Haredim in Israel: Lessons from the COVID-19 Disaster

The COVID-19 disaster in Israel should be a stimulus to rethink the entire relationship  of Israeli society and Haredim.

The Haredi population in Israel today numbers 1,170,000 – 13% of Israel’s population. With about 4,000 new cases a day, Israel now has the highest rate of new infections per million of any country in the world.  Estimates vary, but 40% to 80% of new cases are in the Haredi sector. Assuming an average of 60%, this means that 2,400 of the new cases per day are  in the Haredi sector and 1,600 are in all the rest of Israeli society (including the Arab sector) One can assume similar proportions of those who are in serious or critical condition.

This means that COVID-19 is 10 times as serious among Haredim than it is among the rest of the population (.2% of the  Haredi population and .02% of everyone else).

Why is this the case?

Two explanations have been put forward. There are those who argue that large families and small apartments make it impossible to practice  isolation or even social distance.

Others have argued that  large weddings, funerals, and study halls; refusals to wear masks and refusals to be tested are causing the high infection rates in the Haredi world.

Common sense would suggest that both  explanations are correct.

But at some level, it does not matter – the high rate of  infection places an intolerable burden not only on the Haredi community but also on Israeli society in general and on the public health system in particular.

Neither fulminating about “antisemitism” on the one hand or public anger directed at Haredi religious leaders is likely to change anything.

What can be done?

  1. There are rational voices within the Haredi community. The government needs to enlist these voices in the fight against COVID-19. For example, the government could convene mayors, health professional and business leaders from within the Haredi community to draft a plan for combatting COVID-19  in their communities.
  2. The plan should be brought to a forum with national public health and political (Haredi and non-Haredi) leadership  for review and endorsement
  3. The government should fund a public education campaign in Haredi neighborhoods  — including posters (pashkevilim)  and inserts in Haredi newspapers — publicizing the plan, summarizing the facts about COVID-19, and explaining the rationale for the safe practices.
  4. The plan should be reviewed with the police, so that enforcement can be tied to the specifics of the plan.

But at a more fundamental level  COVID-19 should be a wake-up call. No matter how inward looking and insular, the Haredi world does not exist in a vacuum. it is in an intensive and intimate relationship with the broader Israeli society. But the relationship between the Haredi world and the broader Israel society is sick – fueled by mutual disdain, ignorance, and lack of trust. Instead of exercising leadership, fawning politicians competing for votes, pander to the worst instincts of the Haredi world, just making everyone else madder. Case in point: the prime minister goes on television to tell the Haredim  how much he loves them instead of dealing directly and honestly with the appalling situation of COVID-19 in the Haredi community.

Serious progress on healing the Haredi-everyone else schism requires two things: a clear strategy and strong leadership up and down the line.

Haredim are a large minority group with distinctive lifestyle, values, and behaviors.  They look and behave differently from other Israelis. From the inside out, Haredi life has a rationale, logic, and coherence. – stemming from a 100% commitment to their understanding of the will of God. But from the outside looking in, one can see that there are three dimensions to Haredi behaviors:

  • those that do not impinge on Israeli society in any material way
  • those that harm Israeli society
  • those that help the general society

To jump quickly to the 3rd.  Anyone who saw pictures of ZAKA clearing human remains of the carnage after a terrorist bombing or has ever had to manage supportive care with a loved one in a hospital has to have an appreciation for Haredim in Israel.

Another group pf behaviors cause little or no harm to anyone else: modes of dress, hair style,  commitment to gender separation, standards of kashrut, style of prayer, choice of neighborhood, even large families.  Israeli society should support the freedom of choice in these areas, no matter how strange and different these behaviors seem.

But in other areas, the choices made by Haredim harm the rest of us.  Here are some key examples:

  • Public Health. Giving priority to funerals or prayer over public health is not OK. The Haredi  “contribution“ to COVID-19 puts a terrible strain on health professionals in and out of hospitals, and raises the probability that others will become infected, including those who are not Haredi.
  • Public Decency. When Haredim attack a woman carrying a Sefer Torah at the Western Wall, stone cars on Shabbat or assault small children for “immodest” dress, this crosses a boundary. It harms the people directly affected, but it also harms the fabric of society. While a small fraction of Haredim are directly involved in such deplorable behavior, the tolerance of the Haredi world itself for this lack of public decency is not acceptable.
  • Participation in the economy. Too few Haredi men work full time (many grown men spend their days in full-time study). As a consequence, poverty is high in the Haredi community, and as a community they pay less than their fair share of taxes and consume more than their fair share of subsidies.
  • Secular education. The low levels of secular education in the Haredi community represent a clear and present danger to the general society. Israel security depends on maintaining a competitive edge in an increasingly knowledge-driven world. Under-educated children not only face an uncertain economic future; they are a drag on the whole society. An under-educated generation will remain in poverty and continue to under-participate in the economy.
  • Army Service. While there are those who argue that Haredi recruits are not needed, it is unconscionable that Haredim allow others to fight and die to protect them. All of Israel’s wars are wars of survival – all are obligatory, requiring everyone to serve. There are no exemptions.  By not serving, Haredim deepen the schism between Haredim and the rest of Israel society.

A new paradigm of the Haredi-Israeli society relationship would clearly differentiate between behaviors that are benign or positive from those that are harmful. There are two sides to this: Israeli society needs to recognize and even celebrate the contributions of Haredim and to respect  the differences that are benign, no matter how strange they seem to the non-Haredi majority.  The Haredi community needs to accept responsibility for their behaviors that harm Israeli society and make a commitment to change.

But getting from here to there will not be simple. The key is responsible leadership.

Every level of leadership of society inside and outside the Haredi world must accept accountability for this change:

  1. The leadership of the country –the prime minister the president, the leadership of the Knesset, the chief justice of the supreme court — must project a clear and consistent message:  no minority group in the country is permitted to systematically harm the larger society.
  2. The national Haredi political leadership needs to turn around: Instead of facing Israeli society with an outstretched palm seeking more handouts, they should speak the truth to the religious leadership of the community and to their constituents – it is not in the interests of Haredim to continue to harm broader Israeli society.
  3. Change must be accomplished with sensitivity to the unique culture of the Haredi world. Toward  this end, Haredi spiritual and religious leadership should be engaged in developing strategies and programs to implement change.  Many will not agree to participate, and many will continue to deny that the Haredi world is harming Israeli society, But the effort needs to be made.

Here are some examples of what balancing societal needs and Haredi norms might look like:

  • If Haredim want to give priority to religious studies over secular studies that is OK. Cutting out or reducing secular studies to a trivial level is not.
  • Gender separation in higher education is OK, not participating in high education is not.
  • Having future Torah scholars study full-time for years on end is OK. Using public funds to support a large percentage of the Haredi adult male cohort engaged in permanent full-time study is not.
  • Serving in gender-segregated units in the army with Haredi standards of kashrut is OK. Even postponing service for two or three years to continue Torah studies might be OK. Not serving in the army is not OK.

We can draw a lesson from the Passover Haggadah. When the wicked son expresses disdain for the Passover service, the Haggadah does not accuse him of heresy but of removing himself from the  collectivity of the Jewish people.

Haredim do not have the right to  remove themselves from the collectivity of the Jewish people.

Shana Tovah.

About the Author
Jack Ukeles is the president of Ukeles Associates Inc., a planning, policy research, and management firm for Jewish communities and organizations in the US, Israel, and world-wide.
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