Lockdowns brought tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox communities to the boiling point. The political consequences could be felt for years to come.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as Haredim in Hebrew, fighting with law enforcement this month while trying to accompany a rabbi’s funeral procession despite coronavirus restrictions.Credit…Ziv Koren for The New York Times
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On Jan 31, one month after Israel declared its third lockdown of the pandemic, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik succumbed to the coronavirus at 99. Soloveitchik was the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem, an elite school for ultra-Orthodox Jews, and as news of his death spread, thousands of followers prepared to mourn him. A grand funeral was required, and according to tradition, it would need to take place as soon as possible.
Since the pandemic began, funerals have become a subject of intense, sometimes even violent controversy in Israel. The nation has kept its people in lockdown longer than nearly any other has, but it nevertheless has struggled with one of the highest rates of coronavirus infection. The main source of this seeming paradox is the ultra-Orthodox community, which has largely refused to wear masks or practice social distancing, arguing that the demands of lockdown prevent them from practicing their religion. By January, these Haredi communities, as the ultra-Orthodox are known in Hebrew, had three times as many cases per capita as the Israeli population at large.
Soloveitchik himself had apparently been infected at his yeshiva, where, in defiance of government mandates, classes continued as ever. Now thousands of black-hatted and black-clothed Haredim were gathering in Jerusalem for his funeral procession, unmasked and unpoliced, creating a stark visual record of what seemed certain to become a superspreader event.
As if to make these health implications even starker, another prominent ultra-Orthodox figure, Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, who was 98, succumbed to complications from the virus later that same day, even as Soloveitchik’s followers were on the march. Scheiner’s funeral, too, would take place immediately, and it too would be preceded by a mass procession through the streets of Jerusalem, attended by his many thousands of followers. Once again, the police refrained from acting. “I am not going to confront 20,000 people, because I do not have the capability of doing so,” Shabtai Gerberchik, a spokesman for the Israeli Police, explained in a radio interview. “One does not make decisions between good and bad; one makes decisions between bad and worse.”
As it has in so many other places, 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.
One teenage boy was charged in that incident, but since the pandemic began, the authorities have largely pursued the same strategy of avoidance they used at the funerals. This hands-off treatment has stood in sharp contrast to its handling of the secular community, as was clear from a series of videotaped arrests that went viral in recent months. In one, a group of police officers, at least one armed with a military-style rifle, try to arrest a young man who has stopped to eat a sandwich at a bench in an otherwise-empty square. When the man attempts to run away, the officers grab him and force him brutally onto the ground, spilling his food all over the road. In another, recorded from Tel Aviv’s deserted beachfront, two lone surfers are accosted by police officers on personal watercraft and in a helicopter in an attempt to remove them from the waves.
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 power of Haredi politicians is similarly disproportionate to their numbers. Both of the recently deceased rabbis belonged to Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, the Council of Torah Sages, a group that includes most of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox world. The council also leads Israel’s United Torah Judaism party, which is a key part of the coalition of right-wing and religious parties, called simply the Bloc, that has long made up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s conservative majority. United Torah Judaism’s leaders have already expressed a commitment to support Netanyahu after the coming legislative elections on March 23.
In return for this steadfast support, Netanyahu’s Likud party, like many of Israel’s previous ruling parties, 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.
For the Haredim, their gatherings were not just a matter of defiance. A central tenet of the ultra-Orthodox worldview 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.
“It cannot be that taking a dog for a walk will be allowed but the ritual baths will be shut,” Litzman is said to have told Netanyahu.
One of the most influential leaders of Israel’s Haredi community is Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. His thousands of followers, who sometimes call him Minister of the Torah, say the 93-year-old teacher has committed 5,000 Jewish holy books to memory; they tell of miracles he has performed, like the barren women who were able to conceive after he blessed them. Kanievsky lives in Bnei Brak, the city where the bus burning took place, which has a population of about 210,000. On some days, a long line of the faithful can be seen waiting on the street outside his home, seeking an audience. David M. Friedman, the bankruptcy lawyer Donald Trump appointed as his ambassador to Israel, came to call during his tenure, and so have many secular Israeli cabinet ministers and lawmakers in the Knesset.
