(JTA) — One quarter of Jewish Israelis, and more than one-third of Jews who voted for Benjamin Netanyahu, believes the coronavirus was sent by God as a punishment or to send a message, according to an annual survey.
The survey, put out by Hiddush, which advocates for religious freedom and pluralism in Israel, also found that 70% of Israelis reject the notion that criticism of haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, conduct during the pandemic stems from bigotry as opposed to how haredi communities have conducted themselves.
Scenes of large haredi gatherings have spread across the Israeli media this year, while haredi politicians, who are in the coalition with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, have successfully dialed back restrictions on gathering in the community. In recent weeks — though after the survey was taken — they have advocated unsuccessfully for a group of Hasidic Jews to make a pilgrimage to Ukraine and successfully pushed for a universal lockdown in Israel to carry an exemption for synagogue attendance.
“They basically bent Netanyahu in terms of rejecting sound medical recommendations and catering to their pressure,” said Hiddush’s founder, Rabbi Uri Regev, an outspoken opponent of haredi influence on Israeli policy. “So what you have is an ongoing public resentment of the haredi conduct in this pandemic.”
(Haredim are far from the only Israelis who have been criticized for lax behavior. Schools across the country had to close following outbreaks, and a recent public service announcement in the largely secular city of Tel Aviv showed two men with their masks off while talking to each other — but implored them to, at the very least, not drink from the same water bottle.)
The survey, which was conducted in July, was published Thursday, one day before Israel is due to enter a nationwide lockdown. The lockdown, Israel’s second this year, is an attempt to curb the spread of the virus during a week when Israel has recorded some of the highest numbers of new cases per capita in the world. It’s been a stunning reversal for a country that thought it had beaten the pandemic four months ago.
The survey includes 800 Jewish Israeli respondents and has a 3.5% margin of error.
The significant minority of Likud voters who see the coronavirus as a divine punishment, however, does not surprise Regev, who chalks it up as an emotional response to the pandemic. While only 26% of respondents overall accept that claim, the number jumps to 36% of Likud voters and 41% of right-wingers.
“Look at the breakdown of the Likud voters: There is a high percentage of religious and some percentage of haredi,” he said. “Here you touch a more emotional, faith issue.”
Otherwise, the survey’s results resemble those of previous years: A solid majority of Jewish Israelis wants less Orthodox control over marriage, Jewish conversion and everyday life. Israel only recognizes Jewish marriages performed by the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate. Orthodox conversions are likewise the only recognized ones in the country. Public transit is shut down across much of the country on Shabbat, and haredi men are exempt from Israel’s mandatory military draft.
Most Jewish Israelis want all of that to change.
As in past years, 63% of respondents want separation of religion and state in Israel. A similar percentage want Israel to recognize civil marriages and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings. More than 70% want the option of public transit on Shabbat and to obligate haredi men in military conscription or some form of national service.
The Jewish-Israeli right, however, displays markedly less support for all of those things. Jewish right-wingers oppose separation of religion and state as well as recognition of civil and non-Orthodox Jewish marriages. They’re split evenly on allowing public transit on Shabbat. Support for drafting haredi men is also weaker, though still a solid majority.
That’s likely in part because, as the survey shows, haredim and religious Jewish Israelis (like growing numbers of American Orthodox Jews) have placed themselves solidly in the right-wing camp. Among haredim, 84% identify as right wing, while 71% of religious nationalist Jews identify that way. Religious Jewish Israelis also make up a disproportionate share of Likud’s base. While haredim and religious Jews together comprise 21% of the Jewish-Israeli population, they make up 36% of Likud voters.
The trend has borne out politically as well. While haredi political parties were seen as something of a swing faction in previous decades, they have consistently supported Netanyahu in recent years. The vast majority of haredi voters vote for haredi political parties.
“Their constituency is overwhelmingly right wing,” Regev said. “They won’t allow the haredi parties to enter into a pact with the left.”