In 1981, as a young cadet in Officer’s Course of the IDF, I participated in a walking educational tour of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Being in Israel for less than a year, and with my spoken Hebrew still limited, I didn’t quite understand at first that Haredi children on balconies above us were yelling and accusing us, Israeli soldiers in uniform, of being Nazis. I was reminded of my own experience over the past few weeks as IDF Home Front soldiers began enforcing the lockdown in Haredi neighborhoods throughout Israel. The distribution of food goods and medication to thousands of Haredi residents under lockdown, nor logistical and medical assistance to sick and elderly, stopped local Haredi children from yelling the same inconceivable curses: “Nazis, Nazis.” Were these Haredi children representative of the whole Haredi community back then in 1981 or now in the midst of today’s coronavirus pandemic? Does scathing criticism of the Haredi community add fuel to the fire and stoke the flames of rampant anti-Semitism so prevalent everywhere? Can Haredi leaders continue to dismiss secular authorities here in Israel or elsewhere in the world as nothing more than a necessary wickedness to be tolerated?
This resistance to comply with the secular authority’s directives or advice from outside of the Orthodox world has been a pillar of ultra-Orthodox and Haredi communities in Israel, in New York, and throughout the world. In Belgium for example, home to a large ultra-Orthodox and Haredi community, close to 85% of the community contracted the coronavirus and approximately one fifth of the 17,000-strong community required hospitalization, with upwards of 550 deaths. In Strasburg, France, the majority of the Jewish community were reportedly ill with coronavirus. In Britain, ultra-Orthodox and Haredi communities persisted in ignoring government restrictions despite infection rates surpassing Jews in the general population. A reported 5% of all fatalities in the Britain are Jews, though they constitute only 0.3% of British citizens. New York City’s ultra-Orthodox and Haredi Jews made up approximately 13% of all confirmed cases in New York, with the figure most likely much higher today. In Israel, about a third of all coronavirus infections have been recorded among the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi.
These high rates of infection are indisputable and rightly so have not been ignored by local health and municipal authorities. Here in Israel, whole ultra-Orthodox communities have been quarantined and closed off to the general population. Yet despite the real danger of infection to the general population, until well into the coronavirus outbreak, the ultra-Orthodox behaved individually as well as communally as if they are not obligated to abide by any state order or decree concerning the coronavirus. While the rest of us were obligated under decree to stay at home, with increasingly severe limitations on our freedom of movement, ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods conducted business as usual. The government of Israel had to employ large police and military forces to implement the closing off of these neighborhoods and maintain a strict curfew on the streets of these closed off communities. In many cases police forces had to respond to violent Haredi demonstrations and rioting against the lockdown.
Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky is a recognized figure in the Israeli Haredi community and posek. He is considered a leading authority in Haredi Jewish society. Rabbi Kanievsky held secret mass prayers at his Jerusalem home, breaching state directives. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was quoted stating that the coronavirus could have been prevented by more Torah study. When the coronavirus pandemic descended upon the land, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered his followers, not just “an extreme minority,” to ignore the new orders and to keep holding mass prayers and the yeshivas open. The result of this rabbinical directive was more getting infected and more dying. The revered rabbi did ultimately change his mind, but damage had already been done.
For many, the irresponsible behavior of ultra-Orthodox and Haredi rabbi’s response to the repetitive warnings of governmental and medical authorities reminded them of the dismissal of repetitive warnings by world non-religious Zionist leaders on the eve of the Holocaust to flee Europe. At the time, millions of European Jews remained put, listening and trusting their rabbi’s declarations of the importance to maintain prayer services and religious rituals until it was too late to even contemplate fleeing. Overnight, their reality changed, and their lives ended, similar to what many have characterized as the evolving reality in New York City. Only 10 weeks ago, when the world became aware of the impending danger of the exponential infection rate of the coronavirus and began to institute social distancing and restrictions on public behavior, ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their community leaders continued to ignore explicit warnings and instruction by authorities, in New York City, in European cities, and in Israel.
This one-way relationship of the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi community towards local authorities and the general population is unsustainable and the kid-glove handling of the ultra-Orthodox and Haredi must end once and for all. The coronavirus pandemic is just one symptom, just a small detail in an already strained relationship between the Haredim and everyone else. Obligations to the state; military service, the education system, dietary laws, and intermittent demonstrations are only a few examples of areas of contention that have festered for years. The ultra-Orthodox community and their religious leaders can no longer act with immunity from criticism. This is not racism or Jews hating Jews nor anti-Semitism, as has been claimed by their spokesmen.
If the coronavirus has a spiritual or symbolic aspect, it is the idea that the rhetoric of Haredi religious obligations, of keeping the mitzvot, can no longer be considered an exclusive mitzvah bucket list to be fulfilled at all costs no matter the price, no matter the circumstances. Haredi rabbis and community leaders simply believed that they could delay the “Mageifa” until after Purim, that Hashem would protect them because, in their mind, what they were doing were all mitzvot; but were proven deadly wrong. Mitzvot were given to mankind so that we can concretize values of Jewish life, yet Haredi rabbis have compromised this basic given by sanctioning the dismissal and ignoring of mitzvot that can be fulfilled and maintained only in the Land of Israel. The selective adherence to mitzvot by Haredi rabbis throughout the world has led to the grim reality in recent weeks of Haredi rabbis losing their authority to make decisions of great importance to the Jewish people.
The coronavirus has been a great embarrassment for Haredi rabbis, who have been proven to be in need and dependent on the authority of governmental and medical experts concerning communal religious practices that have been historically the exclusive authority of rabbinical authorities. The coronavirus pandemic has posed a historical challenge not only on personal freedoms, lockdowns, and shuttering economies but on the continuing ability of Haredi rabbis to continue with “business as usual” as far as their mitzvah bucket list is concerned. This pandemic has taught us and illustrated the limitations of today’s Haredi rabbis who can no longer make decisions with impunity.
Ron Jager grew up in the South Bronx and made Aliyah in 1980. Ron is a 25-year veteran of the Israel Defense Forces. Since retiring from active duty, he has been providing consultancy services to NGOs. Ron served as a strategic adviser to the chief foreign envoy of Judea and Samaria. To contact him, email email@example.com.