Regev Responds

The phenomenon of a "state within a state" cannot be allowed to stand

Should ultra-Orthodox sector determine Israel's pandemic response?

In Israel, response to COVID-19 pandemic is largely dictated by the fragile political reality and the extraordinary weight of the ultra-Orthodox political parties.

Ultra-Orthodox boys at Western Wall, source: WikipediaUltra-Orthodox boys at Western Wall, source: Wikipedia

The same virus is affecting the whole world, but countries deal with it in varying ways. Responses to COVID-19 are sometimes dictated by professional health considerations, and sometimes by political, economic, and cultural considerations. In Israel, they are largely dictated by the fragile political reality and the extraordinary weight of the ultra-Orthodox political parties. On the one hand, the leaders of the coalition are reluctant to upset them, and on the other hand, the ultra-Orthodox politicians themselves are reluctant to face the rabbinical leadership of these parties, which has been illustrated in the past and continues to this day. This proves that their decisions are not always guided by medical and health considerations, nor even by health of their followers, but rather by conceptions of fundamentalist beliefs expressed, for example, in statements such as: "The danger of shutting down Torah study and the yeshivas is greater than the danger of COVD-19" and the principled notion that the corona virus is not a natural phenomenon at all but an expression of God’s will.

This reality is expressed in different ways, for example: the decision to impose a national lock-down rather than implement the recommendations of medical authorities, including the Corona Tzar, to impose a differentiated closure, which mainly means the imposition of a closure on ultra-Orthodox cities, in which the rate of infection and the severity of the disease are dramatically higher than in other parts of the country. A few days ago, one of the ministers explicitly admitted this in an interview: ‘We refrained from imposing a differentiated closure so as not to upset the ultra-Orthodox!’ Similarly, the police conduct in dealing with the closure violations in the ultra-Orthodox sector, including continued activities of synagogues and ultra-Orthodox schools contrary to the prohibitions imposed by law, the holding of large weddings, events during the holidays [Simchat Torah dancing, Simchat Beit Hashoeva, High Holy Day prayers, and more]. The police maintain limited supervision and enforcement, although sometimes they get violent, whether it be ultra-Orthodox protesters and crowds against the police or police violence. In general, it is a matter of limited and symbolic enforcement, meaning: extremely problematic [and it points to its political affiliation, at least in part, with the existence of a "state within a state"]. There are reports of tacit agreement between the police and Hasidic courts, wherein lies most of the disregard for the provisions, or other ultra-Orthodox groups, according to which, for example, as long as they keep the forbidden Simchat Torah dancing inside closed buildings and without publicizing them - the police will not intervene. With the incredible publication of statistics, according to which, during the holiday season only one fine was imposed on a synagogue, which held prayers in violation of the law, even though everyone knows that this took place on a very large scale. The conduct of broad circles in ultra-Orthodox Judaism can be represented in the following examples:

Entrance sign for mikveh (ritual bath):

The mass attendance of about 5,000 people at the funeral of the Rebbe of Pittsburgh, who died of COVID-19, in Ashdod, against the law [], the thousands who illegally attended the wedding of the Belzer Rebbe's grandson [], and more. Only today we received complaints from neighbors about an ultra-Orthodox school where weddings have lately been held in the yard every evening, while many of the attendees do not wear masks, and another ultra-Orthodox school holding classes, as if there was no prohibition against this. We passed the documentation to the police, and we hope to be pleasantly surprised if the police take an interest in really addressing with the extent of the legal violations in this sector.

Israel is facing a leap forward in this conflict, as anger and public criticism of the government increase, for the public is aware that the whole is punished, including "green" cities, as this is the only way politicians can achieve closure of the ultra-Orthodox cities, which are the "reds" for the most part. The damage to the economy is enormous, and the plan that seems to ease the closure next week is based on a distinction between the green and red municipalities, including a ban on the resumption of studies in ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivas in these localities, and restrictions on synagogue gatherings.

The response to this in the ultra-Orthodox sector has been sharp and threatening. Yesterday, Minister of the Interior Rabbi Aryeh Deri (leader of Shas) met with the Prime Minister and informed him, “We're going to explode - if you do not reach an agreement with us, I am very afraid of a revolt of the ultra-Orthodox sector. There will be big violations” Personalities in the ultra-Orthodox sector have made it clear that, “Next week, Torah study will be opened in violation of the guidelines. The opening of the Talmud will be done, supported by the rabbis, who claim that they cannot continue the cessation of Torah study... They'll open the yeshivas. With or without an approved plan.” General Roni Numa, the person in charge of addressing COVID-19 in the ultra-Orthodox sector clarified the problem: "If there's a wedding, and there is a celebration on Shabbat for the groom, which brings home all the grandparents and uncles – What would be the wonder of having an infection? The same goes for the education system and the synagogues.”

