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When Primitive Religious Beliefs Endanger A Whole Country's Social Cohesion

On Friday, Israel reported 3,054 new COVID cases and 10 more deaths. Yesterday there were 2,555 new cases and 35 more deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 773,335 and the total number of deaths to 5,732. By U.S. standards. this doesn't look that terrible, until you realize that Israel's population is just 9.2 million. There have been 84,080 cases per million residents-- around the same as the U.S., though much worse than any of the European countries Israel likes comparing itself to:

  • Belgium- 65,690 cases per million residents

  • Holland- 63,172 cases per million residents

  • U.K.- 61,222 cases per million residents

  • France- 57,153 cases per million residents

  • Italy- 48,140 cases per million residents

  • Germany- 29,111 cases per million residents

In some ways Israel has done really well-- only a handful of countries have administered more than a million tests per million residents. Israel is one of them, unlike any of the European countries above except Britain. But if anyone expected Israel's highly educated population to be a model in the fight against the pandemic, they weren't factoring in the same thing that has laid Brooklyn low: large ultra-Orthodox communities, in Judaism the equivalent of primitive, fundamentalist, evangelical snake handlers, but even worse. Israel's anti-government Haredi-- which calls the Israeli state "anti-semitic"-- have immense political power, disproportionate to their numbers. They managed to turn Israel into one of the world's worst COVID hellholes and they have spread, without a second thought, the disease to hundreds of thousands of normal Israelis. A one point in the pandemic the infection rate among Haredim was 70%!!!! Among the crackpot Haredim, metal detectors at their events are used not to locate guns, but to find and confiscate cell phones.

Last week, reporting for the NY Times from Tel Aviv, Ronen Bergman, explained Israel's Haredi problem in the context of the pandemic. When he-- or any reporter-- describes Haredi gatherings, it is always something like defiant "thousands of black-hatted and black-clothed Haredim... unmasked and unpoliced, creating a stark visual record of what seemed certain to become a superspreader event."

The police have been unable and unwilling to confront the Haredi mass public gatherings or to close down their schools. "As it has in so many other places," wrote Bergman, "the pandemic in Israel has revealed and heightened long-existing tensions. The Haredim have selectively embraced the secular state, accepting its money, its health care system and, more recently, its vaccines. But whenever the state has tried to regulate the Haredi community in a manner that seems to threaten its leaders’ authority, they have responded with the direst possible rhetoric. When the national government did try to enforce the lockdown a few times in January, the pushback was furious. Haredi leaders, drawing on the memories of the Holocaust, protested the mandate of new 'ghettos.' In videos, officers were filmed pulling out their side arms and firing into the air to ward off masses of ultra-Orthodox protesters. In one instance, Haredi teenagers blocked the road in front of a city bus in Bnei Brak, a largely Haredi city near Tel Aviv. After forcing the driver from the vehicle, they torched it, burning it to a charred metal shell... Though the Haredim make up only 12.6 percent of the population, they exert a powerful influence on Israeli politics and society. They have worked hard to preserve a way of life that long preceded the establishment of Israel in 1948, but in some ways, they represent the nation’s future: Haredi women give birth to an average of 6.6 children each-- the average among secular Israelis is 2.2, and it is even lower in most Western countries-- and almost 60 percent of Haredim are under 20, compared with 30 percent of the total population of Israel." The biggest irony of all is that the secular state of Israel may need the Palestinians to save them from the scourge of this backward-- crazed and senile rabbis decide which phone numbers are kosher and which aren't... literally-- Bronze Age infestation of huckers and idiots! ("[T]hey tell of miracles he has performed, like the barren women who were able to conceive after he blessed them.") One top rabbi claimed that anyone voting for his backward right-wing party with be immune from COVID. Sound familiar?

For now though, the Haredi politicians have the power to control Netanyahu's right-wing government and in return for their support, Netanyahu 'has directed huge amounts of money-- known as special funds-- to subsidize yeshiva students and their families. Not only has Netanyahu refrained from censuring the ultra-Orthodox for the refusal to follow coronavirus restrictions; he has worked to minimize the fines for breaching them." I can't emphasize enough that this not just the most primitive and backward segment of Israel's population, but also the most bigoted, entitled, self-righteous and selfish. If their archaic religious beliefs lead to danger to the society as a whole, they couldn't give a shit. "A central tenet of the ultra-Orthodox worldview," wrote Bergman, "is that their adherence to Jewish law is literally necessary for the continued existence of the world. 'On three things the world stands,' according to the revered ancient rabbi Simeon the Just. 'On Torah, on worship and on the bestowal of kindnesses.' In other words, even more so than the work of doctors or soldiers or diplomats, it is the daily Torah studies in the yeshivas that preserve the Jewish people, the Jewish state and indeed the entire universe. Some of the most important stories of the Haredi community are of the heroism of the Jews who persisted in Torah study even in the ghettos and Nazi death camps. During the past year, that belief has come into direct conflict not only with the laws of Israel but also with the very prospect of the Haredim’s continued survival."

