Most Israelis have been holed up in their homes for the past few weeks and isolated from the rest of the world. Yet even as the directives of the Ministry of Health became increasingly stringent, a significant part of the ultra-Orthodox community and leadership continued living in denial. The Israeli media spent many long days reporting about instructions given by the leader of the Lithuanian faction of the ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. He had ordered his followers not to stop yeshiva studies or prayer quorums, and to continue with large weddings and funerals with numerous participants. In fact, these continued to take place in Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine, but while this was going on, Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman, himself the representative of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community in the government and a member of the Gur Hasidic sect, asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to exempt synagogues from the closure order and to allow the ultra-Orthodox to continue praying in a quorum as is their custom.
That's why no one was surprised when the densely populated ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods became hotspots for the spread of the coronavirus and home to the highest number of people infected. And yet, even after the ultra-Orthodox community recognized the danger inherent in this pandemic, underground "minyanim" (prayer quorums of 10 people at least) continued to take place, with lookouts warning worshippers if the police were coming. Ultra-Orthodox children playing in the streets even coughed on the police and called them Nazis. According to various testimonies, Litzman himself, who has the virus that causes COVID-19, continued to pray in a synagogue quorum despite the directives of the very ministry he heads.
Friction between civil authorities and the ultra-Orthodox community has never been as serious as it is now. With the number of coronavirus carriers in Bnei Brak soaring, the government declared the city a "restricted zone" on April 2. Thus, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have been forced to enter the largest and most densely populated ultra-Orthodox city in order to restore order and assist residents sequestered in their homes, in many cases without enough food or medication.
In the early hours of April 6, the Cabinet adopted by phone a decision to allow the government to close off more cities and neighborhoods in Israel and the West Bank. Thus, the government imposed closure over eight secular and ultra-Orthodox cities and over 15 Orthodox/ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. DF troops started patrolling the streets of ultra-Orthodox urban centers such as Elad, Modi’in Ilit and the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.
According to news reports, the Israeli economy will not be able to function until the situation in ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods stabilizes. This is causing the sociopolitical situation to become more violent and extreme than ever. Anyone who attacks the ultra-Orthodox leadership or public is subject to retaliation, often being called “Nazi” and “anti-Semite.” On the other side of the divide, every ultra-Orthodox Jew is automatically considered a “lawbreaker” and “spreader of the disease.”
Obviously, the truth is much more complicated than these mutual accusations. This is because it is not just about the coronavirus. It is part of a much larger story concerning the relationship between the State of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox community received an unusual degree of autonomy in Israel, under the aegis of politicians from the right and the left. It is the inevitable outcome of their enormous political power. In private, politicians from across the political spectrum admit that they prefer to have the ultra-Orthodox in their coalitions, because “it is easier to close a deal with them.” In exchange for full social, educational and religious autonomy and generous funding for their educational institutions and yeshivas, they provide the other parties with the seats they need, and rarely make problems (especially as compared to the other members of the coalition). No one knows exactly how this can be changed either. There are no plans to get the ultra-Orthodox to agree to teaching a core curriculum in their schools, serving in the IDF or holding a job.
Over the years, there has been a growth in the number of citizens who get no training for life in the modern world. They don’t learn math or English; they don’t go near chemistry, biology or physics; and they don’t know how to use a computer. Not all of them become yeshiva students dedicating their lives to studying the Torah, yet even those who are unfit for that kind of life cannot serve in the army or work. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, less than 50% of ultra-Orthodox men were considered employed in November 2018. This figure includes those who work part-time or even just one day a month. As a result, they don’t meet the minimum requirements to pay taxes and they are not part of Israel’s contributing population.
This public is used to living in poverty and making do with little. In times of crisis or disaster, however, this little is not enough. Their refusal to cooperate with law enforcement, even in severe cases of pedophilia and domestic violence, is damaging to ultra-Orthodox society itself. Though it is not all the ultra-Orthodox, a good part of the community rejects the State of Israel and its institutions altogether, and regards them with hostility. Yes, they must be tolerated, but they must still stay away from them like fire. There is a kind of "iron curtain," which the ultra-Orthodox leadership built to separate their community from the country at large. These leaders, the "gedoilim" (the sages), are the important rabbis who run this world according to their own rules, with the help of ultra-Orthodox politicians, journalists and wheeler-dealers. All of this is intended to maintain their political power and wield it as they please. We should keep in mind that most of the ultra-Orthodox community does not watch television or access internet. Many of them heard about the pandemic when cars fitted with loudspeakers started making rounds of ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods to inform them.
What this coronavirus pandemic has shown clearly is that despite the physical and metaphysical barriers that the ultra-Orthodox have built around themselves (entry into some ultra-Orthodox cities is banned from Friday evening until the end of the Sabbath), it is all worthless, because this virus doesn’t recognize any boundaries. What happens in Bnei Brak has an impact on Nazareth and Tel Aviv, according to head of the Arab Joint List Ayman Odeh. If there is a significant outbreak in ultra-Orthodox Elad or Bnei Brak, all the other sick people in Israel will suffer as a result of it. And when the virus starts spreading quickly, the unbelievable happens, and IDF soldiers are posted to those very neighborhoods where people are adamant about refusing to let their own sons serve in the military.
The relationship between the ultra-Orthodox public and the state authorities must undergo a significant shift once the coronavirus crisis is over. The bubble in which the ultra-Orthodox have lived for so long just burst.
There are already signs of internal criticism, and this could well get much louder as Israel approaches the highpoint of this pandemic, which, according to the Ministry of Health, has yet to come. It is very important that the ultra-Orthodox community, part of which has been undergoing a gradual process of emancipation over the last few years, realizes that the people keeping it from obtaining knowledge are also keeping it from power and from making educated decisions. No less important is the idea that Israeli politicians must realize that the very existence of a state within a state is unconscionable and was wrong from the outset. The ultra-Orthodox leadership’s insistence on taking things to the extreme — inciting against the state on the one hand and forcing it to accept its priorities on the other, all the while sucking up vast budgets — has brought Israel to where it is today.
Not everyone realizes the scope of this tragedy. Once the crisis is over and the full picture becomes clear, civil authorities and the ultra-Orthodox community must engage each other in a new dialogue, based on respect of the law as it exists in Israel, cooperation with state institutions and a fundamental change in attitudes toward the state among the ultra-Orthodox public.