Those seeking an audience are usually met by Kanievsky’s grandson Yaakov, more commonly called Yanki, whose role is to mediate between Kanievsky and the outside world. He often does so by way of his cellphone video camera, which he uses to record the wishes of visitors and then share them — the parts he considers important, at least — with the rabbi, explaining who the pilgrims are and what sort of blessings they require. Sometimes the rabbi responds, without even raising his eyes, by uttering the word Booha — a shorthand he devised for the Hebrew words bracha v’hatzlacha, meaning “blessing and success.” The communications also work the other way, with Yanki recording messages for release on social media. (Most ultra-Orthodox sects ban access to the internet, requiring followers to use internet- and even SMS-free cellphones, attained via a special rabbinical council that declares a given phone number to be kosher. But some Haredi leaders and journalists can receive the videos, and they spread the word person to person or by way of posters pasted on walls.)
When the government first ordered schools to close last March, Kanievsky’s message was clear: In video statements, he announced that shutting down the yeshivas would be far more dangerous than keeping them open, and that if his followers voted for United Torah Judaism, they would be protected from Covid-19. To his followers, an instruction from Kanievsky is the closest thing there can be to a direct order from God. In the neighborhoods where the Haredim lived, life continued to bustle.
Kanievsky had a good record when it came to predicting catastrophe — or rather, its absence. He calmed the residents of Bnei Brak before the 1991 Persian Gulf war, assuring them that Saddam Hussein’s missiles would not harm them, despite the Iraqi despot’s threats to strike at metropolitan Tel Aviv. “That is what I heard from the Hazon Ish,” Kanievsky said, referring to a Haredi leader who died in 1953 — implying that he was in touch with the hereafter. He turned out to be right. The missiles fell in neighboring secular Ramat Gan and other suburbs, but not in Bnei Brak. He continued to prophesy that Bnei Brak would always remain a safe and protected place because of the prayers and Torah study of its residents. He invited Haredim from other communities to come there in troubled times.
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.’”
The city’s population was relatively young, and no one had yet succumbed to the disease, but it was clear to all that it was only a matter of time before people began to die.
That was when Avraham Rubinstein, the mayor of Bnei Brak, requested help. Rubinstein, a United Torah Judaism politician, did not turn to the widely mistrusted central government. Instead, he sought help from a private team of veterans of the Israel Defense Forces. “This was an event on a worldwide scale, something no one chose,” Rubinstein told me. “Netanyahu had never experienced such an event. Trump had never experienced such an event. And in all modesty, neither had Avraham Rubinstein experienced it. To fight it, the best people were needed, and those that we brought in are the best at coping with disasters like this.”
On March 31, Ronny Numa, a retired major general, arrived in Bnei Brak to see what could be done. Numa, who is 54, sturdy, with military-cut graying hair, had been a commander of the I.D.F.’s Duvdevan, the undercover counterterrorism unit that is the basis for the Netflix series “Fauda.” He thought he would stay just a few hours. But when he arrived at City Hall, the mayor himself was under quarantine — his wife had tested positive — along with the city manager and several other officials, and as he began to query the few senior officials who remained, it became clear that the situation had become perilously chaotic. That day’s report showed 596 residents of Bnei Brak with a Covid diagnosis. But the officials did not know how to get to all of them. “I asked them simple questions,” Numa recalled. “You have hundreds of sick folks — where are they?” The officials had no answers.
Soon, Numa brought in a small team of experts, most of them veterans of the I.D.F. But on April 2, as they were making plans, Litzman, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox health minister, received a Covid-19 diagnosis, along with his wife. It did not go unnoticed that one of the people nominally in charge of protecting Israel from the pandemic could not even protect himself or his own family. Now it was not just him going into isolation; all the people who had been in contact with him had to quarantine — including the prime minister and the chief of the Mossad.
Pressure was growing to do something. That same day, the I.D.F. placed a group of elite commando and infantry forces on alert. Never before had the military been sent in to take control of a Jewish city in Israel, but now a blockade of Bnei Brak appeared to be imminent.
“I thought it would be a very unwise thing to do,” Numa said. It was too soon. His first project had been to build trust, and now that trust was already being threatened. Numa spoke to the quarantined prime minister late that night and came away with assurances, he said, that he and his team would be looped in on any curfew efforts.
Early the next morning, though, the police and army units blocked the roads leading into Bnei Brak without warning. It was a Friday, “the worst timing they could have picked,” said Ronen Manelis, a former I.D.F. intelligence officer who was part of Numa’s team. “The police and the army surrounded the city and sliced it up inside in such a way that a large number of Haredim couldn’t get to their supermarkets to buy food for the Sabbath. In their eyes, they’d just been placed under military rule.”
