No ifs, no buts, no ultra-Orthodox parties in government

Ultra-Orthodox crowd at a wedding in Beitar Illit in November (Photo: Itamar Kirshenbaum)

Ahead of elections, the only way to save Israel from further division, injustice and ultimate suicide is if Israelis make it clear they will not tolerate ultra-Orthodox parties in government.

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been intense focus on the relentless violations of Israel’s coronavirus regulations as well as violent anti-law enforcement protests within ultra-Orthodox communities. We’ve also seen open appeals to senior figures in these communities to curb such activity come to no avail as they continued to encourage noncompliance.

It is true that the distinctive appearance of the ultra-Orthodox as a social group renders their transgressions more noticeable than those of their fellow citizens, making them a convenient scapegoat for those keen to point fingers during these difficult times. It is also true that the large families and cramped living conditions which often characterise these communities contribute to higher transmission rates. And, yes, the protestors who violently hijacked and set alight buses do not by any means represent the ultra-Orthodox as a whole.

However, we must not allow these caveats to detract from the fact that a great many in these communities are at fault for egregious noncompliance with government rules. And we must also accept that this is not simply a matter of a few bad apples. The violations are frequent, widespread and committed in large numbers.

Despite the fact that the ultra-Orthodox make up just 12% of Israel’s population, half of Israel’s hospitalised Covid-19 patients during the first lockdown were ultra-Orthodox, an avoidable additional strain on the health service that caused more deaths and distress. The pattern remained the same on multiple different criteria over the second and third lockdowns; recent statistics show one in four new cases to be among the ultra-Orthodox.

Israelis who are not ultra-Orthodox, while increasingly lamenting the injustice of the situation, are yet to voice a loud and coherent plan to affect reform. While the anger ebbs and flows with each major reported incident, it does not translate into a consistently held public stance. The time has come for this to change.

The problem is already well-established; from yeshivot opening illegally to mass weddings and funerals, flagrant violations were and are in abundance. In tandem with these scandals, the ineffective response by the government and law-enforcement officials has been exposed. Contrary to ultra-Orthodox protestations, it was revealed that ultra-Orthodox cities have the lowest proportion of fines for non-compliance with coronavirus regulations. Tel Aviv saw 1.51 fines handed out per resident infected with COVID-19, while its ultra-Orthodox suburb, Bnei Brak, recorded a rate of just 0.14; Beitar Ilit had a score of 0.19, Elad 0.18 and Modiin Ilit 0.08 by the same metric. So huge and prominent are many of the violations in these communities, there is no doubt that officials are often turning a blind eye. In October, a transcript of a telephone exchange shows the police chief of ultra-Orthodox Modiin Ilit hinting that he would overlook infringements. The rot runs deep.

What’s more, the rot starts at the top. Meeting on the rooftop of the townhall as Bnei Brak burned below during the anti-enforcement protests, top ultra-Orthodox leaders placed the blame for the situation squarely on the police. Among those in attendance were the two most senior politicians on the UTJ party list, Housing Minister (and during the first months of the pandemic, Health Minster) Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni. While they condemned the riots, they simultaneously called on the police to evacuate. In other words, senior officials called for the cessation of enforcing their own government’s directives. Likewise, the Prime Minister has been roundly blamed for kowtowing to his coalition partners and the ultra-Orthodox communities’ leadership whose political support he so desperately needs.

These are all horrific symptoms of a disease; one that has been diagnosed from well before the pandemic, and, unless we act decisively, will continue to do so long after as well. If untreated, it may prove fateful for the Zionist project.

The disease is the virtual autonomy of the ultra-Orthodox, gifted to them by governments who repeatedly bend to the will of their representatives’ demands. The ultra-Orthodox have secured rights, privileges and political power that no other social group in Israel comes even remotely close to enjoying and which fly in the face of national interests, not to mention the interests of many in their own communities who are educationally malnourished and ill-equipped to climb out of poverty.

The result is a community that is detached from the rest of society and remote from the authority of the state. Their information is sourced from their rabbis to whom their loyalty lies, as opposed to state officials whom they mistrust. The vast majority enjoy exemptions from national service. Their yeshivot are state-funded. A lifestyle of unemployment, full-time learning and large families is paid for by the Israeli taxpayer. They don’t share the burden of carrying the state but enjoy reaping the benefits. To say they have their cake and eat it doesn’t even cut it. (This is not to deny the fact that many do work, a small minority serve in the military and that impressive intra-communal support structures reduce dependency on the state.)

