Pandemic could deepen individualist trends in Haredi society, expert says

Ultra-Orthodox will continue to revere their rabbinic leaders despite belated response to virus threat, but Gilad Malach believes many ‘will start making decisions for themselves’

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

An ultra-Orthodox youth in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An ultra-Orthodox youth in Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The coronavirus pandemic could lead Haredim to rely less on rabbinic sages and think for themselves more when it comes to matters unrelated to religion, a leading expert on the community says.

Gilad Malach, who heads the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute, does not predict a revolution regarding Haredi reverence for their religious role models. But he estimates that the current crisis, which is seeing thousands of members of the tight-knit community infected — partially due to flawed decision-making by their leaders — could accelerate an existing trend toward more individualism.

Last month, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky — probably the most venerated rabbinical leader in the ultra-Orthodox world today — was asked whether his hundreds of thousands of followers in the so-called Lithuanian branch of the community should obey or defy the Health Ministry’s coronavirus orders to close educational institutions. He briefly answered that, of course, they should remain open.

His decision meant countless kindergartens, schools and Talmud academies remained open in Beni Brak, a Haredi suburb of Tel Aviv, a move that experts said inevitably caused thousands of people to contract the virus.

Gilad Malach, who heads the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program at the Israel Democracy Institute (courtesy IDI)

But Kanievsky (who subsequently reversed his position) and those who speak on his behalf are not the only ones to blame for the current crisis.

The government, particularly Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, also failed to properly prepare the ultra-Orthodox community, many of whom don’t consume mainstream media, he said.

Many secular Israelis are angry at the Haredi community for its initial disregard of the pandemic-related rules, which could lead to discrimination against Haredi jobseekers and further alienation between the two groups, Malach said. This, in turn, could put the ultra-Orthodox on the defensive, causing the community to turn inward rather than outward.

Eventually, however, both communities will realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to cooperate, Malach assessed.

Following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

The Times of Israel: Let’s start with a general overview of the city of Bnei Brak. Who lives there?

Gilad Malach: Bnei Brak is the most densely populated city in Israel. More than 20,000 people live there per square kilometer. Altogether some 200,000 people live there — almost all of them ultra-Orthodox. There are also some Orthodox and some traditional Jews, but my estimate is that 90 percent belong to the ultra-Orthodox community.

In this April 2, 2020 photo, Israeli police officers wearing protective gear wait to detain ultra-Orthodox men as they pray in a synagogue in Bnei Brak. ‏(AP/Ariel Schalit )

There are various sub-groups: Hasidim and the so-called Lithuanians, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, other sects. Who sets the tone there?

Yes, overall it’s a diverse city where all the aforementioned groups coexist. The two largest Ashkenazi groups — the Hasidim and the Lithuanians — always ran together on one ticket in the municipal elections.

So it’s hard to know how large each group’s power is. And about a third are the Sephardim, so I assume it’s fair to say that the general division of the ultra-Orthodox community in all of Israel — a third Hasidim, a third Lithuanians and a third Sephardim — also applies to Bnei Brak.

Is Rabbi Kanievsky, who instructed his followers to keep educational institutions open when the rest of society was closing them, considered an authority by everyone?

He’s the leader of the Lithuanians, but he has a certain dominance in that his rulings can have a certain influence on everyone. Even the other groups listen to what he has to say. The Lithuanians have in fact two leaders, him and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of the Ponevezh yeshiva.

But this is already a question of “courts” and Rabbi Kanievsky’s “court” has a more central and important standing since the previous “leader of the generation” — Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman — died [in 2017].

Thousands of mourners attend the funeral of Rabbi Aharon Yehudah Leib Steinman in Bnei Brak, December 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Let’s talk about what caused Rabbi Kanievsky to rule that the educational institutions should stay open, when they were shut in the rest of the country. Someone whispered in his ear about the state wanting to close the kindergartens, and he said basically no way.

That man was his grandson Yanki. He’s the one calling the shots. He decides everything. He presented the matter to his grandfather in a very brief and tendentious way, without giving him all the information [about the dangers of the pandemic], which led him to make the scandalous decision not to close the institutions, even though the government had already decided that they should be closed. The results of this are harsh.

Would it be justified to say that this Yanki is responsible for the current situation?

There are three main reasons for the current situation. First, the leadership — Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson, but he himself, too. The fact that he didn’t ask for more information is also a failure. He understands that there is a pandemic, so why doesn’t he look into it more? Only saying that the Torah will help is not serious. Not every rabbi would’ve acted this way.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on December 26, 2019. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

With all due respect to Rabbi Kanievsky, some argue that at age 92 he’s become senile and says yes and amen to everything the people around him suggest — that he doesn’t really understand the situation.

I don’t know if he’s senile or not. But a leader is supposed to know if he understands something or not. If he realizes that he’s not in the position to judge such things, he should say so. Part of the responsibility belongs to the leadership — that includes the rabbis and their “courts,” which didn’t follow the government’s instructions. His grandson is part of that.

