In 1981, as a young cadet in Officer’s Course of the IDF, I participated in a walking educational tour of the Haredi neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Being in Israel less than a year, and with my spoken Hebrew still limited, I didn’t quite understand at first that Haredi children on balconies above us were yelling and accusing us, Israeli soldiers in uniform, of being “Nazis, Nazis”. I was reminded of my own experience over the past few weeks as IDF Home Front soldiers began enforcing the lockdown in Haredi neighborhoods throughout Israel. Their distribution of food goods and medication to thousands of Haredi residents under lockdown, their logistical and medical assistance to the sick and elderly, put the lie to those hurtful taunts, and the many Haredi citizens who expressed their thanks were given media exposure.
But are these Haredi children representative of a larger part of the Haredi community? Does scathing criticism of the Haredi community add fuel to the fire and stoke the flames of rampant antisemitism so prevalent everywhere? Can Haredi Rabbinical leaders continue to dismiss secular authorities here in Israel or elsewhere in the world as nothing more than a necessary wickedness to be tolerated?
This resistance to comply with secular authority’s directives or advice from outside of the Orthodox world has been a pillar of Haredi communities in Israel, in New York, and throughout the world. The rejection of the State of Israel as a Godly inspired manifestation by the Haredi world is common knowledge. Denying the legitimization of the State of Israel due to its establishment prior to the coming of the Mashiach is at the heart of why the Haredim and their rabbinical leaders have always refused the authority of the elected Zionist government, irrespective of the party in power, including the right-wing parties.
The Haredim have largely avoided army service for the past 72 years and even on Israel’s Memorial Day which we commemorated only a week ago, some of them continue to refuse to stand and observe a moment of silence for Israel’s Holy soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for the Jewish nation. Whether it be Army service or taxes, or state stipends, the Haredim have been able to get away with it that is, until the Corona pandemic came to town.
The Haredi Rabbis' flouting of government interference and their ignorance of the Corona virus led them to demand of the Haredi community to continue to ignore lockdown regulations and to continue to study Torah and pray. The deadly results of their calls have been felt not only in Israel, but throughout the Haredi world.
In Belgium for example, home to a large Haredi community, close to 85% of the community contracted the coronavirus and approximately one fifth of the 17,000-strong community required hospitalization, with upwards of 550 deaths whom perished from the disease. In Strasburg, France, the majority of the Jewish community where reportedly ill with Corona. In Britain, Haredi communities persisted in ignoring government restrictions despite infection rates surpassing Jews presence in the general population. A reported 5% of all fatalities in the Britain are Jews, though they constitute only 0.3% of British citizens.
New York City’s Haredi Jews made up approximately 13% of all confirmed cases in New York, with the figure most likely much higher today. In Israel, about two thirds of all Corona infections have been recorded among the Haredim.
These very high rates of infection are undisputable and, rightly so, have not been ignored by local health and municipal authorities. Here in Israel, whole haredi communities were quarantined and closed off to the general population. Yet despite the very real danger of infection to the general population, until well into the Corona outbreak, the haredim behaved individually as well as communally as if they are not obligated to abide by any state order or decree concerning the Corona virus. Adding to this, large families living in cramped quarters made individual isolation almost impossible, resulting in the government's removing hundreds of elderly haredi citizens to hotels.
While the rest of us were obligated under decree to stay at home, with increasingly severe limitations on our freedom of movement, some haredi towns and neighborhoods conducted business as usual, while those who kept the rules immediately had very low rates of infection. The government of Israel had to employ large police and military forces to implement the closing off of non-compliant neighborhoods and maintain a strict curfew on the streets of these closed off communities. In some cases police forces had to respond to violent Haredi demonstrations and rioting against the lockdown, although Haredi spokesmen claim these are fringe groups.
Rabbi Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky (shlita) is a recognized figure in the Israeli Haredi community and Posek. He is considered a leading authority in Haredi Jewish society. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky was quoted stating that the Cornona virus could have been prevented by more Torah study. When the Corona pandemic descended upon the land, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky ordered his followers, not just "an extreme minority," to ignore the new orders and to keep holding mass prayers and the Yeshivas open.
He was, it is claimed, misinformed by a family member about the reason for the government rulings, but the result of this Rabbinical directive was more infected and more dead. Even if the revered Rabbi did ultimately change his mind, the damage had already been done. The Haredi community is known for being very much attuned to the importance of Pekuach Nefesh and benefitting from Israel’s highly accessible and professional medical and health services, however the Corona seems to have blinded these very same Rabbinical authorities at the cost of unnecessary deaths within the Haredi communities. (It should be noted that the rabbis of the hasidic community in Israel complied with the lockdown immediately)
Only 10 weeks ago, when the world became aware of the pending danger of the exponential infection rate of the Corona virus and began to institute social distancing and restrictions on public behavior , haredi Rabbis and their community leaders continued to ignore explicit warnings and instruction by authorities, in New York City, in European cities, and in Israel.
This one-way relationship of the Haredi community towards local authorities and the general population is unsustainable and the kid glove handling of the Haredim must end. The Corona pandemic is just one symptom, just a small detail in an already strained relationship between the Haredim and everyone else. Obligations to the state; military service, the education system, dietary laws, and intermittent demonstrations by a haredi group fighting the need to sign up at IDF offices to receive deferment are only a few examples of areas of contention that have festered for years. The haredi community and its religious leaders can no longer act with immunity from criticism. This is not racism or Jews hating Jews nor is it antisemitism, as has been claimed by their spokesmen.
If the Corona virus has a spiritual or symbolic aspect, it is the idea that the rhetoric of Haredi religious obligations, of keeping the Mitzvot, can longer be considered an exclusive mitzvah bucket list to be fulfilled at all costs no matter the price, no matter the circumstances,no matter the greater mitzvah. Haredi Rabbi’s and community leaders simply believed that they could delay the “Mageifa” (pandemic) until after Purim, that Hashem would protect them because, in their mind, what they were doing were all mitzvot; but were proven deadly wrong.
Mitzvot were given to mankind so that we can concretize values of Jewish Life, yet Haredi Rabbis have compromised this basic given by sanctioning the dismissal and ignoring of Mitzvot that can be fulfilled and maintained only in the Land of Israel. The selective adherence to Mitzvot by Haredi Rabbis throughout the world has led to the grim reality in recent weeks of Haredi Rabbis losing their authority to make decisions of great importance to the Jewish people, and they can no longer deny the legitimacy of the authority of the State of Israel.
The Corona virus has been a great embarrassment for those Haredi Rabbis who did not obey the protective laws, who have been proven to be in need and dependent on the authority of governmental and medical experts concerning communal religious practices that have been historically the exclusive authority of rabbinical authorities.
The Corona pandemic has posed a historical challenge not only on personal freedoms, lockdowns, and shuttering economies but on the continuing ability of Haredi Rabbis to continue with “business as usual” as far as their Mitzvah bucket list is concerned. The Corona pandemic has taught us and illustrated the limitations of today’s Haredi Rabbis who can no longer make decisions of this nature on their own or with impunity.