How Covid-19 raised tensions between Israeli communities

Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Police clash over lockdown measures in Jerusalem in July. (Youtube/shiezoli)

In a recent interview with Israel’s Channel 12 News, Moshe Gafni, the Israeli politician who leads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, was asked about violations of coronavirus rules by some in the Haredi community and what the interviewer referred to as the lack of Haredi leadership in handling the pandemic.

Up to this point, Gafni had been answering questions about which parties he would be willing to form a coalition with following the results of the election next month. However, once the conversation turned to the topic of the coronavirus, the interview took a turn for the worse.

Gafni responded that even though Israelis of all backgrounds have violated health regulations, the media is unfairly focusing on the Haredi community, adding that the vast majority of the Haredi public follow the rules.

“I don’t accept this incitement that there are violations in the Haredi public, I don’t accept it, we’ve had it, we’ve all had it,” Gafni told the interviewer, adding, “We are doing everything that can be done on this matter… You’ve focused on incidents where [rules were broken].”

Gafni denied that some Haredi leaders, including Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, have insisted on opening schools in defiance of national policy. When the interviewer called out this statement as simply untrue, Gafni replied, “Alright, we’re done” and ended the interview.

Gafni’s angry reaction captured the frustration and resentment many in the Haredi community feel over health restrictions and media coverage they perceive as biased against them, while at the same time facing a death rate from Covid-19 that is more than four times the rate of the non-Haredi population.

The coronavirus crisis in the Haredi community has generated an equal measure of frustration among the general Israeli population.

According to Haviv Rettig Gur, a senior political correspondent for The Times of Israel, recent Haredi violations of virus rules, violent riots in the streets and “the sense that Haredi communities are betraying the basic solidarity expected of them by the rest of Israeli society – all these images and emotions have crystallized into widespread anti-Haredi anger.”

With tensions rising over Israel’s Haredi community in recent weeks (and months), we decided it was time to unpack the situation. We wanted to understand Haredi perspectives and spoke with an Israeli Haredi rabbi to hear his views on the subject. We also explored Israeli perspectives from outside of Haredi society.

Although in some cases, the perspectives of Haredi and non-Haredi Israelis were far apart, there was also reason to believe that relations between the two groups can be improved. Here’s what we found out.

Tensions Over Haredi Struggles With the Coronavirus

The Israeli Haredi community has been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, and violations of lockdown rules in parts of the Haredi community are not new. However, tensions surrounding these issues reached new heights in recent days and weeks.

In January 2021, as Israel was in its third national lockdown, crowds of Haredi residents in the predominately ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak protested and rioted against the virus rules.

In one particularly disturbing scene, a Haredi mob pulled a driver out of his bus, physically attacked the driver and set the vehicle on fire, as Israeli police largely avoided the area and the rioting continued for nearly three hours.

Days later, more than 10,000 Haredi Israelis attended the funeral of a prominent rabbi — who died from Covid-19 complications — in violation of lockdown rules. This was followed a few days later by yet another large funeral held for a senior Haredi rabbi who also died from the coronavirus.

In addition to the protests and funerals, some Haredi schools have opened during national lockdowns with the encouragement of rabbis in the community.

Making the situation worse, authorities have “done little to enforce the rules in the Haredi public” throughout the pandemic, according to reporting by Hettig Gur from The Times of Israel. This is confirmed by data from police: Despite having some of the highest morbidity rates in Israel, Haredi cities have the lowest proportion of fines for violation of coronavirus rules.

Critics have said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has avoided efforts to more strongly enforce laws in Haredi cities in order to preserve ties with his Haredi coalition partners, who have strongly criticized such efforts as discriminatory and unhelpful.

Meanwhile, the Israeli press and public have circulated viral photos and video footage of the violence and mass funerals on social media. This has deepened the rift between the Haredi community and non-Haredi Israelis who already resent that Haredi men are exempt from military service and receive stipends to study Torah instead of working.

To be sure, violations of coronavirus restrictions have been seen throughout Israeli society and are not limited to the Haredi community. Last week, 15,000 Muslim worshippers gathered at the Temple Mount for prayers despite regulations capping outdoor crowds at 20 people.

Additionally, although lockdown restrictions have allowed Israelis to attend protests — including routine demonstrations held against Netanyahu which have drawn up to tens of thousands of people — the protesters have not always practiced social distancing.

Perspectives From the Israeli Haredi World

We sat down with Rabbi Avraham Jacobovitz, an Israeli Haredi rabbi who founded the Jewish outreach organization Machon L’Torah and the Maimonides Jewish Leaders Fellowship, to hear his perspective on the situation.