The second factor is the government. It’s true that it’s not easy to communicate things to the Haredi public, but you have an ultra-Orthodox health minister who is well-connected to this community. If only he had gone to the rabbinical leaders and to the communal leaders and municipal authorities, which have great influence…

Sixty percent of the ultra-Orthodox live in ultra-Orthodox cities or in Jerusalem. The municipal leaders have a great deal of power. [Litzman] enjoys a great deal of confidence, but he didn’t use it. His ministry, too, should have done more.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman participates as thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest in Bnei Brak over a battle over the control of an Ashkenazi synagogue in Arad, and against the secular mayor, Nissam Ben Hamo, a Yesh Atid party member, on December 20, 2016. (Photo by Flash90)

Third, there is the objective factor, if you will — the great density in the ultra-Orthodox cities, and the fact that they are not connected to modern technology. They didn’t see the pictures that we all saw, about the disaster in Italy and the sense of urgency in [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s dramatic near-nightly] press conferences and things like that.

How many ultra-Orthodox are still ignoring the government’s instructions, or does everyone abide by them by now?

Overall, the vast majority now listens to the instructions, doesn’t leave their houses for no reason and doesn’t even go to synagogue. The great challenge now, which is not exclusive to the ultra-Orthodox, is Passover, because it’s a holiday on which people are used to visiting family, and it’s hard for them not to do that.

It was difficult for the ultra-Orthodox not to go to synagogue until they realized that there was no other choice. Now it’s also hard for them not to go visit their elderly parents. It’s hard, but that’s true for all Israelis, not just for them. So it may be necessary to enact some sort of lockdown on the day before Passover for everyone.

An ultra-Orthodox man crosses a main deserted street in Bnei Brak on April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

But I think there’s great worry [about the coronavirus], even within the ultra-Orthodox community. The combination of a clear government prohibition on going out, coupled with the fact that the rabbis have now joined that call, plus police enforcement, will help.

Rabbi Kanievsky initially said the educational institutions should stay open, which experts say inevitably caused thousands of people to contract the virus. Will his poor judgment call have a lasting impact on ultra-Orthodox society? Will the community challenge the authority of elderly sages or will they continue to reign supreme?

In general terms, when a leader fails he will very quickly feel the backlash. I remember the Second Lebanon War nearly 15 years ago. [Ehud] Olmert started the war with very high popularity; his approval rating was 80 to 90 percent. But as the war progressed and the public got the impression that it was being handled horribly, his ratings tanked, and he could never recover from that.

As opposed to the past, many ultra-Orthodox were exposed to the video [showing Rabbi Kanievsky telling his grandson to keep the educational institutions open]. They saw that he’s not really understanding the issue.

A very large percentage of the community connects to the internet, despite the rabbis prohibiting it

But this reliance on their religious leaders is the anchor of the community, it is so deeply entrenched in ultra-Orthodox society that one has to obey the leader of the generation. Therefore it is very difficult to make the switch and say, maybe he’s less relevant in certain areas. So I don’t foresee a revolution in this regard.

What I do see happening is many people will start making decision for themselves for certain things. This trend, which we have seen for a while now, could certainly be strengthened. We saw more than 10,000 ultra-Orthodox go to academic institutions in recent years, despite the rabbis being against it. A very large percentage of the community connects to the internet, despite the rabbis prohibiting it.

An Israeli university student (L) and ultra-Orthodox yeshiva student (R) (Yonatan Sindel and Nati Shohat, Flash90)

So the people are saying, I respect the rabbinical leaders, I appreciate them, I will even vote for the party they support. But in my own personal choices I will not necessarily obey. [The coronavirus pandemic] could definitely deepen these processes — call it individualism — regarding decision-making.

There have always been tensions between secular Israelis and the ultra-Orthodox community. To what extent will the events of the last few days further exacerbate them? What would happen if, God forbid, we see the health system break down in two weeks because thousands of people from Bnei Brak become sick?

The level of hostility is really very high. There is a lot of anger at the ultra-Orthodox, because of the way in which they responded to the government’s instructions. Sometimes this finds expression in very harsh comments on social media and the press. It exists, though I don’t think that it could turn violent.

But I do think that it could affect workplaces. We’re in the middle of an economic crisis, with very high unemployment. So this could have an impact on employers that may say, I don’t want to get close to ultra-Orthodox, or I don’t want to let them have a part in my enterprise.

Police arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem for violating emergency directives to contain the coronavirus, on March 30, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

On the other hand, when ultra-Orthodox society is being exposed to such things it immediately becomes defensive, like a herd that is attacked and flocks together.

The economic crisis could speed up the process of the ultra-Orthodox joining the workforce and opening up to academic studies and technology. But if the feeling is that, “In every generation they rise up to destroy us,” and the ones that are rising up to destroy them now are the secular, this will actually slow this process, because it strengthens the feeling of belonging to the group.

So bottom line, how do you think secular-ultra-Orthodox relations will look by the end of the year?

I am generally optimistic. I think that the harsh criticism of the ultra-Orthodox will not remain at the center of attention, but rather life itself. After all, most people who are not ultra-Orthodox want them to integrate.

And the readiness to integrate will also prevail on the ultra-Orthodox side of the equation — there’s no alternative, given the economic situation. These things will be stronger, eventually, than the strong emotions that exist today.

read more: