Israel, where I am writing this post, has just witnessed an unprecedented tragedy at Mount Meron, where at least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, during a mass gathering to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai. The country’s deadliest civilian disaster unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provokes a public debate in Israeli media on the relation of the government to the Haredi communities.
The Haredim and the pandemic
During the past year, Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews became known for violating sanitary laws and ignoring the pandemic. While Israel experienced four strict lockdowns when gatherings were limited to 10 or even 5 people indoors (depending on the lockdown) and the mobility of individuals was significantly restricted (to 1000m from one’s house), the media repeatedly reported cases of mass gatherings among various Haredi communities. Usually, they happened on weddings and funerals and the numbers of participants varied from a few hundreds to a few thousands, the largest one being probably the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dov Soloveitchik, who ironically passed away because of Covid-19. Approximately 10,000 of his followers showed up for his funeral, only a fraction wearing a mask, apparently not taking the possibility of a contagion seriously. Aversion towards masks and social distancing added one more reason for non-Haredi Israelis to criticize the already controversial Haredi movement, which is seen as problematic for other reasons such as e.g. exemption from the army service and perceived (although not entirely true) lack of contribution to the Israeli economy and over-dependence on social benefits.
Government’s hesitance to act upon the violation of sanitary regulations
While the above reasons were part of the public discourse for quite a while, the Haredi approach to the pandemic was predictable but yet a very new phenomenon. What can be surprising for an outsider, is that the government did not attempt to enforce stricter adherence to the sanitary laws among the Haredim, even though the rates of contagions were much higher among them than among the general population and they posed a sanitary threat to other citizens. This can be at least partly explained by the political motives of Benjamin Netanyahu (and long tradition of political tug of war between the government and the Ultra-Orthodox leaders), who was trying to win the next election and gain as much Haredi support as possible, knowing that he is in a tight spot. A blind eye was turned on Haredi denial of the pandemic and they were given relative autonomy in comparison to other citizens and residents on whom the rules were enforced firmly and sometimes even ruthlessly, including high fines. Meanwhile, the usual Haredi manifestations protesting for instance the construction of the tramline close to their neighborhoods continued as during the “normal” times, sometimes becoming violent to the extent of wounding the police officers who tried to contain the protests.
Mount Meron – the aftermath of the policy of leniency
So what? One may say. Israel is almost post-pandemic, in spite of the unwillingness of the Haredim to cooperate in containing the contagion. Probably, eventually their insubordination could be forgotten. However, the tragedy on Mount Meron, brings to the spotlight how dangerous turning a blind eye could be. The fact that again the government left far-reaching autonomy to the Haredi communities in organizing the event, without enforcing adherence to safety regulations, proved to be fatal. The Ministry of Health’s officials had warned in advance that the gathering poses a hazard to public safety, potentially leading to mass Covid-19 contagion but their voices were ignored. In fact, any other public gathering, be it a cultural event or a political manifestation, would be limited to 10,000 or maximum 15,000 participants. However, on the night of the tragedy, there were approximately 150,000 people on Mount Meron. The question is who bears responsibility for what happened and how to avoid such tragedies in the future.
Faith and reason
Although there might be many possible answers to the above questions, two aspects seem to be crucial in this riddle. Firstly, one needs to address the eternal tension between faith and reason. All of the questionable behaviors of the Haredim described above result from their approach to their religion, not from the fact that they are morally bad people. They have the best intentions and try to observe the halakha as faithfully as they can. The problem in my eyes is structural in a way – that a socio-religious system is created in which they are forced to isolate themselves from the modern world in order to protect their faith. This makes them prone to manipulation from their spiritual leaders and discourages the usage of a common sense and independent critical thinking. It can be observed that isolationist tendencies in the past have not served Jewish communities well, enhancing the vision of the Jews as “the other”. Finally, confronting and getting to know the other is a way of building peaceful social relations (intergroup contact theory) and has been already applied successfully on the local level in the context of Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Never ending story – politics and religion
Secondly, as in many other cases discussed on this blog, there is the ubiquitous marriage of religion and politics. Israeli political leaders constantly balance between angering the Ultra-Orthodox communities and trying to appease them and win their political support in forming the majority coalition. Many of the Haredim are anti-Zionist but they are at the same time (e.g. the followers of the Shas party) an important part of Israeli political mosaic. During the past year, the attempt to gain their support has blinded Netanyahu to the threats of granting them so much autonomy. The Ultra-Orthodox were often standing above the law because they were not held accountable for ignoring the safety regulations during the pandemic, and unfortunately, finally they paid their price for that in blood. Hopefully, the discussion that started these days on civic obedience in Haredi media – whether they should obey the government regulations for their own sake – will be continued and will lead to featuring the lost factor of reason in the decisions made by Haredi spiritual leaders and their followers.