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How the Pandemic Nearly Tore Israel Apart

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The scenes of I.D.F. service members taking over Haredi communities held a deeper meaning for both sides, because the Haredim are largely exempt from Israel’s mandatory military service — just one of the many ways they remain outside the mainstream of Israeli society. Indeed, nearly half of Haredi males choose not to work at all, relying on state funding and philanthropic aid to feed them and their families. About 42 percent of Haredim live under the poverty line, nearly four times as many as other Israelis.

The relationship between the Haredim and secular Israelis has been confrontational from the country’s beginnings. Zionism, which advocated building a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel, originated with secular Jews, mainly from Eastern Europe. The Haredim, by contrast, believed that only the Messiah could establish a Jewish state, that God alone would decide when to return the Jews to their ancestral homeland. Humans trying to expedite the process were committing a grave sin.

The Haredim worked doggedly, both inside and outside Palestine, to stymie the Zionists’ political efforts. The Zionists in Palestine responded with violence. In 1924, an assassin took the life of Jacob de Haan, a Dutch-Jewish author and activist who had become a Haredi as an adult, a day before he was to travel to London in hopes of persuading the British government to reconsider its promise to “view with favor” the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. After the Holocaust, it was the Zionist movement that became the leading Jewish political force; the anti-Zionist movements were largely destroyed, apart from the Haredim, whose community survived, despite the huge numbers murdered by the Nazis. Many of the survivors migrated to the United States; most of the others moved to Israel.

Hoping to present a united front to the United Nations committee investigating the Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine, David Ben-Gurion, the driving force behind the creation of a Jewish state, made a series of aggressive promises to ultra-Orthodox leaders. In the new state, he said, Saturdays would be made an official day of rest, kosher food would be served in all state kitchens and there would be no civil marriages. In addition, when it came to education, each of the three Jewish communities — secular, modern Orthodox and Haredim — would have autonomy, as long as core subjects like math, foreign languages and history were taught.

But even those concessions were insufficient to bring the Haredim into the national fold. On Oct. 20, 1952, the prime minister paid a visit to a small apartment not far from the site of today’s Bnei Brak City Hall. He went to see the pre-eminent Haredi leader of the time, Rabbi Abraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, known as the Hazon Ish, the same figure Kanievsky cited in assuring his followers that Saddam Hussein’s missiles would not touch them. Ben-Gurion needed the Haredi parties to form a coalition, and they took their orders from the Hazon Ish.

As Yitzhak Navon, Ben-Gurion’s political secretary at the time and later Israel’s fifth president, told me in a 1990 interview, the rabbi welcomed Ben-Gurion graciously. The two men talked about Spinoza and other philosophical subjects, and then Ben-Gurion finally asked the question: “How can religious Jews and nonreligious Jews live together in this country without exploding from within?” The Hazon Ish replied with an allegory from the Talmud. “If two camels meet on a narrow path, and one camel is carrying a burden and the other is not, then the camel with no burden must give way,” he said. And it was the religious Jews who bore the greater burden by far. “We bear the yoke of very many commandments,” he continued, the clear implication being that secular Jews carried no yoke and lacked values.

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