After Meron calamity, Haredim question the price of their own autonomy
Ultra-Orthodox media figures are calling for a commission of inquiry, and lashing the state for letting their community endanger itself.
A few overpowering facts, not least that nearly all the victims were Haredi, are driving an unusual new introspection, and leading the major media outlets of the community to turn against one of its characteristic traits: its longstanding and much-criticized “autonomy” from the Israeli state.
Haredi Israelis are simultaneously part of and apart from broader Israeli society. Making up as much as 12 percent of the Israeli population, the community is not uniform; different sects and subcultures interact in very different ways with the state and with other subgroups. While the “autonomy,” as Israelis often refer to the phenomenon, does not encompass all Haredim, it encompasses enough of the community to be — so growing numbers of Haredim now believe — a serious problem.
One sees the autonomy in studies of Israel’s cash economy that point to mass tax evasion in the Haredi community; in routine clashes with police in parts of Mea Shearim, Beit Shemesh, and other places; in the refusal to take part in national service; in school networks that refuse to teach the basic curriculum taught in non-Haredi schools; and, most recently, in the refusal of many Hasidic sects over the past year to obey pandemic lockdowns.
It is a community that talks about itself in the language of weakness, always a street scuffle or political squabble away from talk of “decrees,” “persecution,” and “antisemitism.” Proposals for welfare cuts or calls to introduce more math education in their schools are described in Haredi media in terms borrowed from czarist oppression in Eastern Europe.
That rhetoric of weakness and victimhood has a purpose: to cloak or perhaps to justify the opposite reality. As a group, Haredim are not weak. They are powerful enough to constantly expand and defend their separate school systems, to found towns and neighborhoods for their communities, to maintain a kind of self-rule that forces Israeli politicians to literally beg Haredi rabbinic leaders — usually unsuccessfully — to adhere to coronavirus restrictions.
The story of the Meron disaster cannot be divorced from this larger story of Haredi autonomy, from the Haredi habit of establishing facts on the ground that demonstrate their strength and independence, and then crying “persecution” when those steps are challenged.