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'Ugly discourse' and 'dire implications for Israel' possible

Resentment of Haredim on virus violations set to dominate next election – expert

Ultra-Orthodox towns provoking anger, prompting ‘turning point’ for Israel and its politics, says Yohanan Plesner, former MK who leads Israel Democracy Institute

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Police officers clash with Haredi men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Police officers clash with Haredi men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Resentment over ultra-Orthodox disobedience toward COVID-19 regulations will dominate Israel’s next election, which is likely to be characterized by an ugly sectarian campaign, the Israel Democracy Institute’s president has predicted.

Yohanan Plesner said today’s reality was the polar opposite of the so-called “traffic-light” plan proposed by coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu, to institute strict lockdowns for “red” areas where virus rates are high, and allow near-normal life in “green” areas with low rates. Haredi politicians strongly opposed the plan earlier in the summer, as it would have strongly affected their constituency.

Instead, Plesner said, Haredi violation of virus rules has become so serious that there is currently a “reverse traffic-light situation,” in which the most viral areas, instead of stepping up adherence to rules, are prone to disobedience while rules tend to be stringently followed in low-virus regions (it is, of course, debatable which is the cause and which is the consequence in this situation).

Plesner, a former MK, spoke in a briefing to journalists and a subsequent interview with The Times of Israel on Wednesday, as numerous videos of ultra-Orthodox violations over the festival season still featured in the news, and as it emerged that even after a drop, positive test rates for Haredim are still double the national average.

Haredi Jews from the Hasidic sect of Shomrei Emunim attend the funeral of Rabbi Refael Aharon Roth, 72, who died from the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Plesner noted that Israel is thought likely to see elections soon, and said that anger felt by the non-Haredi population will be a key issue in campaigning, and could spill over into expressions of hatred.

“If the health and economic situations continue in their current states, as we get closer to an election there is a real danger that legitimate political criticism will devolve into an ugly political discourse that will have dire implications for Israeli society,” he said.

Plesner’s warning comes two days after President Reuven Rivlin said in an impassioned speech that “the air is full of gunpowder” and declared that “Israeli tribalism is bursting through the cracks.”

Yohanan Plesner, Chairman of the Israel Democracy Institute, at a conference in Jerusalem on December 17, 2019 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Plesner said that discord over Haredi conduct is a “turning point” which has “major strategic implications for Israel as a state, and for the way Israelis think.”

Discussing the “vast political consequences,” he noted that Israel has become accustomed to a political arrangement in which Haredi parties prop up coalitions and are generally granted their wishes, including a veto on issues of religion and state.

Plesner said that while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu currently pays a “relatively modest price” politically for agreeing to these demands, this could well change, as some parties tap into the anti-Haredi sentiment. If this happens, the national conversation could end up crossing a line into anger and hate, he suggested.

Plesner believes that the best hope of increasing ultra-Orthodox compliance, tackling the community’s disproportionately high virus rates and diffusing societal friction is to convince ultra-Orthodox areas to accept local closures based on Gamzu’s traffic-light system.

Roni Numa, a government coronavirus coordinator working with the ultra-Orthodox community, said on Wednesday that some Haredi towns may be forced to remain under lockdown for weeks after the rest of the country opens up.

Gilad Malach, director of the IDI’s division for researching the ultra-Orthodox community, said that this is realistic, given that the plan is less contentious for Haredim now than it was when raised last month — as a national effort has already brought down virus rates, and red areas will be asked to make a sacrifice for just two or three weeks on average.

GIlad Malach (courtesy of the Israel Democracy Institute)

Malach said a “carrot and stick” approach is needed, with high financial investments in welfare support for areas that are asked to remain locked down after the national closure, matched with hard-line police action against large-scale violations, like yeshivot that operate against rules. Strong communication campaigns, aimed at securing compliance, will also be needed, he said.

Malach believes one of the obstacles to Haredi compliance, which isn’t adequately understood, is that it can be hard to get people to recognize the seriousness of the virus due to the community’s age profile. While infection rates in the Haredi community are high, mortality is low, as Haredim are on average much younger than other Israelis, Malach said.

In general Israeli society, 15 percent of people are aged over 65, while among Haredim the figure is 3%, which means that the virus is proving, on average, less lethal, Malach reported. “This is the main reason they sometimes don’t refer to the virus as dangerous,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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