Tensions became even greater the next day after sundown, when Carmel Shama Hacohen, the mayor of the neighboring city of Ramat Gan — arguing that Haredim would be able to bypass the checkpoints on pedestrian side streets — began putting up a fence and posting guards along his border with Bnei Brak. Shama Hacohen had previously angered the ultra-Orthodox community by becoming the first mayor in Israel to introduce public transportation on Saturdays, prompting Rubinstein, the neighboring mayor, to call him a “pharaoh.”
Now protesters were out in the streets, chanting, “Don’t put us in a ghetto,” and hurling epithets like “Nazi” and “Gestapo” at the police officers and military guards stationed along the new fence and checkpoints. A pro-Haredi WhatsApp group told its members to file complaints of pedophilia against Shama Hacohen, in an attempt to get the mayor banned from the app, the most important form of communication among secular Israelis.
It was against this tense backdrop that Numa and his team began their work. They faced seemingly endless logistical challenges, some of them quite technical, some of them exceedingly mundane. The reported number of sick grew to 1,202 on April 5 and 1,460 on April 7, but at the same time, the number of tests taken in Bnei Brak was declining. A positive test, many Haredim feared, might cause them to be forcibly removed from their homes before the weeklong festival of Passover, which began on April 8. When the city did manage to identify the sick, it was often impossible to find and communicate with them, other than by knocking on doors. Most residents didn’t have smartphones, or at least known phone numbers, and social media would be of no use.
One of Numa’s team members, an ex-I.D.F. cyberdefense and electronic warfare expert named Avraham Cohen, used a software program to map the city in several layers — infrastructure, electrical systems, communications networks and more. They would do whatever they could do to get a better picture of the spread of the virus. Manelis, for his part, noted a historic turn: His team was deploying the kind of capabilities that they had once used to track and capture the enemies of Israel, “to achieve full control of what’s going on in the city.”
Some efforts were less drastic, though. The Haredi preparations for Passover include a thorough home cleaning, part of which involves bagging up any leftover bread, which is forbidden during the week of the festival, and burning it out on the street. “This kind of thing leads to gatherings of people outside,” Numa said, “and right away you lose control over contagion.” Numa’s team sent out word: Stay inside. We’ll bring you bags. Leave the bread near your doors. We’ll collect it. Most Haredim were indeed persuaded to leave the bread, but a few were not.
And then there was the struggle to keep kosher in quarantine. As the government tried to isolate coronavirus patients, taking those who would agree by ambulance to designated hotels, it fell to Numa’s team to provide them with proper food. That proved challenging, Manelis said, because kosher-food law is complex, “and the residents of Bnei Brak refused to be evacuated before they saw written proof that the food would be kosher according to the standards of a rabbi they trusted.”
As the city descended into turmoil, Numa said, he began to fear a “loss of control,” not so much from the pandemic itself as from “the threat of a civil uprising by the Haredi community.” What would happen if so many people, many of them sick, went on the march? “How do you stop them? And how can you be sure that they would not come up against secular residents of the neighboring cities who would try to stop them? And God knows how all this would end.”
The scenes of I.D.F. service members taking over Haredi communities held a deeper meaning for both sides, because the 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.
But even those concessions were insufficient to bring the Haredim into the national fold. On Oct. 20, 1952, the prime minister paid a visit to a small apartment not far from the site of today’s Bnei Brak City Hall. He went to see the pre-eminent Haredi leader of the time, Rabbi Abraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, the same figure Kanievsky cited in assuring his followers that Saddam Hussein’s missiles would not touch them. Ben-Gurion needed the Haredi parties to form a coalition, and they took their orders from the Hazon Ish.
As Yitzhak Navon, Ben-Gurion’s political secretary at the time and later Israel’s fifth president, told me in a 1990 interview, the rabbi welcomed Ben-Gurion graciously. The two men talked about Spinoza and other philosophical subjects, and then Ben-Gurion finally asked the question: “How can religious Jews and nonreligious Jews live together in this country without exploding from within?” The Hazon Ish replied with an allegory from the Talmud. “If two camels meet on a narrow path, and one camel is carrying a burden and the other is not, then the camel with no burden must give way,” he said. And it was the religious Jews who bore the greater burden by far. “We bear the yoke of very many commandments,” he continued, the clear implication being that secular Jews carried no yoke and lacked values.
