Tensions Run High as Some in Ultra-Orthodox Community Reject Health Directives
The streets of several Israeli cities have suddenly turned into war zones, reminiscent of darker times in Israel. Normally peaceful towns over the past week have devolved into chaos, and otherwise tranquil neighborhoods are witnessing violent clashes with security forces, as residents torch police and private vehicles, assault officers, toss rocks and bricks at journalists, and vandalize storefronts and buildings.
The disturbing scenes are not taking place in West Bank villages, and the confrontations are not between Palestinians and the Israeli military, but rather between local police and ultra-Orthodox Jewish citizens.
The clashes are a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the refusal of some of the ultra-Orthodox community’s more radical elements to follow government directives.
For nearly a year, these factions within the already insular segment of Israeli society known as the Haredim have flaunted restrictions and limitations set by Jerusalem, aimed at battling the virus’ spread.
While schools and businesses repeatedly were shuttered across the country, there were those within the ultra-Orthodox community who insisted on opening education institutions, holding wedding celebrations, and conducting business as usual.
Israel is currently in the midst of its third nationwide lockdown since the pandemic began. Despite leading the world in administered vaccinations per capita, it has been hit hard by the third coronavirus wave, notching record numbers of deaths and infections, and leading the world in new cases per capita.
On Tuesday, more than a third of all new cases in Israel were diagnosed in Haredi communities, despite them making up less than 12% of the entire population. Of the 20 towns and municipalities hardest hit by the virus, 17 are majority Haredi.
During the first two closures, in the spring and early fall of 2020, transgressions by the ultra-Orthodox community were generally overlooked, as morbidity within the community did not exceed that of the general population.
Yet over the past few weeks, as citizens have been again forced to stay at home due to increasingly stringent health ordinances, public outrage over the community’s repeated violations has reached a boiling point.
Police forces, sent over the past week into ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and cities such as Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit, have attempted to enforce shutdown orders, only to be met with surprising resistance from some residents.
Violent clashes quickly ensued, with protesters lobbing bricks at police vehicles, smashing car windows and injuring officers and reporters. In Bnei Brak, a bus was torched to the ground, as fire fighters refused to approach the scene without police escort.
While there have been some arrests, community leaders, rabbis and ultra-Orthodox politicians have implored authorities to avoid inciting unrest and to pull out of their towns, insisting it is only a tiny minority within the more radical Haredi groups that is responsible for the violent attacks, and promising to hand over the guilty parties to law enforcement.
You want our boys living in the streets, doing God knows what, for months? Studying the Torah is a sacred act, without that, we’re lost
“It definitely does not represent all of us. These are kids who are troubled and are answering what they believe is unjustified police brutality,” Ephraim, a resident of the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem, told The Media Line. “What did the authorities expect?”
While he said he condemns the violence aimed at law enforcement, Ephraim believes unfair treatment and discrimination by local and state officials are the causes of the latest violent clashes.
“Have you seen them going into Arab villages or into Tel Aviv where they have parties or at the demonstrations” in front of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, he said.
Dr. Asaf Malchi a researcher at the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program of the Israel Democracy Institute and a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University, explains that the week’s eruptions were long in the making.
“There are very complex and ambivalent relations between most of the ultra-Orthodox community and state institutions and law enforcement. A significant part of them are alienated by the state,” he told The Media Line.
The level of trust between the more conservative sects and the government is almost nonexistent, Malchi says, with recent polls showing a 34% drop in trust in the health ministry among 18-to-30-year-olds.
“The corona crisis hit them hard, as does any crisis with the weaker parts of society,” he said, adding that because of the Haredi way of life, which includes an extremely high birthrate and dense, closed off living quarters, more than 40% of the community live in poverty.
On Wednesday, Israel’s parliament continued its deliberations over a new bill proposal, aimed at increasing the fines and punishments leveled against lockdown violators. Ultra-Orthodox politicians in the Knesset have adamantly opposed any such increases, drawing the ire of the general public and members of the center-left government opposition.
Netanyahu, meanwhile, facing yet another election in two months, has been forced to choose between siding with his religious political allies and angering his secular constituents, or toughening sanctions against the Haredim and risk losing the ultra-Orthodox backing in parliament, crucial to his political survival.
So far, he has taken the former path.
“The police don’t have the tools to cope with this – they can’t actually close schools, they can only hand out limited fines,” Malchi said. “It’s been just for show so far, to try and appease the secular public. If the economic sanctions are painful and consistent, they’ll have a chance of succeeding in eventually driving cases down.”
Baruch, a shop owner in Mea Shearim, told The Media Line that religious schools must remain open, even during the pandemic.
“You want our boys living in the streets, doing God knows what, for months? Studying the Torah is a sacred act, without that, we’re lost,” he said.
This is an acute crisis, but it’s also an opportunity for real change and fundamental reform
While short-term solutions appear scarce and tensions remain high, Malchi believes Israel can only grow from its current low point.
“This is an acute crisis, but it’s also an opportunity for real change and fundamental reform,” he explains.
“Maybe out of this challenge, more moderate voices will rise from within the community, willing to accept government authority and become productive citizens. Perhaps the secular majority and politicians will also do some soul-searching, to see how this can be solved, not in 20 years, but much sooner,” he said.