separate ourselves. Instead of policing social distancing within the Haredi society, at this time we must police social distancing from Haredi society.

Robert Frost famously wrote that “good fences make good neighbors.”  We need to recognize the fences that Haredim have erected and embrace them out of our commitment to pikuach nefesh. If many Haredi Jews are not concerned with my wellbeing, their physical mobility outside of their community must be limited. Besides access to life-saving services, we need to be quarantined from each other in a way that limits day-to-day interaction.

If such a suggestion were put forth anywhere else in the world, its proponent would be accused of anti-Semitism, of attempting to reestablish the Jewish ghetto. The fact is, however, that through their behavior these last months, the Haredi community has given evidence to the fact that they are still functioning within a ghetto mentality. They want the best of both worlds: to be separate and autonomous when they want and to be free to interact solely on their terms.

It must now be in the hands of the Haredi community to decide its interests. Until that time, I want my community to sit safely behind its fence. I await openings within this fence, but it is not in my hands.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and author of Putting God Second: How to Save Religion from Itself. Donniel is the founder of some of the most extensive education, training and enrichment programs for scholars, educators, rabbis, and religious and lay leaders in Israel and North America. He is a prominent essayist, blogger and lecturer on issues of Israeli politics, policy, Judaism, and the Jewish community. He has a Ph.D. in Jewish philosophy from Hebrew University, an M.A in political philosophy from New York University, an M.A. in religion from Temple University, and Rabbinic ordination from the Shalom Hartman Institute.
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