Ben-Gurion hit his shoulder with his arm and asked angrily, “Do you think this camel is carrying nothing? And what about the mitzvah of settling the land, isn’t that a mitzvah? Isn’t that a burden? And what about the boys that you are so antagonistic toward — the I.D.F. soldiers who are sitting on the borders protecting you. Isn’t that a mitzvah?” If it were not for those who guard and defend Jews, including the Haredim, “the enemies would have slaughtered you.”
But the Hazon Ish was not convinced. The mightiest soldiers in the world would be powerless if the world ceased to exist. “It is only thanks to the fact that we study Torah that they can do what they do,” he concluded.
And so it was that Ben-Gurion began what would become a series of concessions by him and his successors: not just exempting the Haredim from compulsory military service but also banning public transportation on the Sabbath, refusing to create an option for civil marriage, forbidding the sale of bread during Passover and so on.
For their part, the 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.
Hoping to loosen the Haredi check on civic life, many Israelis, right and left, have turned to voting for militantly secular politicians. On the liberal and center-left side, this has included figures like Yosef Lapid in the 2000s, who was then followed by his son, Yair Lapid, in the 2010s; on the right-wing side, this has raised the profile of the hawkish Avigdor Lieberman. But despite their relative successes, and the fact that they served in senior cabinet posts, these secularists have done little to diminish the Haredi influence within every ruling coalition.
As finance minister in Netanyahu’s government in 2014, for example, Yair Lapid managed to cut some spending that primarily benefited the Haredim, leading to a jump in the number of Haredi men taking jobs. But Netanyahu reversed these measures after he fired Lapid later that year; then he called an election and built his next coalition on Haredi support. Similarly, both Lapid and Lieberman tried to push for equality in the draft, and the I.D.F. established special units for the intake of Haredim without women and with special arrangements for keeping kosher. But the opposition the Haredim have for the state and the army triumphed, and soldiers who were drafted were cursed and pelted with eggs and stones when they came home on furloughs. As a result, the I.D.F. was only ever able to attract a small number of Haredi recruits.
“The issue isn’t only military service or integration into the work force,” said 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.”
Many of the Haredim I spoke with believe that all attempts to force aspects of secular Israeli life on their community are doomed to failure. “It will increase divisiveness and hatred among the people,” said Hadassah Aisenstark, the first female Haredi to become a cadet in the Foreign Ministry’s training course for diplomats, who was recently accepted to the service. “The stark political truth is that over the decades, the Haredim’s confrontations with the secular Israeli establishment have been enormously successful, bringing them significant political power while allowing them to retain their autonomy.”
Far from staying in Bnei Brak just a few days, Numa and his volunteers wound up mired there for nine weeks. At first, the situation did seem to be reeling out of control, but in mid-April, something surprising happened. Photographs of the crowded funerals of members of the New York Hasidic community began to appear in the Haredi press, uncensored by the rabbinical media committee. Those shocking images, along with the soaring incidence of Covid cases in Haredi neighborhoods in Israel, led many to grasp that prayer and faith were not sufficient protection against the virus. The split that had divided the Haredim from secular Israel soon began instead to divide many within the Haredi community.
By late April, it was becoming clear even to Kanievsky that large gatherings were becoming too deadly. He and several other influential rabbis ordered their followers to begin observing Ministry of Health regulations. The change was almost instantaneous; some in the community now adhered to the regulations even more avidly than the secular population. But not every sect agreed. Followers of the radical “Jerusalem Faction” — who split from the main community years ago, arguing that Kanievsky and his predecessors were too soft in their attitude toward the secular state — and other extreme splinter groups refused to obey the new orders. At Bnei Brak City Hall, Haredi government officials spoke with pride of the highly aggressive but “not entirely legal” measures taken to enforce the lockdown against the Jerusalem Faction.
“We shut down some ritual baths and cut off their water supply, those that had ignored the lockdown,” said a city official who dealt with enforcing the regulations. “In one place, we filled the pipes with lime and blocked them. Synagogues and schools, we welded the doors shut, like what we saw on TV that they did in China.”
