We have been exhibiting a disturbing tendency to look for scapegoats, but demonizing an entire sector of our own people is unacceptable.
Thomas Paine’s famous line has attained iconic status: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Indeed, crises can bring out the best, as well as the worst in any society.
All around us, we see the heroism of health care providers, of ordinary people doing their jobs, which right now assume larger than life implications.
We have been appropriately grateful to them and wish them continued health, safety and effectiveness.
On the flip side, we have a disturbing tendency to look for scapegoats. No one should be more familiar with this phenomenon than Jews, who have been on the receiving end of this endeavor for centuries.
Precisely because of that, it is especially distressing to see similar behavior by Jews seeking to lay blame on other Jews.
I am of course referring to the willingness of some Jews to demonize the Haredi sector as a whole, and to lay blame on their doorstep for a variety of sins of omission and commission:
The Haredim have been flouting regulations, they have opposed enforcement, they have ignored all the signs of the scourge in the name of maintaining their customs. And worst of all, they just don’t care what happens to the rest of us, and maybe even themselves, as long as they can maintain their lifestyle and routines.
So go the accusations.
Those accusing suffer from a profound lack of empathy, at best, and at worst, from a malevolent desire to demonize, denigrate and de-legitimize.
First of all, we have the “iron rule” of reporting: Take the most extreme examples and generalize from them to an entire group. So the anti-establishment Jerusalem Faction becomes all Haredim, just as to many Jews, the fringe element called Neturei Karta represents all Haredim.
Where is the understanding that all of us have gone through something like the five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then, and only then, acceptance?
Let’s try something unfashionable: giving the Haredi Jews the benefit of the doubt. This is a community that has developed exquisitely sensitive anti-authoritarian instincts; particularly concerning external, governmental authorities, including Jewish ones.
This is also a group profoundly not plugged in. Literally. Few smartphones, little Internet familiarity. Combine these two facts, and you get a situation where at best, reality is slow to take hold. Even in the face of reality, there is skepticism, even suspicion.
Now, let’s look at it from a positive vantage. There is tremendous strength, cleaving and devotion by Haredim to their way of life: to study, prayer, and celebration. Jewish tradition is profoundly communal, and the Haredi Jews exemplify this perhaps more than all other Jews.
Does anyone seriously think that Haredim are insensitive or unmindful to danger and to health hazards? They are known to be exactly the opposite. Jewish law and tradition are exactly the opposite: the sanctification of life is paramount, and great leniencies are invoked in order to protect life.
True, the initial reaction of many in Haredi leadership positions was less than responsive. Yes, there have been visible and self-destructive manifestations of defiant or clueless behavior (the victims of which have overwhelmingly been the Haredim themselves).
But, how many of us can say that we were immediately understanding of the severity of the situation, and supportive of severe unto draconian measures to deal with it?
I know more than a few people who initially mocked the steps that our government took, seeing in them either an overreaction an election ploy or some nefarious scheme to create a quasi-police state.
I have seen how many Jewish institutions, Zionist institutions, struggle with the worsening reality, only incrementally adopting more and more severe procedures, as conditions deteriorated.
My wonderful Moroccan shul in Rosh Pina, which drapes itself in Israeli flags in the run up to Yom Haatzmaut, first ignored the warnings about social distancing. Torah scrolls were still kissed, and people were regularly embracing each other in greeting. Gradually, reality set in and behavior started to change.
Even so, no limits were placed on the numbers of worshippers until the government clamped down. Eventually, the 10 man limit rule was adopted, with an attempt to form multiple minyanim. Finally, the final word came down from on high, and the shul was closed.
I say all this with great understanding and respect. It is a tribute to the strength, power and durability of Jewish practice and life. These are the actions and practices that define our lives, that give them structure, meaning and purpose.
Why should we not be slow, reluctant and tearful to change them?
So if I can be so understanding of the process that more integrated-into-society people go through, why should I not be able to understand how much more difficult such a process has and will be for those who keep apart, for those deeply immersed in their own strictly defined way of life?
The Haredim are often accused of xenophobia: fear of those who are different from yourself. Granted that this is true, bwe need to ut be honest and candid and admit that xenophobia also afflicts those who view Haredim as aliens, as people to whom we just cannot relate.
That is the role of the antisemite, not that of the Jew. Let us redouble our efforts to understand that our fellow Jews are, at their core, very much like one another. We all cherish life, we all value our health, and the health of our families and friends.
A religious Jew would say that this is not happening for no reason. We are being tested. Let us use this difficult time as a way of understanding and relating better to each other. Let us pass the test.
Douglas Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.