Photo Credit: pixabay

{Originally posted to the author’s webpage}

Every commentator in this country has been analyzing the reasons for the higher than average coronavirus infection rate among Israeli haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) Jews.

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Some have argued that government neglect of the haredi community is responsible for the compounded corona crisis, and that Israel must invest more in “dialogue” with this alienated sub-sector of society.

I say that the “neglect” problem runs far beyond the haredi sector to include Arab, Bedouin and other minority communities in this country, and that it runs in the opposite direction.

It is the purposeful and self-destructive sectarianism of these minority communities that is the root cause of the difficulties Israel long has had, and now acutely has, with these populations. Their own determined and defiant isolationism is at fault. If there is any government negligence, it is neglect of enforcement of necessary national norms on the haredi, Arab and Bedouin communities.

Consider: The reason that Bedouin shantytowns have been able to sprawl across vast tracts of land in the Negev is that Israeli authorities have failed to act for years against their extensive squatting. The same goes for polygamy, drugs and other criminal activity among the Bedouins. It would hard to crack down, so successive Israeli governments have shied away from doing so.

The reason that illegal building and armed violence is so prevalent in Israeli Arab communities is that Israeli authorities have failed to act for years against these ills. It would hard to crack down, so successive Israeli governments have shied away from doing so.

The reason that the teaching of the “core” educational curriculum (math, science, citizenship and English) is so neglected in haredi schools is that Israeli authorities have failed to act for years to impose this. The reason that young haredi men still receive a blanket exemption from army service is that Israeli legislators have failed to act for years to impose this. It would hard to crack down, so successive Israeli governments have shied away from doing so.

I could offer a dozen other examples, including government failure to arrest the violence of hilltop youth in Judea and Samaria and government failure to deal with welfare and crime in the exploding Tel Aviv illegal immigrant neighborhoods – but the point is clear.

These sub-sectors of Israeli society reject government direction of their lives and communities, and the so-called mainstream of Israeli society hasn’t had the gumption to confront them.

To be fair, it is important to note that the Likud-led governments of the past decade have tried more than ever before – more than any other Israeli governments of the past 70 years – to coax these communities out of their shells.

The recent Netanyahu governments have invested billions of shekels in land reform, resettlement and social welfare plans for the Bedouin; billions of shekels in university study, job placement, and women’s empowerment in the Arab sector; and many billions of shekels in higher education and workplace integration opportunities for haredi men and women.

Many Arabs and a trickle of Bedouin and haredi citizens have availed themselves of these opportunities, but their community leaders have largely, demonstratively rejected Israel’s outstretched hand. They prefer instead to wallow in isolationism, to build the virtual walls around their communities ever higher, and to glorify their autonomous anarchy. To live as separate states within the Israeli state.

Now we are all paying the coronavirus price for this anarchy; for this minority lawlessness and this government fecklessness.

OF COURSE, Israel’s haredi community is in a category of its own, all-together different from Arabs or Bedouin, both in terms of its own self-definition and broader Israeli society’s relationship with it. Haredi Israelis are truly brothers, fellow Jews.

Therefore, it is incumbent to understand that there are objective reasons for the slow way in which the haredi community has woken up to the coronavirus challenge.

Haredi people are not plugged into the mainstream media, and they are suspicious of science and the secular world. The closing of communal religious institutions – shuls, shtibels, heders, seminars, yeshivas and kollels, as well as restrictions on lifecycle ceremonies – weddings and the like, is a body blow to the centralized and defining structure of haredi society and haredi religious identity.

There is also the near impossibility of social distancing, never mind quarantine at home of the coronavirus sick, in crowded haredi homes and neighborhoods.

But the core problem that haredi society – actually, the octogenarian haredi leaders – had with quickly climbing aboard the national effort to prevent contagion is their ambivalent relationship with the Zionist State of Israel. Alas, haredi leaders feel less civic loyalty towards Israeli society at-large and they are less animated by national responsibility. With the general exception of actual wartime, a “them-and-us” ideology prevails.

Sure, once the virus began to take its toll within haredi society, community leaders were finally shocked into compliance with government regulations. They have now translated what was pejoratively called Israeli government gezeirot (“decrees” – like the antisemitic diktats of Czarist Russia in closing yeshivas) into halachic issurim (mandatory religious strictures) – which the haredi public knows to unquestionably adhere to.

But the delay has taken an enormous toll on the haredi population, and this toll could yet spill over into broader Israel too. Mathematical models indicate that the spread of infection in communities living in overcrowded conditions can spark a renewed and serious outbreak among all segments of society. From an epidemiological perspective, Israel’s entire population constitutes an interconnected “communicating vessel” with immediate collateral impact.

This is not just an epidemiological truth. It is a peoplehood truth. It is a theological truth. Kol Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh, all Jews are responsible for the welfare of one another. We are supposed to be guarantors of each other’s health, happiness and security. In order to survive and thrive, the State of Israel can’t afford it any other way.

Therefore, it is high time to impose more obligations and responsibilities on this country’s minority populations, especially haredi Jews. One would hope that the coronavirus crisis would bring haredi leaders to appreciate the extensive efforts of the State of Israel to treat and heal their community, and thus be moved to mend some of their more extreme “social distancing” ways.

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