TEL AVIV – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long cultivated a symbiotic relationship with the country’s ultra-Orthodox parties, doling out generous subsidies and leaving their insular way of life unperturbed in exchange for ironclad backing that has helped crown him Israel’s longest serving leader.
Now, with the coronavirus pandemic raging and the Jewish High Holidays approaching, Netanyahu finds himself caught between his ultra-Orthodox partners and the need to drive down surging infection rates. This balancing act could plunge the country into a new lockdown ahead of the holidays, which begin next week.
Netanyahu has faced a national furor over his handling of the coronavirus, but that anger is boiling over among the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, who have used their political muscle to fend off what they see as discriminatory restrictions.
“The entire Haredi public won’t forget the injustice carried out against it,” a group of mayors from ultra-Orthodox cities and towns wrote in a letter to Netanyahu this week. “The decisions you made, time after time, were made with no regard for logic or health benefits, and were clearly aimed at the Haredi public. We consider you the only culprit for these punitive measures.”
Israel this week imposed new restrictions on some 40 cities and towns with worrying outbreaks, which include nighttime curfews, strict limits on public gatherings and the shuttering of schools. The restrictions mostly affect ultra-Orthodox as well as Arab communities, which have also been hit hard in recent weeks.
The government had been expected to approve a stricter lockdown on many of the localities, as called for by the country’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu. But after intense pressure by ultra-Orthodox politicians and the scathing letter by the Haredi mayors, Netanyahu suggested the compromise, which some experts believe will not help bring down infection numbers.
In a video aimed at the ultra-Orthodox population, he attempted to ease frustration over the latest, watered-down restrictions.
“You know how much I care about Torah study and prayer. These are things that are important to me just as they are important to you. And with that I say we need to take steps that prevent the spread of morbidity,” he said.
Some ultra-Orthodox politicians have pushed for a broader lockdown on the entire country. Gamzu has opted instead for more pinpointed measures aimed at hard-hit towns and neighborhoods, earning him scorn from the ultra-Orthodox.
Netanyahu has said a lockdown remains an option. But imposing one on all Israelis after walking back the restrictions on the ultra-Orthodox could be viewed as political surrender.
“Netanyahu has a commendable record of folding magnificently but this time it concerned life and death,” wrote Yossi Verter, a political commentator, in the Haaretz daily. “Because of petty politics Israel may experience disproportionate collective punishment.”
No formal decision has been made yet about the holidays. Israelis typically hold large family gatherings and pack synagogues, especially during the important fast of Yom Kippur, settings that could send infection rates spiking.
Officials have floated the idea of a nationwide lockdown, as they did during the Passover holiday in April. This could have limited economic fallout because much commercial activity stops over the holidays. But that would anger many Israelis and health experts say a limited short-term lockdown may not be effective.
Also unresolved is the issue of an annual holiday pilgrimage to the tomb of a revered rabbi. Tens of thousands of faithful descend on the Ukrainian city of Uman around the Jewish New Year for prayer and festivities. Gamzu has tried to block travel and Ukraine closed its borders in the lead-up to the event.
But religious leaders say their communities are being unfairly targeted and Netanyahu has appointed a senior Cabinet minister to try to devise a compromise that would allow at least some people to make the pilgrimage.
Israel appeared to have contained its outbreak by swiftly closing its borders and imposing tough lockdown measures last spring. But after a hasty reopening and what's been criticized as government mismanagement, infection numbers have shot up to record levels. The country now has one of the world's worst outbreaks, adjusted for population.
Infection rates in ultra-Orthodox communities have been disproportionately high. The ultra-Orthodox tend to live in poor, crowded neighborhoods where sickness can quickly spread. Synagogues, the centerpiece of social life, bring men together to pray and socialize in small spaces. Lack of internet use also hindered public education, though officials have since turned to religious leaders and car-mounted loudspeakers to spread the word.
As the initial outbreak grew, the ultra-Orthodox were on the receiving end of some of the tightest restrictions. In April, a police-enforced lockdown was imposed on the large Haredi city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, with movement restricted and the military assisting local authorities. Prayers in synagogues have been limited countrywide to 20 people.
Israel has also imposed restrictions on secular bastions such as restaurants, cultural institutions and event spaces. But with beaches and malls packed, and weekly mass protests taking place against Netanyahu, many ultra-Orthodox feel they are being singled out.
“They see this and they say ‘they are tormenting us because we are Haredim,’” said Ari Kalman, the political correspondent for the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news outlet. “It causes them to lose trust.”
Secular Israelis have a different narrative. They have watched with outrage throughout the year what they see as special treatment for the ultra-Orthodox. Families of some prominent rabbis have held large weddings with no social distancing and few masks. Stipends meant to ease the economic fallout from the virus restrictions were expanded to accommodate large ultra-Orthodox families. Thousands of Jewish seminary students were allowed in from abroad despite restrictions on entry.
Shuki Friedman, an expert on secular-religious relations at the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank, said the coronavirus crisis has sent many ultra-Orthodox into a siege mentality and could reverse major gains made in recent years to integrate the insular community into Israeli society, something economists warn is crucial for the country’s economic future.
“If the Haredim withdraw even more than they are today, it is bad for Israeli society,” he said.