Ultra-Orthodox threaten unity government over coronavirus measures

Jul 13, 2020

Sunday’s headlines in the ultra-Orthodox Yated Neeman newspaper looked like they could have been lifted from Yedioth Ahronoth or Haaretz, papers known for being critical of the government. They came as a surprise, as for years the paper has been identified with the group most loyal to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The People v. the Government” and “Economic Rage in the Streets,” it read, completed with quotes from anti-Netanyahu demonstrators.

The paper reflects the views of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox leadership in Israel, and it is angry. Attacks on the government began a week earlier, when Knesset member Moshe Gafni, political leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox faction, said that if the government decides to shut down the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, he would recommend that his party’s rabbinical leadership end its partnership with the government.

Gafni was giving voice to the outrage in the ultra-Orthodox community over what it sees as the excessive enforcement of rules to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. They have been complaining vociferously about it, even though the non-ultra-Orthodox educational institutions were also shut down, along with day camps and summer camps. In fact, yeshivas are the only educational facilities still open. In the early days of the pandemic, rabbis’ decision to ignore the health directives lead to the virus spreading widely among the ultra-Orthodox.

Now, the Health Ministry is trying to prevent another outbreak. Nevertheless, students at the Beit Matityahu yeshiva in Bnei Brak told ultra-Orthodox journalist Eli Bitan that the director of their yeshiva would not allow them to be tested for the virus, even if they show symptoms of the disease. The results were inevitable, and over 200 students were infected with the virus. In response, the police raided the building, closed the street and quarantined the students.

Despite the clear danger, the overwhelming feeling among the ultra-Orthodox is outrage. The community feels insulted that it is being branded as a “spreader of disease” and faces growing hostility from other Israelis.

A poll conducted during April by the Israeli Congress of Bar Ilan University found that half of all Israelis expressed animosity toward the ultra-Orthodox community as a result of their handling of the coronavirus. Among the ultra-Orthodox who participated in the survey, some 78% reported that they have experienced increased hostility toward them.

Harsh feelings among the ultra-Orthodox also target their own representatives in the Knesset. They are accused of being addicted to power and failing to do enough to enough to help their electorate. A column by the senior editor of BeHadrei Hadarim, Moshe Weisberg, wondered where all the ultra-Orthodox Knesset members have gone. The article, which was shared widely, expressed the feelings of many in the community.

As a result of all this, those ultra-Orthodox Knesset members are sharply criticizing the government and in some cases, have threatened to quit the coalition.

On July 10, Knesset member Yisrael Eichler called on ministers from the ultra-Orthodox parties to resign from the government, until what he called “selective closures” on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are lifted. “That’s the only way Netanyahu will understand that the rights of the ultra-Orthodox are not expendable.” Eichler represents the Belz Hassidic group, one of the largest and most influential Hassidic groups in the country. Recently there have been complaints that many members of the group, led by their rabbi, refuse to follow government mandates regarding the coronavirus.

In Jerusalem’s Romema neighborhood, where many members of the group live, fights broke out on the night of July 11 when police tried to enforce a closure order on the neighborhood. Eichler was furious about the behavior of the police, allegedly treating the ultra-Orthodox especially hard. “Tonight, anyone who thought that the ultra-Orthodox have rights in Israel was confronted yet again by the bitter truth,” Eichler said. “The ultra-Orthodox are citizens without any human rights in the Jewish state. … We are talking about locking up 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, Beitar, Beit Shemesh and other towns, even though they don’t have the coronavirus. We got the message long ago. There is no democratic government in Israel. What we have is a violent and cruel regime, hostile to us and with no inhibitions.”

Demonstrations continued in Jerusalem on Sunday night, with hundreds of ultra-Orthodox clashing with police forces and toppling barriers placed to seal their neighborhoods. Netanyahu agreed to meet today with the leading ultra-Orthodox legislators, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, to discuss the restrictions imposed on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

There have been public clashes with the prime minister. Associates of Deri, who is considered one of those closest to Netanyahu, spread the story that Deri scolded the prime minister during an argument over proposed legislation that would limit the power of Supreme Court justices. The minister warned Netanyahu to focus instead on the dire economic situation with one million Israelis unemployed. “This will topple the government; you want to topple the government?” Deri was quoted as telling the prime minister before slamming the phone down.

However, one senior ultra-Orthodox politician told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that even though Deri and Gafni are growing closer to Netanyahu’s coalition rivals, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi of the Blue and White Party, they are still loyal to Netanyahu.

What the prime minister does with the state budget will be telling. If funding for yeshivas and the ultra-Orthodox sector in general is cut, the rift between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox politicians will deepen. If the prime minister has the good sense to protect the sector, it will reciprocate by ensuring that his government survives.

At the same time, however, the senior ultra-Orthodox politician insisted that ultra-Orthodox leadership will stick to its position that Netanyahu must hand power over to Benny Gantz at the time stipulated by the coalition agreement. While the ultra-Orthodox are still loyal to Netanyahu, they have an eye on the future and are preparing for what happens once Netanyahu is out of the picture.

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