Coronavirus and the haredim: By the numbers

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Why the haredi status quo cannot be sustained

By VIVIAN BERCOVICI – MARCH 11, 2021

 

Gathering at the Rashbi gravesite, Meron, June 6, 2020 (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

Gathering at the Rashbi gravesite, Meron, June 6, 2020 (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

This is the third in an in-depth series of articles examining key aspects of haredi society and its role in and influence on the country today.

Consensus transpires rarely in Israel, where the love of argument is perhaps the dominant genetic marker.

Numbers, however, challenge the Jewish inclination to parse every fact exhaustingly. And one thing that the corona era has made clear is that numbers are indispensable in assessing the spiking tensions between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population and, well, those who are not haredi.

Just as the haredim cannot be reduced to a monolith of beliefs and lifestyle, neither can the majority of Israeli Jews or Arabs who identify as modern Orthodox, traditional, secular or atheist.

But, sixty percent is sixty percent and, today, sixty percent of the haredi population of approximately 1.2 million is under the age of 20 (compared with 30% of the general Israeli population). These children are born into families with an average fertility rate of 6.6, making any future population trajectory relatively simple to calculate. It’s a very steep incline.

At current growth rates, haredim in Israel – now representing 12.6% of the population – will account for 16% by 2030. Data compiled by the pluralistic Jerusalem-based think tank, Israel Democracy Institute, show that the growth rate of the haredi population in Israel is higher than that found in any developed country in the world.

ISRAEL POLICE try to stop haredim from entering Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot, during the funeral of Rabbi David Feinstein on November 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

ISRAEL POLICE try to stop haredim from entering Jerusalem’s Har Hamenuchot, during the funeral of Rabbi David Feinstein on November 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Most concerning, however, is the inability of this proliferating segment of the population to be self-supporting economically and the extreme burden that its demands and expectations impose on the broader population. During the corona era, the disjunctiveness of haredi “entitlements” and state limitations became impossible to ignore.

“With

corona

,” explains IDI president and former MK Yohanan Plesner, “everything is immediate, representing a unique moment in public policy – where action and outcome are so directly correlated.”

Indeed, from the outset of the corona panic a year ago, Israelis were ordered nationwide into an unprecedented peacetime lockdown, with even outdoor excursions severely limited in duration and distance. Everyone was spooked by the dystopian film clips of hazmat-suited teams spraying desolate streets in Wuhan, China, with god knows what. Is this crazy virus from pangolin? Bats? Is it carried in the air? Is that why we are locked indoors? It would seem that being outside, applying common sense, would be safest.

The whole world, it seemed, was seized by panic.

In Israel (as in most places) people were generally miserable and frightened. But only the haredim were brazenly defiant of public health directives, en masse; emboldened by leading rabbis to carry on with the core function of daily life – Torah learning. What this meant, of course, was that haredi schools and yeshivas and kollels, to a large degree, remained open. It meant that large weddings were celebrated, weekly tisch gatherings led by prominent rabbis after Shabbat ended on Saturday night continued uninterrupted, and funerals drew large crowds, often thousands.

In those days, so many haredim went about unmasked, trusting their health to God’s will. In fact, at one point in early April it was disclosed that then-health minister Ya’acov Litzman, adherent of the Hassidic Ger sect, was seen regularly in his Jerusalem synagogue throughout the lockdown, in flagrant breach of directives issued under his authority.

ELAD MAYOR Yisrael Porush: Cramped housing conditions must be addressed. Pictured: Elad, April 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

ELAD MAYOR Yisrael Porush: Cramped housing conditions must be addressed. Pictured: Elad, April 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

During the spring, as haredim were under near constant attack for flouting corona laws, the mayor of Elad, a haredi town of 90,000 near Petah Tikva, let it rip during a live television interview. He said that the cramped housing conditions of his community must be addressed as this was the main cause of wildfire contagion among haredim generally. Based on what we know today that is an accurate statement; being cooped up in small spaces certainly fuels viral spread. But, it’s a leap from that to angrily demand that the state provide haredim with more commodious homes.

A SECULAR or traditional person might respond by suggesting that if one was unable to provide for one’s spouse and children then perhaps they should rethink their approach to family planning.

The demand for superior housing was echoed in recent months and equal stridency by UTJ leader, Moshe Gafni, whose loyalty is to the Lithuanian haredi sector. He blamed Israelis, generally, for “forcing” large haredi families to live in such small apartments, an absurd outburst that was lampooned without mercy on the Israeli satire show, Eretz Nehederet. It was so obnoxious, so detached from reality, this outburst; from a haredi sect extolling asceticism, no less. Gafni, of course, was hamming it up for his constituency, while he infuriated everyone else.