Even as the ultra-Orthodox community was splitting, the lockdown and the stay-at-home orders made it necessary for the military to supply essential services to the Haredim. For the most part, the Haredi population welcomed the soldiers and were grateful. When members of some more intransigent sects pelted the soldiers with rocks and eggs, they were forcefully restrained by members of some of the more moderate sects. “They realized that to get out of the catastrophe, they needed the army,” Numa said. “They saw all of this power functioning on their behalf. They saw it, and they internalized it.” (Numa, for his part, later joined the Health Ministry to act as its coronavirus coordinator for the Haredi community.)
By late May, the percentage of coronavirus infections among the Haredim had declined to 22 percent, from 70 percent. It seemed like a victory for cooperation, and possibly a turning point in the fraught relations between the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities. But it was not to last.
As spring turned to summer and the pandemic seemed to be at its end, the Haredim reunited, bonded at first by impatience with public-health guidelines and then by a growing militance about the central government’s response. “Very soon,” said Gilad Malach, the director of the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute, “the Haredi leadership was talking as though the whole thing was a political matter, whose sole aim was persecution of the Haredi sector, both by the government and by the police.”
In June, Israel Eichler, the deputy speaker of the Knesset for United Torah Judaism, made a speech to the legislature that deployed the kind of Holocaust imagery that Haredi leaders typically reserve for their fiercest attacks on the secular state. The restrictions on Haredi neighborhoods — “as if they were ghettos” — proved “what we have suspected all along,” which was that the Israeli state was in fact anti-Semitic. Singling out the Hasidim, he argued, amounts to “a racist defamation, as if they are the disseminators of disease and contamination,” and it “engenders anti-Semitism among a population fearful of the virus all over the country.”
In the Haredi Knesset faction, Eichler represents the Belz Hasidic sect, which was established in the early 19th century in the town of Belz in eastern Galicia, now Ukraine. Most of its members were murdered in the Holocaust, and the sect rebuilt itself when surviving members settled in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and New York. Its current leader, Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, was tapped to take power in 1957 at age 9 after the previous leader, his uncle, died without an heir.
Soon after Eichler’s speech, the rabbi began to officiate at a series of prayer assemblies, ignoring the Health Ministry’s call for everyone to wear face masks and maintain social distancing in public. To celebrate his grandson’s wedding, the rabbi and the groom, accompanied by a crowd of followers, arrived at the Western Wall, showing the same disdain for the required precautions.
Then, on Aug. 5, came the huge wedding itself, in the vast hall of the Belz synagogue in Jerusalem. The entire community was invited; thousands turned up for the occasion. Guards at the door were there to make sure that the guests passed through metal detectors to ensure that no one was carrying a forbidden cellphone or a camera to record the proceedings, though they made no effort to push the guests to take precautions against the virus.
Nevertheless, footage emerged on TV showing the heaving crowd of men singing and dancing at close quarters, all wearing traditional kapota frock coats and shtreimel hats but no face masks. (Women were, of course, segregated.) The rabbi said through a spokesman that he believed that the risk of spiritual and mental damage to his followers if custom was discarded was greater than the risk to their health. No government intervention was needed. His followers could test themselves and remain in sufficient isolation without reporting to the authorities or disrupting the regular routine of religious and communal life. One prominent guest was Israel Eichler himself.
By September, the Haredi leaders had become widely and openly defiant. Kanievsky decreed that all Haredi study institutes must open as they do every year, immediately after the Sukkot holiday. When the pandemic shut down the yeshivas the previous semester, students who were living in the dormitories went home to their families, usually living in overcrowded apartments, and had nothing to keep them occupied. The universe had not collapsed, but the community was beginning to fray.
“Everything turned upside down for them,” said Yair Hess, the director of Hillel, an organization that helps Haredim who want to leave the community. Since the onset of the pandemic, there had been a 50 percent increase in those seeking his organization’s assistance. No one would speak openly about the numbers, but it was clear that the alienation was real and growing. From this perspective, blatant defiance of school-closing orders, issued by the government’s Education and Health Ministries as part of a second lockdown, was the only way to calm things.
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.”
For many, though, rebellion was not the issue at hand. “It is not a matter of merely wanting to be contrary,” said Eli Paley, the chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, a Jerusalem-based research organization. “We are talking about a community with values, with a lot of love for mankind. But it does not think of itself as belonging to Israeli civil society.”
Paley, who sometimes advises Haredi education officials on government matters, said he joined an effort with the Health Ministry to arrive at a partial reopening plan in October. The effort, which involved distancing and working in capsules, failed when the ministry determined that yeshivas could open only in parallel with secular schools, which were staying shut. The Haredim were not going to sacrifice their values to support what they saw as a highly politicized decision, Paley said. “If there is a clash between the government’s orders and their values, there’s no doubt what they’ll choose.”