The Haredi community was built on an unremitting faith in its leadership, made up of flesh-and-blood rabbis who, to their followers, speak the will of the living God. But the authority of the rabbis has for decades faced growing competition from the secular world-- from the natural pressure in a small country to integrate, from the increasing presence of women in the workplace, from the leveling connectivity of the internet. A result has been a sharp rise in the number of Haredim leaving the community to join the secular Jewish population.
The pandemic has put all this into sharpest relief. For the first time, Haredi synagogues and yeshivas have been closed; for the first time, uncensored, “unkosher” smartphones and the internet have been allowed into many Haredi homes by families seeking a link with the outside world; for the first time, the community’s leaders have openly declared their defiance of the secular government-- and, for the first time, Israeli Army units have been deployed in Haredi towns and neighborhoods. Surviving the pandemic would mean confronting basic questions about the fate of the Haredim and the future of a Jewish state. For the Haredi leadership, that might mean ceding power to the wrong higher authority.
As it happened, Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s health minister when the pandemic began, is himself a Hasidic Jew. He grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and when he was 17 he emigrated to Israel, where he went on to become a powerful player within United Torah Judaism. When Netanyahu first ordered the shutdown of many public gathering places, including yeshivas and ritual bathhouses, it was Litzman, according to news reports, who made the argument directly to the prime minister that he should exempt the Haredim from the general lockdown. In a meeting, he argued that there was a higher law to consider. [Litzman contracted COVID himself, as did his wife, causing most the the upper echelon of Israel's government to go into quarantine.]
...But as the weeks went by last spring, it quickly became clear that Bnei Brak enjoyed no divine protection from Covid-19. The crowded study halls in the yeshivas and the jam-packed Friday Sabbath-eve dunks in the ritual public baths were turning Bnei Brak and other Haredi concentrations into hot zones. Haim Zicherman, the academic director for the ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College and author of a forthcoming book about ultra-Orthodox culture, noted the particular challenges that ultra-Orthodox culture presented to efforts at social distancing. The thrice-daily synagogue prayers in particular were “one of the biggest incubators for corona,” he said. “From the kiss you give the Torah scroll, the kiss you give the mezuza, the hugs and handshakes, the leaning over the prayer lectern while rocking your body, the sharing of the prayer shawls and kippot between congregants.”
By the end of the month, the number of reported cases in Bnei Brak was doubling almost every other day. On March 26, it was 176; on March 29, 410; on March 31, 596. “All of a sudden, you see the graph climbing steeply, higher and higher,” said Arik Adler, the city’s treasurer, who manages the local crisis center. “And Bnei Brak begins to exceed the average, and you say, ‘Good God, we have lost control.’”
...Haredim are largely exempt from Israel’s mandatory military service-- just one of the many ways they remain outside the mainstream of Israeli society. Indeed, nearly half of Haredi males choose not to work at all, relying on state funding and philanthropic aid to feed them and their families. About 42 percent of Haredim live under the poverty line, nearly four times as many as other Israelis.
The relationship between the Haredim and secular Israelis has been confrontational from the country’s beginnings. Zionism, which advocated building a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel, originated with secular Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe. The Haredim, by contrast, believed that only the Messiah could establish a Jewish state, that God alone would decide when to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland. Humans trying to expedite the process were committing a grave sin.
The Haredim worked doggedly, both inside and outside Palestine, to stymie the Zionists’ political efforts. The Zionists in Palestine responded with violence. In 1924, an assassin took the life of Jacob de Haan, a Dutch-Jewish author and activist who had become a Haredi as an adult, a day before he was to travel to London in hopes of persuading the British government to reconsider its promise to “view with favor” the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. After the Holocaust, it was the Zionist movement that became the leading Jewish political force; the anti-Zionist movements were largely destroyed, apart from the Haredim, whose community survived, despite the huge numbers murdered by the Nazis. Many of the survivors migrated to the United States; most of the others moved to Israel.
Hoping to present a united front to the United Nations committee investigating the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, the driving force behind the creation of a Jewish state, made a series of aggressive promises to ultra-Orthodox leaders. In the new state, he said, Saturdays would be made an official day of rest, kosher food would be served in all state kitchens and there would be no civil marriages. In addition, when it came to education, each of the three Jewish communities-- secular, modern Orthodox and Haredim-- would have autonomy, as long as core subjects like math, foreign languages and history were taught.