It is clear that the police do not have the power to deal with this reality, and therefore Israel needs to move to economic sanctions in addition to law enforcement; cessation of support for yeshivas, synagogues, etc., which do not comply with health directives.

Dr. Avishay Ben Haim, Commentator on ultra-Orthodox affairs on channel 13 TV stressed his assessment that we are marching towards rebellion, and that next week the yeshivas will open, regardless of state approval. According to him, it is clear that the police do not have the power to deal with this reality, and therefore Israel needs to move to economic sanctions in addition to law enforcement; cessation of support for yeshivas, synagogues, etc., which do not comply with health directives.

This was also our approach, as we expressed in an interview a few days ago when we highlighted the dual challenge facing the country: The refusal of large circles in the ultra-Orthodox sector to comply with health regulations and the law sharpens the challenge we face. It's not just about dealing with a pandemic, but about dealing with the phenomenon of the "state within a state". The position of these circles, their rabbinical leadership and their political representatives is: They do not consider themselves subject to the laws of the state. This poses a greater challenge to all of us to protect the rule of law and democracy, and in this struggle the state must not lose, for the consequences will be wide and catastrophic. Therefore, we emphasized, in addition to determination in enforcement, including the use of similar military forces as were used during the struggle against segregation in the United States, there should also be accompanying comprehensive civic and economic measures. These should include the denial of grants and funding provided generously by Israeli governments for generations to these individuals and their institutions, as well as suspension of other civil benefits, such as: driver's license, passport, recruitment to work in the public service, and more - which the law already allows today in extreme cases of recalcitrant husbands who deny their wives divorces.

The analogies to what is happening these days in New York are fascinating. In New York, the organizers of the ultra-Orthodox protest translated it into a political message, accusing the governor and the mayor of persecuting the ultra-Orthodox and promoted Trump's campaign. Trump, for his part, was quick to express himself on the issue and express his sympathy with the ultra-Orthodox position. In Israel, the political situation is completely different, for the political parties responsible, from the Prime Minister and down, are close partners with and dependent upon the ultra-Orthodox support. Therefore, they surrendered in advance to the dictates of the ultra-Orthodox leadership and formulated the policy accordingly. MK Asher (Shas) as chairman of the Constitution Committee made it clear that he would not approve Corona regulations that would not reflect the demands of the ultra-Orthodox leadership.

It is interesting to see that at present the Governor of New York has adopted, In addition to other enforcement efforts, the approach of economic sanctions, and we will follow the development of the struggle there and compare it to what is happening here. Our readers will not be surprised to hear that at this stage no one in the government is seriously considering imposing economic sanctions on ultra-Orthodox institutions in violation of the Corona's directives.

A federal judge on Friday allowed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to move forward with new restrictions on gatherings at synagogues and other houses of worships, finding that the rules did not violate the free exercise of religion for Orthodox Jews.

The ruling in federal court in Brooklyn came after Agudath Israel of America, a national Orthodox Jewish organization, sued Mr. Cuomo this week over his latest executive order detailing an array of new restrictions to address rising coronavirus cases in neighborhoods with large populations of Orthodox Jews. Notably, Agudath Israel of America primarily based its legal case upon the principle of religious freedom.

In the midst of these days, articles have been published again about the serious economic consequences of ultra-Orthodox political pressure in Israel [for example, Meirav Arlozorov, Haaretz, October 1, 2020 "The state within a state of the ultra-Orthodox threatens us all"]

Things do not escape the eyes and hearts of figures in the ultra-Orthodox world who observe this reality and are shocked. For example, Rabbi Asher Weiss, an important ultra-Orthodox Rosh Yeshiva published an announcement two days ago: "Shame will cover our faces, every day people die of COVID-19, among them Hasidic Rebbes, the heads of yeshivas, and the people of the House of Israel. We cannot say that our hands have not shed this blood." This is the first time we find ultra-Orthodox writings that exceedingly critically and surprisingly depart from the line that characterized their articles in the past.

Hiddush and other NGOs that fight for religious freedom and women’s rights are operating within the limited frameworks open to us. An example of this was our initiative back April / May, which led to the Deputy Attorney General to instruct the Ministries of Education and the Interior and the Mayor of Jerusalem, that studies should not be held for boys only, while excluding girls, even if the argument is that boys' studies should be preferred because they have a religious obligation to study Torah, whereas girls do not. You may also read HERE about our current petition, together with a feminist organization, which may lead to a legal move in the coming days, if necessary.

In a reality where the political system is crumbling and early elections [for the fourth time in two years] are probably inevitable, everything we have described here will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for Israel’s political reality.

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