The Haredi COVID Riot in Context

Many are still reeling from the violence against enforcement of the COVID restrictions in the Haredi sector earlier this week. The problem is serious, but the COVID rioting is a symptom, not the malady itself. At its core, we are experiencing the ricochet effect from decades of mistaken government policy regarding how to negotiate matters with the Haredi parties and the communities they represent.

When the state was founded, and Haredi Judaism was a minuscule percentage of the Jewish population, David Ben-Gurion allowed 400 young men to remain as full-time yeshiva students instead of joining the army. The idea was to preserve this unique flavor of Judaism.

The terms of the deal and the numbers shifted over time, but when we fast forward to contemporary society, we are presented with a community with over a million members, whose young men still, by and large, take the deferment. Putting aside the lack of fairness—other communities do not get this option for their sons (or daughters)—there is a “catch” unfamiliar to many with little connection to the community, but it is directly related to the current crisis.

To receive a deferment, the man must declare that “my Torah is my trade” and that, therefore, he cannot take the time to serve in the army. It also means he cannot legally take a job, but must stay in the yeshiva all day and live on a student stipend. If he wishes to permanently avoid the draft, this means he must remain a student until he is around 40, after which he is no longer eligible to be drafted.

How does a person live on a student stipend until he is 40? Not very well. If he is married and his wife has a job, that can help, though it is unlikely she will have a job that commands a high salary given the limited opportunity for general education and training. Some men may also work off the books to supplement their stipends, usually menial jobs for cash. It is not an easy life, especially since most couples will not use birth control and will be supporting a gaggle of children.

Another, less obvious problem with this lifestyle is that learning in a yeshiva is an intellectual endeavor that is fulfilling to some and tedious for others. Moreover, if every man in the community does the same thing, only a small percentage will excel and feel a sense of accomplishment, the rest will be mediocre or struggling. Many will simply never realize their potential since their talents lie in venues they will never have the opportunity to explore.

About twenty years ago, I worked in the Haredi sector as a high school Talmud teacher. The school was unique since we were one of the very few Haredi schools that offered a bagrut. I taught seniors, and we had many discussions about what the boys should do in the upcoming year. The standard desire of the parents was that the boys enter “yeshivot qedoshot” as they called them, i.e., Haredi yeshivahs that offered the draft deferral.

I remember a parent teacher meeting about a student who was struggling in school, in which his parents were pushing this idea to me. I said to them that their son was a charismatic leader among his peers—especially in sports as he was very athletic. He wasn’t happy in school because he didn’t really connect to Talmud study, whether in class or in the beit-midrash, which took up most of the day, nor was a doing especially well in his bagrut subjects.

I said that if he served in the army, he could then either try college, or if he didn’t want to do that, he could go into sales (which he would excel at) or other work of his choosing. If he selected the 20+ years of yeshiva required of the deferment option, however, he may very well continue to feel inadequate. In the end, he/they chose the yeshivah route. I did not keep in touch and I can only hope that, in this case, I was wrong.

Israel and its Haredi community are in a lose-lose situation right now. The financial support of the yeshivah-deferment system drains the resources of the government and those who work hard to support it, while at the same time, it is creating not a spiritual and intellectual paradise, but a place where many live dissatisfied lives on tiny stipends. And here is where we get to the COVID riots.

To perpetuate this system, many Haredi leaders have, over the years, built up an us-them narrative according to which secular Israel is not going out of their way to support the Haredim but actually conspiring to strip them of their way of life. Part of perpetuating this narrative is blocking general studies from their schools, which leads to a suspicion of secular knowledge and science in general. As Ephraim Portney explained in his recent blog post, it is this suspicion that we are seeing in the reaction to COVID-19 as fake or a conspiracy of sorts, and to police enforcement as an attack on the Haredi community that must be met in kind.

In Yair Lapid’s 2012 talk at Kiryat-Ono’s Haredi college, he argued that given the amazing success of the Haredi community, growing from a tiny minority to something like 12 percent of Israel’s population, it can no longer live the way it once did. A large and stable population has duties to the society in which it lives just like every other community. (In Hebrew, this is called shivyon ha-netel, “equality of burden.”)

I agree, but I suggest a corollary: Our society has duties to the Haredi population as well. In my view, Israel’s Haredi community has dug itself into a hole out of which they cannot climb, and their leadership is caught in the inertia of the current trajectory.  Restructuring the terms of the relationship to include general education in their school systems and a legal path to holding down decent paying jobs must be a top priority if both groups hope to ever see the light at the end of this tunnel.

About the Author
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is the senior editor of TheTorah.com and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute's Kogod Center.
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