On Thursday night, at the end of the ultra-Orthodox protest at Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square, a group of young haredim insisted on accompanying me to my car. They did not want to fight with me; not at all. They wanted to explain and convince.
“Modernity is at fault for everything,” said one of them. “What do you mean?” I asked. “If everything was like it used to be, if we had no television and radio and cars and all that noise, you have no idea how good it would be,” he said. “We could have lived here in peace and quiet.”
We stopped at the street corner. “Do you have a cell phone?” I asked. “Yes,” he admitted, and looked down in embarrassment. “My wife insisted. I agreed only for the sake of keeping the peace at home.”
His answer wasn’t ludicrous. It was a small illustration of what many seculars refuse to accept: The manner in which the haredim cope with the facts of life in the 21st Century is complex and filled with question marks; the ultra-Orthodox community is not homogenous.
A pile of garbage was burning next to us, on the road. Young children pushed a municipal garbage dumpster to the fire. Two or three adults pushed the dumpster away, but the children kept on pushing it back and running away, until it completely burned. Look what’s happening to you, I said. Small kids are managing you. “To us?” one of the young Orthodox mocked me. “After all, this is what’s happening in your schools.”
During the winter, we went for a walk – a group of secular Israelis – in Mea Shearim on Shabbat. Rain was falling so we pulled out our umbrellas. “Shabbes,” the locals screamed at us from their windows. Passersby directed hostile glares at us. We did not understand why they were so angry at us. We were angered by their irritation.
The following day we looked into it, and it turned out that using umbrellas is considered desecration of the Shabbat. The ignorance in this case belonged to us. And so did the shame.
Classic candidates for xenophobia
It’s easy, too easy, to slam the haredim. They are the classic candidates for xenophobia. Even liberal Israelis, who are outraged by patronizing remarks made by a judge to a young Ethiopian woman, by the expulsion of emigrants, or by the abuse of Palestinians, hate haredim with a clear conscience. It’s commensurate with the bon-ton.
The “starving mother” affair is a clear example. The first incisive questions about her should have been directed to the hospital: Why did so much time pass before suspicions emerged that the problem has to do with the mother and not with the child? What sort of needless and damaging treatments did he undergo? What did the hospital’s social work department do about the case? Was there an effort to handle this grave matter in cooperation with the community?
A hospitalized child is under the responsibility of the hospital, rather than his mother. Before we turn her into a monster, perhaps we should look at what the hospital did with the responsibility given to it.
Hadassah’s hospitals make a living from the haredim. They have extensive experience in treating them. Many problems, including mental problems, were solved there over the years in a discrete manner, through dialogue with the rabbis. Even a radical haredim-hater won’t believe that a haredi rabbi would want to see the death of a haredi child.
The Hassidic branch the mother belongs to is radical and isolationist. Its members are considered anomalous even within the haredi street. However, the suspicion towards the establishments cuts across factions and exists in Orthodox camps that are an inseparable part of the State.
Many haredim truly believe that the secular Israel plots to exterminate them, and if not that, then to humiliate them, disparage them, and force them to betray their faith.
A responsible Israeli establishment needs to disprove these suspicions, rather than reinforce them. In no way am I suggesting that we mitigate the punishment of a haredi abuser, that we turn a blind eye to vandalism, or that we capitulate in the face of the groundless campaign managed by elements within the Eda Haredit sect against the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.
The only thing I’m suggesting is that the champions of secular righteousness wipe the drool off their face. We used to have a party, Shinui, which was feeding off the hatred of the haredim. This party disappeared as if it was never there. The haredim, on the other hand, were there before and will stick around.