Regev Responds

Is this truly Israel's last chance to correct its course?

A glimpse through the eyes of the English media

There is not a day that the media in Israel does not deal with the meeting points Between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular, as well as between religion and politics in the context of the pandemic.

Haredi protest in NYC, source: WikipediaHaredi protest in NYC, source: Wikipedia

Today, for example, television and other media dealt with the harsh reality wherein thousands of Israelis are "stuck" around the world due to the closure of border crossings to Israel and the closure of the airport, facing financial, health, emotional and other damages. It turns out that according to a personal order from Minister Aryeh Deri, Shas party leader, an exceptional permit was issued for entry into the country for several family members of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is an associate of the Minister and was previously permitted to go across the Taba border crossing. This, while many others trying to enter Israel are not allowed to do so.

This week, English readers were given a glimpse of what is happening in Israel in this field and the mood of Israelis in the growing tension between religion and state and between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. We encourage you to read the articles, and we'd love to hear from you.

In one article [Israel's last chance to fix its ultra-Orthodox problem] Aaron Heller describes the eve of the election twenty years ago: It was a historic night. Benjamin Netanyahu had been defeated and Ehud Barak was standing on the balcony of Rabin Square promising “the dawn of a new day.”

”But what I remember most from that May 17, 1999 victory rally were the thousands of jubilant supporters around me building into the crescendo of a rhythmic chant: ‘Rak lo Shas, Rak lo Shas.’ Anything but Shas.”

He then notes that despite public outcry from his constituents, Barak preferred to advance the peace process over complying with the public's desire to advance a civic agenda and liberate Israel from religious coercion and the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox parties. However, he skips another important element in Barak's election campaign that contributed to his victory: The election slogans used by him and the Labor Party were, for example: "Money for the elderly in the hallway ~ not for fictitious yeshivas" [an expression of the funding shortfall for hospitals that severely affected the elderly and patients in need of hospitalization, and caused the phenomenon, which exists to date, of hospitalization of patients in hospital corridors due to lack of space in the wards. Meanwhile, there was disclosure of cases of fictitious yeshiva and false reports of fictitious yeshiva students for the purposes of receiving funds from the state treasury].

Also: "One people, one enlistment" [an expression of public anger over the mass evasion of yeshiva students from participating in Israel’s security burden]. So the matter it is not only about the preference of promoting the peace process [which failed] but about betraying the electorate and turning his backs on the explicit promises that he and his party promised the public. Barak did not care during his tenure to deal with the phenomenon of fictitious yeshivas and similar phenomena, and not even for the enlistment of ultra-Orthodox youths. Thus, he symbolized the betrayal of many politicians that turn their backs on the will of the public and even their constituents with regard to the struggles of religion and state. This fact ultimately contributed to the downfall of Barak himself and the growing cynicism of Israelis in their treatment of politicians and the political system. Disappointment and cynicism are not a recipe for stress reduction but the opposite, and the COVID-19 crisis - as we have reported here more than once - increases tensions between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox and to public opposition to a coalition dependent on the dictates of ultra-Orthodox parties.

In a separate article, Heller describes the this long-simmering anger, which has risen to new heights over brazen ultra-Orthodox violations throughout the coronavirus crisis that have endangered everyone.

Israel’s number one domestic issue and its most fraught fault line is the outsized power and influence of the ultra-Orthodox political establishment. It’s time to tackle this head-on with a broad coalition that seeks the wellbeing of everyone, including the ultra-Orthodox themselves.

His summary was very clear: This upcoming election offers a potential do-over that may be Israel’s last chance to fix the failure, and he concludes with the following message: Israel’s number one domestic issue and its most fraught fault line is the outsized power and influence of the ultra-Orthodox political establishment. It’s time to tackle this head-on with a broad coalition that seeks the wellbeing of everyone, including the ultra-Orthodox themselves.

We strongly recommend reading Heller’s analysis, and we hope that the Jewish leadership in the Diaspora will understand that this is not a struggle for mere pluralism but for the very backbone of Israeli society and democracy and the future of its relations with the Jewish world.

The second article, which sheds light on a phenomenon familiar to our Diaspora readers who live in cities with concentrated ultra-Orthodox populations, is from the New York Times this week. ‘How Many Funerals Will Come Out Of This One?’ The article describes what is happening on the ground, such as illegal mass funerals that increase the spread of COVID-19, and it addresses the dire consequences of reckless behavior and the existing disputes within the ultra-Orthodox public, as well as between it and the rest of the population. For example, you can read about mass funerals:

A maze of alleyways, Mea Shearim was built in the 19th century, before the first major waves of Zionist immigration. A world unto itself, the neighborhood has long been a stronghold of the ultra-Orthodox. Some of its residents have always been skeptical of the Israeli state, and the pandemic has given fresh impetus to that tradition.

At a large yeshiva, or seminary, students gathered freely in clear violation of a government shutdown of the education system.

Down a nearby lane, hundreds of Haredim gathered for another street funeral for a coronavirus victim. They stood shoulder to shoulder in a tight crowd, blocking the street. The rabbi leading the funeral halfheartedly asked the mourners to cover their faces. Most did not.

For these deeply devout Jews, attendance was a religious and personal duty. To briefly grip the rabbi’s bier, and symbolically assist his passage from this world, was a sign of profound respect for the dead.

But for secular Israeli society, and even for some within the ultra-Orthodox world, this kind of mass gathering suggested a disrespect for the living.

“What is more important?” wondered Esti Shushan, an ultra-Orthodox women’s rights activist, after seeing pictures of the gathering. “To go to funerals and study Torah? Or to stay alive?”

It is a question that channels one of the central conflicts of the pandemic in Israel: the spiraling tension between the Israeli mainstream and the growing ultra-Orthodox minority, an insular group of highly religious Jews, also known as Haredim, who eschew many trappings of modernity in favor of intensive religious study.

When the pandemic began, one Haredi leader promised that adherence to Jewish law would save his followers from the virus.

The Haredim have instead been disproportionately affected by the virus.

That’s partly because they tend to live with large families in small homes.

But it’s also because some Haredim have ignored the edicts of the secular state.

Throughout Israel’s history, the Haredim have been reluctant participants in mainstream society, often prioritizing the study of scripture over conventional employment and army service. The coronavirus has widened this divide.

The virus caused a collision between two worlds that usually ignore each other.

For the Haredim, it underscored how they exist uneasily within a secular legal framework.

For the rest of society, it highlighted the Haredim’s growing political power.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has been reluctant to penalize Haredim who violate antivirus protocols; analysts argue that the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, fears upsetting the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers within his governing coalition.

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