This is a man who understands very well the financial dependence of the few – haredim – upon the many – everyone else. Gafni is a career politician, having been an MK since 1988 and chair of the uber powerful Finance Committee; where the brass-knuckled wheeling and dealing over allocations and state budgets goes down. He has been a decades-long fixture on the committee for good reason.

Gafni and his colleagues understand that their communities cannot self-sustain without generous support for life basics from the state. In recent months, now-Housing Minister Litzman has boasted to haredi media that a condition for him to support the current government coalition was that significant state capital be ensured, no matter the outcome of any subsequent election, for the construction of new haredi housing in targeted communities in Israel. And, so it shall be.

UNITED TORAH Judaism leader Moshe Gafni (right) with health minister Yaakov Litzman in party headquarters on election night, in Givat Shmuel on March 2, 2020. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

UNITED TORAH Judaism leader Moshe Gafni (right) with health minister Yaakov Litzman in party headquarters on election night, in Givat Shmuel on March 2, 2020. (Roy Alima/Flash90)

Housing and education must be secured. Health care they already have, as does every citizen.

In a recently released report setting out comprehensive data and analysis regarding education trends, IDI shows that the numbers of men and boys enrolled in the haredi education sector continues to increase. Which is fine.

The problems arise when curriculum is scrutinized. After age 13, haredi boys study only Talmud and receive no instruction in core subjects such as math, science or English. And, this is where the numbers begin to tell a very worrisome story.

Most of these haredi boys will grow into men and marry young, often around age 20. Soon enough, their wives will begin to bear children and their resources will be stretched to the limit. More than 40% of these families will live in poverty, compared to 11% of the general population. Approximately 25% of haredi families are subject to food insecurity.

These young fathers are stuck in a system with no escape. As haredim, they almost all refuse to serve in the IDF or national service, electing full-time Torah study. In return, they receive a penurious stipend from the state, as do soldiers who give three years of their young lives to serve in the military.

Only 13% of these young haredi men will write a single matriculation examination from the mainstream state curriculum. They are prepared for a life of Torah study, which they revere as the highest calling possible.

NOT EVERYONE however is suited to sitting in a stuffy “beit midrash” study hall, day in day out, often from morning to night, arguing the finer points of thousands of years of legalistic nuance. The dropout rate from kollels is thought to be close to 30%, but the institutions do not make it official, de-registering the truants. Fewer students means lower state subsidies.

This reality of a hidden education crisis, leaving so many young men at loose ends, is acknowledged by haredim as well. A middle aged mother with yeshiva age boys with whom I met lamented the fact that there is no diversity of education available.

At age 18 in Israel, young men choose one of two paths: IDF service or Torah study. A few iconoclasts join haredi army units and accommodations are made for study while in uniform, but nowhere near full time. And these young men often face hostility from their home communities, but that’s a whole other digression.

The men who elect kollel study are stuck. By law that’s their job and both they and the institution receive stipends to support their learning. Any work they do is “on the side,” often illegal and at punishing wages. This fork in the road is something haredi families would like to see modified.

Their leadership, however, shows no signs of relenting. The current model ensures growth of the community in a financially feasible manner. The rabbinical and political leadership has a significant challenge – to keep the 60%, the young, the future, engaged and on the narrow, preordained track already laid out for them.

But, again, Corona magnified everything.

Once word of widespread defiance of school closures seeped out, journalists began frequenting haredi towns more notorious for such conduct, among them Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh. Journalists were often attacked physically and threatened. One haredi journalist with whom I met said he can no longer show his face in many haredi neighborhoods, including in his hometown of Bnei Brak. Asked why, he responds with an incredulous look: “Threats.”

“Violent threats,” he continues, for exposing the reality of what is going on in haredi communities. He refused to accompany me on a walkabout inBnei Brak

, again, from concern for his (and, I assume, mine as well) physical safety.

On the occasions when I did arrange with locals to visit their haredi neighborhoods, we discussed, in advance, attire and “noise.” I was told repeatedly that if I intended to come with a camera crew, that any meeting was a non-starter.

Now, in fairness, ultra-Orthodox Jews are generally camera shy, preferring not to be photographed for general consumption. They are very aware that the likelihood of the commercial camera being sympathetic to their positions is remote, at best. However, they do live in a democracy, with a free press, which has a right and duty to report on civic compliance with the law during a pandemic. So, if there’s nothing to hide, why all the fuss?

Dr. Gilad Malach, director of the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute, sees unprecedented levels of anger in haredi and non-haredi communities. “The haredim continue to have large gatherings, even during the corona period,” he notes ” and are seen by secular and more traditional religious Israelis to be doing what they see to be good for their community, not what is good for the state.”

