One of the most talked about subjects of the COVID-19 crisis in Israel has been the response of the Haredi community. Thus far, it’s been largely about how they came into the crisis and how the role of the rabbis and the government influenced their response. Everybody has had something to say about this. Mostly, it has been of a critical nature and on occasion overly generalized and offensive. It’s now time to start to talk about the exit, or more properly stated the transition to the next stage of the crisis with parts of the economy and education system potentially reopening under the threat of new outbreaks of the virus. Can the Haredi community and leadership along with our national leadership, create a successful outcome, both in terms of public health, and the image of the embattled community.
The core priority should be an orderly and smooth resumption of education and other systems. If, in the face a remaining closure order on congregated prayer or the opening of schools, parts of the Haredi community make unilateral decisions, there will be increased tension. If on the other hand, there is the possibility of a coordinated response combining Haredi and general leadership, then we may see the opening of a more positive chapter in the often strained relations between the growing minority Haredi sector and the rest of Israeli society. There are a lot of moving parts, and as such, serious combined and mature leadership is required. This must not be seen as a battle between Haredim and Israeli society, but a joint effort to stave off an enemy that could not care less if you are Haredi or otherwise, and worse still, each action by one individual or community has a potential major impact on the neighboring community or city.
In order to consider how to move forward we should take a step back, not too far, only as far as Purim a five short weeks ago.
- The rabbis responded slowly to the crisis and in particular, the most senior Litvak Haredi leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievksi delayed the closing of yeshivot (for all ages) immediately after Purim, when all other educational institutions were closing around the country. This generated criticism from outside the Haredi community and even within.
- In addition, there was criticism of government from the Haredi community that they did act soon enough to promulgate the critical messages about the risk to public health by not abiding by the health ministry restrictions.
- There have been complaints about how municipal leaders have been overwhelmed by the leadership and operational needs of their residents at their greatest time of needs. Bnei Brak has been a particular focus of this with open criticism of the Mayor from within the Haredi media. Just this on its own marks out this crisis as far out of the ordinary.
- There have been fingers pointed at marginal Haredi groups (the so-called Peleg and parts of the Eida Haredit), who enjoyed withering criticism from other parts of the Haredi community for ignoring the Health Ministry restrictions. Perhaps even scapegoating them to deflect criticism from the mainstream leadership.
- The secular media itself is also a target of criticism of the Haredi community and leadership for singling out the Haredi community as the main group within society that did not comply with the restrictions. And whilst most of the media reacted in a reasonable fashion, there are always those happy to make sweeping generalizations, even to the point of dramatically predicting that too many ventilators will be taken up by the Haredi population because of their derelict behavior. One news cycle was dominated by statistics that turned out to be rather misrepresented that 38% of the Haredim in Bnei Brak tested showed positive results for the virus. This did nothing to help.
- Haredi leaders and journalists have also pointed out that Haredim are by no means the only groups to flaunt the restrictions. This may well became an alibi for early opening of yeshivot etc.
- The Health Minister, himself a senior Haredi political leader, has come under significant scrutiny from inside and outside the Haredi community. On the one hand for pushing to keep shuls open, when the public health officials were recommending they be closed, and having agreed to close the shuls there were reports (fiercely denied) that the Minister had been praying with a minyan in direct contravention of the rules his own ministry had applied to the rest of the country. On the other hand, he and other Haredi politicians have come under fire from within for not avoiding the perceived singling out of Haredi cities and neighbourhoods for stricter closures.
In the meantime, the IDF has been welcomed on the streets of Bnei Brak with a perhaps surprising romance developing between the residents and the soldiers, deployed on active duty in this battle for public health. There has been a determined effort at the ground level to build relationships between the IDF Home Front Command, and the local Haredi leadership. The fact that the epicenter of the breakout has been Bnei Brak has had the small positive that it has thrown the army and the main Haredi population centre together. This may lead to an eye-level communication at the field level between commanders in the field and local leaders (heads of schools, yeshivot and communities) away from the media allowing what is critical – a practical and pragmatic approach. After initial concerns, I have been told from both sides that this has been more than a successful event (at least thus far). This is a social asset that should be not be squandered.
The majority of the Haredi Israelis are now adhering to the restrictions, notwithstanding the objective difficulties parts of that community face (large families and often very small apartments). However, it is easy to underestimate the change that regular Haredim are going through and how much of a pressure cooker this is creating at the grass roots level. The centrality of community life and three-times-a-day prayers in shul are the lifeblood for Haredi Jews, and hence giving up on that completely has been a major hurdle.
We are now over a month after Purim and weeks into the severe social-distancing restrictions across the country and total lockdown in Bnei Brak of nearly 2 weeks. The public discourse has started to move from how many new cases or deaths to what will be the country’s exit strategy and return to some sort of normality. This of course includes a return to work, and the re-opening of schools, universities, and of course shuls.
