So it is not surprising that a sudden demand to change their community’s behavior was met by many Haredi Jews — and, notably, by many important Haredi leaders — with suspicion and open revolt. Some of them refuse to wear masks; some evade testing. Others send their children to school even when it is prohibited or attend mass funerals, where they clash with the police in New York and Jerusalem. Many attend crowded synagogues. No wonder that the rate of infections in ultra-Orthodox communities has skyrocketed.
Haredi Jews are well practiced in defying the larger society in which they live, and defiance is the tool they pulled out when new pandemic rules were dictated. They did it by using political clout and harsh rhetoric, arguing that the authorities were being discriminatory. Of course, they have every right to use political clout to make their case. It is also reasonable to assume that in some cases Haredi Jews are being singled out. (The fact that they are easily identifiable because of their distinctive clothing makes it almost inevitable.)
And yet it is time for Haredi leaders to realize that their model of isolation from the larger public is becoming archaic. Not because it failed, but because it succeeded.
The Haredi model in Israel and the West over the past century was meant to keep a threatened enclave from being wiped out by a cultural tsunami. It was tolerated as such by a generally indifferent public in relatively tolerant countries, and in Israel, where Jewish sentimentality added another layer of commitment of the state to the survival of the Haredi world. In short, it was designed for a weak group attempting to prevent decline. But as a model for a strong and thriving community it is flawed and dangerous.
The thriving of the Haredi world in recent decades was made possible by an ability to be different, without being threatening; to reject the influence of the outside world, without being disruptive. Indeed, the disobedience of a weak minority can be tolerated. But the disobedience of a strong community — particularly one that could affect the health of the larger public — is more difficult to defend.
Few things prompt hatred, fear and vengefulness like a pandemic. What we have witnessed in recent months is dangerous, first and foremost for the future of the ultra-Orthodox world. If Israelis completely lose patience with the Haredi lifestyle, the consequences for the community could be drastic. If Americans become hostile to the community, the consequences could be even graver. Anti-Semitism, already on the rise, feeds on fear and suspicion.
So Haredi Jews are playing with fire. That is because they are not truly that powerful. Not if the world turns against them.
No wonder that those of us who see value and beauty in the Haredi world — those of us who watch with admiration their prioritization of compassion over personal success, who identify with their prioritization of study over wealth and who respect their resistance to assimilation look at recent events with a growing sense of apprehension.
Shmuel Rosner (@rosnersdomain) is a contributing Opinion writer, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and the author, most recently, of “#IsraeliJudaism: Portrait of a Cultural Revolution.”
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