The ultra-Orthodox radicals fighting the police coronavirus enforcement in Israel
For the last few days now, the sight of police and border police confronting and arresting extremist ultra-Orthodox men for violating coronavirus social-distancing orders, and being cursed at with slurs of “Nazis,” and alternatively “Communists,” has become common place on TV and social media.
Communities in radical neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh have routinely flouted the Health Ministry instructions designed to slow the spread of the epidemic and protect the very same communities from which the protestors stem.
Hassidic men, many clad in long white and grey striped coats have been arrested, while others shout and goad, and even attack, the security services.
Although there has been resistance in the broader ultra-Orthodox world to restrictions on communal gatherings which are such a critical part of Jewish religious life, the radical elements of the sector have taken even longer.
So who are the extremists who resist the police so strongly in places like Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and Ramat Beit Shemesh over coronavirus orders and on frequent occasions over other issues as well?
In general, these hardliners belong to communities associated with the radical, anti-Zionist Eda Haharedis association of ultra-Orthodox communities, founded in the 1920s, and are not connected to mainstream ultra-Orthodox groups.
They are a very small minority of the overall ultra-Orthodox population of Israel and are thought to comprise less than 10 percent of the sector, roughly 40,000 to 60,000 people, although there are no precise figures and the numbers could be higher.
The communities which made up, and still do constitute, the majority of the Eda Haharedis originated in the most part in Hungary where the hassidic communities had an extreme ideology of separation and segregation from the secular and non-Jewish world, a reaction to the enlightenment in Europe.
Another large component of the Eda are the Prushim, descendants of the disciples of Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the famous Vilna Gaon of Lithuania, who settled in Jerusalem in the mid 19th century and became a prominent part of the ultra-Orthodox community of the Old Yishuv.
In the 1930s, the Eda separated from the mainstream ultra-Orthodox representative body Agudat Yisrael, which the Eda then viewed increasingly as too compromising with the Zionist authorities which its leaders opposed on religious grounds.
The major communities today of the Eda are the Toldos Aharon and Toldos Avraham Yitzhak hassidic groups, as well as the Dushinsky, Munkatch, Satmar hassidic communities and a faction of the Breslov hassidic group, the Prushim, and other smaller communities.
Most live in Jerusalem, particularly in Mea Shearim and surrounding neighborhoods, as well as Beit Shemesh.
According to Professor Benjamin Brown, a lecturer at Hebrew University and a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, the communities of the Eda saw the Zionist enterprise from the outset as a project designed to secularize the Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.
They sought to isolate themselves from the Zionists and create their own enclaves where they could continue to practice their brand of ultraconservative, isolationist Judaism.
The Eda’s communities also adopted the religious ideology of the first Satmar grand rabbi that Zionism contravened Jewish law by establishing a sovereign Jewish state before the messiah arrived.
Unlike the mainstream ultra-Orthodox groups, these communities take almost no money directly from the State of Israel due to their ideological opposition to the Zionist entity, although Brown says that some take national insurance welfare benefits.
They also do not vote in Israeli elections at any level, again unlike the ultra-Orthodox mainstream.
Because of their deep ideological antipathy to the Zionist state, the communities of the Eda Haharedis are extremely suspicious of, and hostile to, state authorities in almost all aspects of life, and clash with the police when they view the state to be intruding too deeply into their enclaves.
Such clashes have occured over concerns regarding violations of Shabbat, supposed desecration of Jewish graves, and attempts to conscript ultra-Orthodox men into military service.
“Radical ultra-Orthodox take every opportunity to fight the state, and they see everything the state tells them to do as an attempt to secularize them, this is their default suspicion,” Brown told The Jerusalem Post.
But regarding the coronavirus epidemic, Brown also emphasized that the restrictions imposed by the government to stem the spread of the disease has also struck at everything these communities hold dear.
Communal prayer, communal Torah study, preparations for Shabbat and the holidays are all central aspects of the lives of these radical groups and all are now banned by the state authorities.
To take all that away from such communities so quickly was always going to be a difficult task, and so it has proved.
Even on Tuesday, the police were still arresting ultra-Orthodox men violating Health Ministry orders and issuing fines to others in Mea Shearim and in the radical neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Families in these communities are also extremely large, living in extremely small homes where it is extremely difficult to live in such close confines for large amounts of time.
Speaking to the Post, Yitzhak Weiss, an unofficial representative for the Eda, noted that the meticulous and painstaking demands of preparing for Passover which are now in full swing across the ultra-Orthodox require people to purchase food, clean their homes, and render their kitchen utensils fit for use on the holiday.
This, he said, had further complicated efforts to get Eda communities to comply with the Health Ministry regulations because of the traditional Passover preparations that usually take place at this time of year.
Weiss said that the heads of the Eda Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss and Rabbi Moshe Sternbuch issued new orders on Sunday that the community refrain from praying in synagogues due to the coronavirus epidemic.
The public notice issued by the Eda on Sunday signed by Weiss and Strenbuch did not state explicitly that prayer in synagogue is forbidden, but said more obliquely that those conducting communal prayer outdoors should do so in accordance with the instructions of “doctors,” code for Health Ministry orders.
And the order said in general that the “doctors instructions” should be complied with meticulously, that the risk to life should not be belittled, and that people should not try and outsmart public health orders, stating that it is “a great sin to disparage these instructions.”
Weiss claimed that the majority of the Eda communities and their members were now abiding by the instructions.
He was however highly critical of the police, saying that they have focused on the Eda communities because of media attention on them and accused them of using excessive force against members of the community caught violating the social-distancing orders.
“They can get people to disperse without violence and without using smoke grenades, this reminds us of darker periods,” said Weiss.
“There is no enforcement in many secular areas as well as other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods outside of ours, why are they giving fines to people in Tel Aviv,” he claimed, although the police have issued numerous fines in non ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods as well.
“At the beginning, people looked at the supermarkets where the police were not distancing people and saying buying food is an essential part of life which the government has permitted, for us praying in a communal prayer service is also an essential part of life,” said Weiss.
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