...[T]he Haredim have been known to hold large protests, block intersections and even turn violent whenever they get wind of any possible retreat from the state’s longstanding deference to religious orthodoxy: the opening of a road near a Haredi neighborhood to Sabbath traffic, or a Supreme Court intervention against them on the draft, or the holding of a Gay Pride parade in Jerusalem, or an archaeological excavation of an ancient Jewish cemetery. In the 1980s, the “operations officer” of the extremist Jerusalem sect Eda Haredit, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, led a gang that, among other violent acts, set fire to all Jerusalem bus stops that featured advertisements with images of women.
...“The issue isn’t only military service or integration into the work force,” said [Yair] Lapid, who today leads the opposition to Netanyahu. “It’s the Israeli social contract. I believe that everyone should have the same rights but also the same responsibilities. Ultra-Orthodox children should study mathematics and English so they can integrate into the work force and provide for their families, because the Israeli middle class can’t finance them forever. Ultra-Orthodox men need to serve in the army and do national service, just like every Israeli. This isn’t an argument between secular and religious. It’s not even really about Judaism. It’s a debate about which responsibilities every citizen has as part of the country. The political power that the ultra-Orthodox have and Netanyahu’s dependence on them gives them the sense that they have an exemption from the duties other citizens have. That’s wrong, and it comes back at them like a social boomerang.”
...Kanievsky’s order was unprecedented. “For the first time in the history of the state of Israel,” said Zicherman, the Ono Academic College official, “the Haredim simply said, clearly and unequivocally, ‘We do not care what the law says; we are not going to obey.’” But that disobedience, Zicherman said, was itself simply collapsing the “island model” that had for decades characterized the standoff between the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities-- “that the secular will be in certain areas, the Haredim in other areas and the two will not mix. That there’s no friction. That Bnei Brak can be closed off on the Sabbath and that a Gay Pride parade can be held in Tel Aviv, and everything is fine. Now it is clear that there are no islands in Israel, and everyone is connected by a single thread-- that in the shared public space, they affect one another, like different decks on one big ship.”
Netanyahu called on the Haredi public to follow the rules of the lockdown. But when he fell short of taking any real steps to enforce that call, members of Netanyahu’s own cabinet harshly criticized him. “He can’t stand up against the Haredi parties and fight in a determined manner against the spread of the virus in Haredi society,” one unnamed minister told a reporter for Israel’s Ynet. “If we don’t stand up to this Haredi rebellion, we will be facing a third lockdown.”
...That same month, as the government ordered a police operation in Bnei Brak to enforce the ban on gatherings, Eichler responded with another attack. “The state of Israel, to our great regret, is constantly and increasingly moving away from its definition as a Jewish state,” he said. “In its place, a new essence has arisen, a Wild West state with violence, hedonism, having fun, enjoyment as the main goal.”
On Jan. 5, as the infection rate in Haredi society soared to new heights again, Israel declared a third lockdown. The ultra-Orthodox community itself was now divided, sometimes bitterly. Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the former Haredi “operations officer” and gang leader, has become more moderate in his views. He founded and heads ZAKA, an international search-and-rescue organization that helps repatriate the bodies of Israelis who have died abroad. He has repeatedly tried to warn the heads of the ultra-Orthodox community that disregard for Ministry of Health directives would lead to disaster. “My own parents are completely dependent on what the leadership tells them to do,” Meshi-Zahav told me last year in what turned out to be a tragic personal prophecy. “They belong to such a segregated group that they do not let even Haredi newspapers into their home.”
Early this year, Meshi-Zahav’s mother and father both died of the virus. In an interview with The Times of Israel, he said the rabbis who resisted the lockdown “have blood on their hands.”
Israel’s vaccination campaign is beginning to show a very slow decline in the numbers of new and seriously ill patients, in both the general and the ultra-Orthodox populations, despite the efforts by some of the ultra-Orthodox sects to discourage it. About 22 percent of the population in Bnei Brak has received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with 46 percent of the total population. It is a noticeable contrast, but both numbers are in fact fairly impressive. Just 12 percent of the U.S. population has received at least one dose.

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