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.
As of early February, the number of ultra-Orthodox Covid-19 cases has dropped to 18 percent of the national total, down from 30 percent in January. But this could again be a function of testing. Israel’s Ministry of Health reported just 49.8 tests per 10,000 in the ultra-Orthodox population in early February, compared with 73.6 for the general population. Among the ultra-Orthodox, the percentage of those testing positive is more than double that of the rest of the population. The true impact of the pandemic is expressed in the death toll: One in every 100 ultra-Orthodox people over the age of 60 has died from the disease, three and a half times as many as in the general population.
Netanyahu rejects the notion that he failed to sufficiently press the Haredi community on the coronavirus issue. “Though fashionable in some quarters, it is wrong to single out the Haredi community for criticism when there have been violations in many sectors,” a spokesman for Netanyahu said. “The prime minister believes we will succeed in defeating Covid-19 not by playing one group against another but by being united.”
Several Haredi leaders have announced that they will support Netanyahu’s bid to remain prime minister in the election scheduled to take place on March 23, the fourth such election in two years. Their political calculation is likely to become more challenging in the months and years to come, though, because of what the pandemic has made obvious to their followers.
“What did they learn from the corona?” asked Zicherman, the Ono College official. “First of all, that the Zionist state is not always against them. Secondly, there was a very damaging blow to the core mechanism, the concept of da’at Torah” — knowledge of the Torah, which holds that learned rabbinical authorities should be consulted and obeyed on all matters. “Thirdly, it turns out that a Halakhic judgment is not entirely a matter of black and white. There are grays too, and you must not always go to extremes. Yes, it is permissible to have the internet in your home without a bolt of lightning from hell coming to burn it all down, and you can do your Passover cleaning a little ‘light’ and the sky won’t fall.”
In some respects, the pandemic simply sped up a process of integration and opening that had long been in the works. During the pandemic, the Haredi community “had no choice but to enable women to work from home, including those employed by me here at the municipality,” said Aliza Bloch, mayor of Beit Shemesh, a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with a mixed Haredi-modern Orthodox-secular population. Bloch is the first woman to be mayor of Beit Shemesh; in 2018, she defeated an incumbent who had the support of Kanievsky. “The programmers in the city engineer’s department are Haredi women who we need for the smooth functioning of the municipality. But they had no computers or internet at home, so we installed them. And once they are in there, even if the reason for that is no longer relevant, the chances that they will be removed are slim.”
Ariel Fuss, who helps run several family-owned schools in Israel, including the Mercaz Chareidi Institute of Technology, told me that women now make up a majority of the students there. Often they simply need the money. “Many families simply do not have an alternative,” Fuss said, “and they have rebelled against the view that says a woman’s modesty requires her to stay at home.” Haredi women have been especially drawn to civil service, computing and accounting and are often employed at high-tech firms, which have been happy to accommodate them by offering flexible work hours and a kosher workplace.
The increased exposure to the internet has been another potentially radical development. According to a survey by the Bezeq corporation, the provider of most of Israel’s telecommunications and internet infrastructure, more than 80 percent of the Haredim were surfing the web now, and they were surfing it far more often than they had before the pandemic. There has been a 30 percent increase in use in Haredi towns and neighborhoods and a fivefold growth in the number of applicants to connect to the network. In November, the first Haredi virtual school in Israel opened. Within a week, 150 students had registered, securing not just access to the classes but also access to the online world.
“Many Haredim now realize that they are no longer a small, weak minority that has to struggle, but today have representatives in the Knesset and the cabinet in leadership positions,” Bloch said. “They want to use that power not just to secure grants for yeshiva students, but also to address a host of issues that in previous years seemed to be the sole province of the secular world, from the environment to sexual harassment to special education.”
“On the other hand,” Bloch continued, “there is an extremist leadership that believes that the more it isolates its public from the Zionist state, the more chances they will have to accumulate political capital. They are doing it to preserve their role. When you strengthen the dependency of the members of your community on you, you are stronger.”
Ziv Koren is an Israeli photojournalist known for his documentation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He works for the daily Yedioth Ahronoth and is represented by Polaris Images.
News – How the Pandemic Nearly Tore Israel Apart