In fact, on Sunday evening, Gafni went a little viral on social media in a short video clip of him speaking with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the telephone. Bibi had called to congratulate Gafni on the wedding of his grandson. A beaming Gafni removed his mask for the short chat, heard over the loud background noise of many, many voices in what appeared to be a large social hall. He was surrounded by men without masks, among them Litzman.

As of Sunday, apparently, social gatherings of up to 300 became legal. Either Gafni’s family had advance notice of this pending change or they are masters at event planning on a dime.

And yet, haredim generally are angry with the state and enforcement authorities, feeling that they have been targeted for harsher oversight and lockdown measures than the general population. In fact, Malach points out that in recent weeks a UTJ MK threatened that his community would “cut off relations with the authorities.”
But. They are the authorities. The haredim sit in the government.

HAREDI CHILDREN march in a row in Jerusalem (in pre-corona times) – born into families with an average fertility rate of 6.6. (David Vaaknin/Flash90)

HAREDI CHILDREN march in a row in Jerusalem (in pre-corona times) – born into families with an average fertility rate of 6.6. (David Vaaknin/Flash90)

THIS FLEXIBLE relationship with the state has been a core feature of organized haredi communities in Israel since the establishment of the state in 1948. Haredi political representatives have held key positions in the Knesset with very few intermissions and they are very adept, as they should be, at managing their constituents’ interests.

Dr. Yedidia Z. Stern, professor of Law at Bar Ilan University and president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, explains the rough breakdown of haredi communities into three main blocs: a hardcore anti-Zionist elements comprising approximately 15% of the 1.2m total population; about 25% who accept and participate fully in the state, tending to come from the Mizrachi and Sephardic communities; and the majority – about 60% – being of Lithuanian and hassidic background and typified by a general ambivalence toward state authority.

Haredi MKs have long coveted the portfolios and committees that impact the state budget for issues that support their Torah lifestyle: housing, health, finance, education, interior. They have shown no interest in anything related to defense, security or foreign affairs, matters completely tied to the secular state that they disdain.

Yet, in recent years, they have, as a bloc, committed themselves politically to Likud, Bibi and, more broadly, to the “right wing.” For decades, haredi political leaders were ambidextrous: right wing, left wing, any wing, as long as their communities were supported financially.

In return, the state has managed haredi defiance of the law – particularly during corona – with a very light touch. Bibi has simply turned a blind eye, calling every once in a while to key rabbinical aides to gently implore them to comply with the law. To no avail.

On this point, there is a surplus of anger all round.Haredim

are furious with law enforcement authorities for what they see as being targeted discrimination against their communities. They are angry with the media for poking around their neighborhoods looking for mass corona transgressions. Defending their organized and mass flouting of the law, haredi leaders say there is no difference between the odd funeral with thousands in attendance or underground schooling and the unending party and merriment on the beaches of Tel Aviv and weekly political demonstrations outside the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem.

But haredim who suggest this false parity overlook one key issue in making this broad statement: It is their rabbinical and political leaders supporting and exhorting organized insurrection. There is no parallel for such extreme and direct condonation of lawbreaking among non-haredi leadership. Such comparisons are deeply flawed: apples to oranges. Political demonstrations are a critical freedom in a liberal democracy (not to mention that most attending are masked). As for the 24/7 partying on the Tel Aviv beaches, it’s complete BS. I live a few blocks from there and have watched, repeatedly, as police lie in wait in their vehicles, waiting to jump out, pound sand and leap to arrest a lone surfer. Or shake up a couple sitting together on the beach. The revelry, it seems, is in Bnei Brak, not on the tayelet boardwalk.

This is where the rubber hits the road – and this is corona. For years, people looked away and carried on. There was a baseless faith that somehow, this intractable and growing impasse between societies would resolve organically. It has yet to happen.

There is a widespread sense among non-haredi Israelis that this imbalance simply cannot be sustained. Israel is a liberal, democratic state based on the rule of law, not a theocracy founded on halacha – religious law. To live here – as in any country – is to accept the imperfections and play by the rules. And, if you want to change them, you do so on appropriate terms: vote, demonstrate, advocate. But declaring unilateral autonomy and insurrection is simply not an option in a functioning democracy.

At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie. Valuing Torah study over preservation of life in haredi society has come at more than the high cost of housing and kollel funding. It can be measured in lives lost. Comprising 12% of the general population, haredim accounted for more than 40% of corona cases and, correspondingly, deaths.

It’s bad math and bad democracy.

The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.