As with most countries still in lockdown there is no clear consensus on what the exact strategy and timing of the exit from the restrictions should be, but there does seem to be a consensus that it will have to be both gradual and also partial. The plain meaning of this is that there will be no full return to routine in the immediate future, or indeed until there will be a vaccine or cure. This presents huge policy challenges for governments around the world. Balancing the damage to the economy cause by a continued lock-down and a slow return to routine, and other the hand the constant risk of a new outbreak with potentially fatal consequences, not to mention the systemic risk to the national health systems of many countries. All this with the continued requirement and demand on all Israelis to maintain a relatively high level of discipline in protecting themselves and as a result, others from the virus.
The first signs of weakening resolve of the general population to keep with the strict restrictions are creeping in. This is a natural process and needs itself to be managed. Success will not only depend on a good strategy, but that the leadership carries the people with the confidence that it is balanced and fair. The country as a whole needs a well-managed and well communicated process for the general population, and just waiting for the health parameters to improve itself is not a sufficient strategy.
Within all this uncertainty we have the dilemma of the Haredi community, or more properly the Haredi communities. Is there any way of ensuring that the way the Haredi communities adopted the restrictions can be improved when the restrictions are to be lifted? Or to be more practical what are the key dynamics at play and what steps could be taken?
The points of stress for the Haredi community will be in two areas (over and above the same as all people in wanting to get back to normal life and the extra severe economic burden the crisis has placed on thousands of Haredi households).
One will be the religious routine of praying together as a community, which means a return to open shuls or at least an easing for the restriction on any type of quorum (minyan of ten men). A trial period with limited services might be a way to ease back into community routine. The second will be the pressure to reopen the yeshivot and chederim (elementary, high school and post high school ages). This second demand has more than just the regular pressure to get the kids back into a routine, but also the paramount Haredi requirement to be dedicated to Torah learning. (One of the very reasons that the Haredi schools and yeshivot were slow to close in the first place.) The next term for the yeshivot commences on the 1st Iyar (26th April), only 9 days away.
While there are parts of the Haredi community leadership that completely understand the disaster of re-opening early and against the directions of the Health Ministry, the question remains whether those voices will hold the sway. Can they drive a collective decision, say of the respective Councils of Torah Sages (there are three: Litvak, Hasidic and Sefardi). This means preparing the groundwork today within the corridors of the Great Rabbinic houses to drive that process in time. And whilst there is a notional separation of power and influence between the Litvak and Hasidic communities they can reinforce one another’s decisions and in rare and extreme circumstances make joint and public decisions. Many will believe that we are indeed in such extreme circumstances. This will require a huge internal political effort, but on the other hand will ease the exposure any single Rabbi might have by taking a minority position to keep yeshivot closed.
At the more practical level the Health Ministry and other government ministries should be reaching out to their grass roots counterparties within the community to find as many points of agreement and cooperation as possible. And since the media (both general and Haredi) play a significant role in driving the narrative, this must form a key part of the strategy.
One testimony of the internal pressure to reopen places of worship is the very unusual step that a group of Haredi lawyers have taken. With the backing of major Haredi Rabbis, they have sued in the Supreme Court for the court to order the lifting of the ban on synagogues. The main thrust of the claim that for the Haredi community praying together as a community is no less critical than shopping at a supermarket which continues to be allowed and in numbers greater than required for a prayer quorum. This does not show a pressure to keep things closed, just the opposite, and should be a red light within and outside the community for the decisions needed over the next two weeks. In addition, any Haredim and other leaders should be concerned about reports of continuing pirate shuls, even including some of the leading Haredi rabbis, and this before there is any relief from the restrictions. This too should be a warning signal for everyone interested in a positive outcome.
Obviously, the ideal result would be that this should be done in tandem, the general education system along with the Haredi education system with a gradual return to fully open. In the event that it is not, there will be no winners and only losers. COVID-19 has no feelings and doesn’t care about social tensions or who it affects. “Outsmarting” government restrictions with illicit openings of synagogues and schools will not beat the spread of the virus and will certainly do nothing to reduce inter-social tensions.
It should be the critical interest of the government and national leadership to find a way to assure a safe exit from the threat of the coronavirus for every part of Israeli society, and that includes of course the Haredi communities. It demands putting aside some of the core issues that affect the relationship between the country and the Haredim in normal circumstances in order to find the right way to execute the correct strategy. It also demands a high level of understanding as to the unique Haredi cultural and community characteristics that will have a major impact on the outcome. On the other hand no profit can accrue to the Haredi community and its leaders by driving against the direction that the rest of Israeli society is driving towards. Any sense of lack of solidarity will be amplified. The damage created will be a major setback for relations between Haredim and Israeli society, over and above the potential for a lengthening of the health crisis.
There is only a short time to build the right plan and hence we should demand that our political, medical, professional, rabbinic and community leaders make sure they set any petty interests aside in order to give us all the best chance of surviving the pandemic.