Jacobovitz argued that during the lockdowns, the government’s exemption allowing Israelis to attend protests, but not funerals or weddings, demonstrated its bias for secular over Haredi groups.

“Secular society is very much into democracy, pluralism and so on,” Jacobovitz said. “This is a very holy subject for them, and therefore, they think it is a wonderful thing that the government made an exception for demonstrations.”

“The religious community also has things that are holy to them, like studying Torah, praying in synagogue, getting married and attending funerals, especially for great scholars,” Jacobovitz continued.

He concluded that the regulations were motivated not only by public health concerns, but by political motives that prioritized secular values while discriminating against the Haredi community.

Jacobovitz added that although he had not attended any of the large funerals that have taken place in the community, the vast majority of people who did attend had either already had Covid-19, making them potentially less likely to spread the disease, or had already been vaccinated as part of Israel’s impressive vaccination campaign.

“No one who is really Haredi and takes his Judaism seriously would endanger his life and other people’s lives,” Jacobovitz said, adding that although “there are people at the fringes who are not doing the right thing, every society has people at the fringes.”

Yishai Cohen, a reporter for the Haredi website Kikar HaShabbat, made a similar point, arguing in an op-ed for Channel 12 news that even though a majority of Haredi Israelis cancel or postpone events in line with health regulations, and only fringe groups are violating the rules, media reports have suggested the entire community is to blame.

Cohen also accused the media of obsessively covering Haredi violations in news reports, writing, “The media’s disregard for the photos of [large gatherings at] the Temple Mount reinforces [that] it is not public health that is interesting [to reporters],” but the portrayal of the Haredi community as “the main culprit in spreading the disease.”

Sivan Rahav-Meir, an Israeli journalist who is identified both as Haredi and Zionist, agreed about the unfair media coverage, writing in a blog post that the Haredi Israelis who she knows have adhered to the lockdowns. At the same time, Rahav-Meir called out those in the community who are “snubbing the most basic mitzvah – the preservation of human life.”

Rahav-Meir also appealed to the non-Haredi Jewish world not to “turn away” from the Haredim who are violating the rules, but to work toward improving the situation.

Like Rahav-Meir, Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer encouraged the Haredi community to look inward. In an article for the Haredi publication Tzarich Iyun, Pfeffer argued that the community’s intense struggles with Covid-19, and the disregard for the law by some, show the need to strengthen education about the rabbinic idea of “derech eretz” (literally, “the way of the land”), which Pfeffer translated as “civic virtue” or “good citizenship.”

Pfeffer underscored that by promoting an understanding of civic responsibility as a Jewish (and not merely secular) obligation, the Haredi community would be more encouraged to comply with the country’s laws and repair relations with their fellow Israelis.

Perspectives From Outside the Haredi World

Anger and frustration have dominated much of the conversation in Israel outside of the Haredi world. Reflecting the public mood on the topic, a Channel 12 poll published last month indicated that 61 percent of Israelis prefer that the next government does not include the Haredi political parties.

Following the large funeral held in Bnei Brak last week, Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, tweeted: “An insane government, an insane funeral. Israeli government… why did you not prevent this funeral?”

Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi said on a Shalom Hartman Institute podcast that anger over the Haredi community’s actions during the pandemic has brought mainstream Israel society to a breaking point, summarizing the sentiment this way:

“When you told us that Torah study takes precedence over providing a dignified livelihood for your families, we swallowed it. When you told us Torah study takes precedence over joining with the rest of us in physically defending the country, we hated it, but we swallowed that, too. Now you’re telling us that Torah study takes precedence over actual life and death?”

Klein Halevi said that up to this point, most Israelis were willing to absorb and accommodate a Jewish community with radically different values than their own, but this has changed as a result of seeing the damage the Haredi community’s negligent behavior has caused to Israeli society.

Benjamin Brown, an expert on Haredi thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agreed, telling The Media Line that in the history of the relationship between Haredi and non-Israeli Israelis, “There hasn’t been anything like this in the last 50 years or so, maybe even more.”

According to Brown, mainstream Israelis feel Haredim “enjoy the fruits of the Israeli worker and they also disturb public health… They simply don’t give a damn about what the government says, and they do it in a mocking and scornful way, and it really irritates non-Haredim.”

Sara Hirschhorn, a visiting assistant professor in Israel studies at Northwestern University, wrote in a controversial Haaretz op-ed that “this breakdown of social and political relations should be understood as a civil war” between the Haredi community and the rest of Israel.

“The behavior of the Haredim, both by their willful disobedience of Covid restrictions and their now violent resistance, is effectively spreading terror amongst the Israeli population at large,” Hirschhorn wrote, calling for “deradicalizing” the Haredi community.

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