It is now during the pandemic that the disease is laid bare: an absence of social solidarity with fellow citizens whose businesses have been destroyed and hospital beds are taken up by reckless noncompliance; mistrust of state authority and sources of reliable medical information; interpreting public hostility to rule-breakers as anti-religious discrimination; and being accustomed to their own autonomy and a free pass on legislation that affects the rest of Israeli society. We are reaping the seeds successive governments have sowed for decades.  

So, what can be done? What should our coherent agenda be?

First, we must draw a clear red line. As of last month, 61% of Israelis said they would prefer the next coalition government to exclude the ultra-Orthodox parties. In order to translate this preference into reality, these respondents need to decide that this is a top-priority issue and express it as such. Just as political contenders’ success, and indeed survival, has relied on guarantees not to sit with Binyamin Netanyahu or the Arab parties, it’s time for the ultra-Orthodox to be centre stage. Over the next month, the UTJ and Shas must be turned into political pariahs. Other parties should not only be afraid of going anywhere near them; they should be falling over each other in rushing to condemn them and explicitly issue guarantees affirming that they will not partner with them in government.

We must make this central to the election campaign by voicing our opinions through all available means: sharing articles, calling into radio stations, taking part in protests, commenting on social media platforms, and writing to political parties. If you’re a member of a party, put it on the agenda of discussion. Demand assurances that your party will not sit with Shas or the UTJ.

Next, we must demand answers on a policy. How will they ensure these communities abide by Health Ministry directives, and to the laws of the land in general? How do they propose to reform legislation which grants sweeping exemptions from national service? How will they ensure ultra-Orthodox education curricula include core studies? What do they intend to do to promote integration into the workplace and encourage financial self-sufficiency? Will they cease government funding for yeshivot, encouraging communities to pay for their own studies?

Ultra-Orthodox demographic growth is a ticking time bomb in which the communities’ numbers double every 16 years. By the year 2064, the ultra-Orthodox are projected to make up one-third of Israeli society. The status quo is neither economically nor socially sustainable. The threat is existential.

Finally, we must demand culpability, get heads rolling through public inquiries. How could it be that a city’s chief of police could admit to turning a blind eye to illegal activity? How could it be that mass funerals and weddings have time and again been allowed to go ahead? And what about government officials who breached regulations? This latter point is by no means exclusive to the ultra-Orthodox, with the Likud being the most egregious player in this regard, but it merits recalling that then Health Minister, UTJ’s Yaakov Litzman, caught the virus by allegedly attending an illegal prayer quorum.

Our message to political parties should read as follows:

  1. The widespread non-compliance among the ultra-Orthodox which has been consistently ill-enforced by officials and tolerated in government is a grave national scandal and political failure. This failure has cost lives and livelihoods as we impose restrictions to which many in one segment of the population consistently fail to adhere. This cannot continue, nor should it be repeated. Those who were complicit in this must pay a heavy political price.
  2. This is part of an intolerable trend that predates the pandemic in which one law applies to the ultra-Orthodox and another applies to everyone else. We must ensure their schools abide by the same educational standards, that their young members commit to some form of national service, that their students pay for education, that their families are sufficiently supported by employment slips, that their members pay taxes for state-funded provisions, and that our democratically elected government is the voice of authority.
  3. Simmering public anger at this double standard has reached a boiling point which is tearing Israel and the Jewish people apart. The unity of Israel is at stake. If the anger isn’t channeled through democratic mechanisms which can enact reasonable policy reforms, it is bound to explode in other means. Without controlling the floodgates, the force may be too powerful to control, leaving violent destruction in its wake.

This dreadful pandemic which has robbed families of loved ones and livelihoods has a silver lining. It has brought to the fore the price the country pays for ultra-Orthodox autonomy. Let us not squander the opportunity to consign Shas and the UTJ to the opposition and set about instigating the reforms we most desperately need if we want our beloved country to be united, governed fairly and, above all, survive.

Now, before it’s too late.

About the Author
Yoel Collick is a writer and researcher of Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs based in Jerusalem. He has a degree in History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge and served in the International Cooperation Division of the Israel Defense Forces.
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