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24 September 2020updated 04 Oct 2023 10:39am

“Nobody feels it’s equal”: how Israel’s second lockdown is widening the religious-secular divide

A lack of agreement over new Covid-19 restrictions indicates a lack of trust in the nation’s government.

By Alona Ferber

Having been one of the first countries to impose a second national lockdown, Israel has announced further restrictions today, after the country’s health ministry reported a record level of almost 7,000 new cases of Covid-19 the previous day. Rules over access to synagogues and the freedom to protest – both highly contentious areas – will be tightened under the new rules, which are set to be approved by parliament this evening.

Under the previous restrictions that came into force on Friday 18 September, activities important to ultra-Orthodox Jews were allowed despite the more general limits on everyday activities – much to the chagrin of secular Israelis. Visiting the mikveh, the ritual bath for Jewish women, was permitted but swimming was not. Restaurants and cafes were closed, but synagogues were open – albeit under limitations. Protests, a hot-button issue given the many months of mass demonstrations against Prime Minister Netanyahu, were also permitted.  

But following this week’s bitter debates in the Knesset parliament over the issues of prayer and protest, new, tighter rules will come into force tomorrow. Under the regulations – still to be approved by the Knesset – synagogue worship would still be allowed, but synagogues would be closed in the lead-up to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, next week. Yom Kippur services would take place outside, with worshippers limited to small groups inside a synagogue. 

And when it comes to protests, Israelis would only be able to demonstrate within a kilometre of their home. For both worship and demonstration, the rules require people to gather in small groups and observe social distancing.

The extended wrangling over these two sets of restrictions points to the long-running tensions between secular and religious Israel. Some 45 per cent of Israeli Jews identify as secular, while around 12 per cent of Israelis are ultra-Orthodox. According to Anat Hoffman, executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, Covid-19 “magnifies” the already fraught relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the secular majority over issues such as education, women’s rights, and the Israeli army draft.

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Hoffman, a long-time advocate against ultra-Orthodox control of prayer spaces as a founding member of the Women of the Wall group, believes Israel is witnessing a “backlash” against the central role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israeli politics. The two parties that represent the ultra-Orthodox community, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have long been key coalition partners for governments, on the right and left. “The feeling among the seculars,” she told me before this week’s lockdown rules were imposed, “is that the lockdown is on secular activities.”

The lead-up to a national lockdown tells part of this story. Ronni Gamzu, who was appointed in July to get Israel’s pandemic response back on track, planned a “traffic light” system in which “red” towns with high coronavirus levels would face stricter restrictions than “green” towns. The logic, as in other countries, was that this would avoid a national lockdown while taking aim at Covid-19 spikes. However, many of the towns designated as “red” had ultra-Orthodox or Arab populations. Following pressure from mayors of ultra-Orthodox towns, the plan was dropped this month. It was followed by other attempts at curbing Covid-19 in red towns, such as imposing an (ineffective) nightly curfew.

Responses from parts of the political spectrum to the dropped traffic-light plan reflected wider tensions. Tamar Zandberg, chairwoman of left-wing party Meretz, described the move as a “surrender to the ultra-Orthodox”, adding – in reference to the ongoing criminal proceedings against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – that “Netanyahu needs this alliance [with the ultra-Orthodox parties] to gain immunity from justice, and we will all pay the price in health and life.”

[See also: Can the Israeli left reinvent itself?]

Criticism of ultra-Orthodox conduct over coronavirus has been evident throughout the pandemic. In April, for instance, Channel 12 news anchor Rina Matzliach was lambasted in some quarters for her on-air comments about the Orthodox community’s relationship to the state: “It cannot continue that the ultra-Orthodox feel the state’s authority doesn’t apply to them.”

But according to Gilad Malach, director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Programme at the Israel Democracy Institute, “from the ultra-Orthodox point of view, the picture is totally the opposite”. Not only does the community feel demonised over its high coronavirus levels, but people are losing faith in their political leaders over this issue. Recent polling Malach carried out shows growing distrust in Haredi politicians. The perception, he wrote last month, is that they “did not advocate vigorously enough on behalf of the interests of the ultra-Orthodox public, and insist that synagogues and yeshivas remain open.”

The long-running protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu have also been a sore point for the ultra-Orthodox community. On Saturday some 20,000 Israelis protested outside the Prime Minister’s residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.“They are reporting all the time about demonstrations, that anybody can go to do a demonstration, and thousands of people are gathering, and why can’t we gather in our synagogue, because for us prayer is much more important than demonstration?” Malach says.

On Sunday, an editorial on the ultra-Orthodox website, Hadrei Haredim, responded to rumours that the government would indeed tighten restrictions further, and even close synagogues on Yom Kippur.  “These lines are written out of a storm of emotions, in shock and astonishment and with tears of sadness. About the last half a year, about all the persecution and abuse against the ultra-Orthodox sector”. Is it possible, the editorial asked “to trade [synagogue worship on Yom Kippur] for the political benefit of the prime minister – synagogues in exchange for protests?”

[See also: How Israel’s violent protests risk going beyond Covid-19 unrest]

Another example of these differing viewpoints was over the annual pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov in Uman, Ukraine, a journey which tens of thousands of Hasidic Jews make every new year. This year, given the pandemic, travel to Uman was limited and the Israeli and Ukrainian authorities urged pilgrims not to travel. Despite the warnings, hundreds if not thousands of people made the journey to the Ukrainian border, where they waited to be let in and refused to travel back to Israel. The ultra-Orthodox community was frustrated that more had not been done to enable them to travel, while many other Israelis were frustrated that so many had managed to go.

Coronavirus infection rates among ultra-Orthodox Jews have been high throughout the pandemic. According to Malach’s calculations, by June some 50 per cent of Israelis diagnosed with Covid-19 were from that community. With a high proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews live below the poverty line – 42 per cent according to 2018 figures – they are likely to be hit hard by the economic crisis, too.

After the first wave, the insular community was in shock, Malach says, adding that there was self-criticism and awareness of needing to be more connected to Israeli society. In fact, internet use among the community has increased during the pandemic. But now, he adds, ultra-Orthodox Israelis expect their politicians to “protect this minority from the majority, not to connect it” to wider society.

A poll conducted in July by Hiddush, an organisation that advocates for religious freedom and pluralism, however, found that 70 per cent of Israelis rejected the idea that criticism of ultra-Orthodox conduct throughout the pandemic comes from bigotry.

This suggests that, beyond long-running tensions over the separation of religion and state, divisions over lockdown restrictions point to the lack of trust in Israel’s government – which is key to dealing with the coronavirus crisis.

Israel was lauded at first for its efficient pandemic response, but the country now has one of the world’s highest coronavirus rates per capita. ​The national Covid-19 death toll stands at 1,325, according to John Hopkins University data. Meanwhile, infection rates continue to rise. This week, police handed out more than 13,000 fines for non-compliance. 

The basic expectation people have of their government is that it will treat people equally, says Malach. “You can ask me who is right, but it doesn’t matter – the fact is that nobody feels it’s equal.”

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