Eli Paley Interviewed in Calcalist, January 28, 2021

“We can’t conduct ourselves according to recordings of Rabbi Kanievsky

Eli Paley, publisher of the Haredi magazine Mishpacha, Jewish Family Weekly, is calling upon the Haredi population to engage in introspection after the violent clashes; “the violations are a result of our separatism …. we have lost our sense of solidarity,” and he admits, “we have a problem with our civics education.”

Shahar Ilan
January 28, 2021

“I can’t remember a time when there was such disappointment, anger, and frustration at the Haredi population,” says Eli Paley, publisher of the Haredi magazine Mishpacha, Jewish Family Weekly. He offers: “It is not from our natural opponents such as Lapid or Lieberman. Rather, it’s by people who hold the Haredi population dear to their hearts and are invested in collaborations, but they now have lost all trust. I couldn’t always provide answers [throughout the coronavirus crisis]. I was often very embarrassed.”

Paley is probably the most significant media person in the Haredi sector. He is not only the publisher of the most popular publication in all Haredi streams and factions; he is also founder and chairman of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, which counsels government ministries and the Haredi political system.

I would assume that the same secular people say that you have no regard for their welfare. 

“That’s what they say. Exactly. I answer that the situation keeps me up at night and I am doing everything I can. We did everything we could in Mishpacha to raise awareness and establish a dialogue of responsibility. But I don’t think that the situation is a result of the Haredi sector being not as good as others, but because of our separatism and the fact that we are accustomed to addressing internal matters and not looking outside [for directives]. Our sense of solidarity has been waning and we might have lost it entirely.”

Israel’s conflict with the Haredi public has worsened throughout the coronavirus crisis. It started in the first lockdown with claims that the rules were being ignored. Then, during the summer, the Haredi representatives in the Knesset torpedoed every attempt to apply the “traffic light model,” and as a result, the entire country went into lockdown in September. Corona morbidity was significantly higher in yeshivas than elsewhere. The talmudei Torah, Haredi elementary schools for boys, remained open during the second lockdown as instructed by the spiritual leader of the Degel HaTorah party, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky. Hasidic groups held huge weddings and mass tisch gatherings. This all culminated last week in the attempt to lynch police officers in Bnei Brak and setting fire to a bus in the subsequent clashes.

Paley says that “all Haredim condemned those who ran riot and attacked the police in Bnei Brak. The two main hotbeds of violence,” he continued, “are the Jerusalem Faction (HaPeleg HaYerushalmi), whose members have been embracing anarchist behavior for many years, and marginalized youth, who are just along for the ride.”

“We need structured decision making” 

You published a call for introspection in Mishpacha. What would that entail?

Many of the problems we’ve had since the coronavirus pandemic began have arisen from deep frustration and a crisis of confidence in the authorities, stemming from the fact that government decision-makers do not understand the implications of their decisions on the Haredi sector. As a result, each community, each group, formed its own corona policy. I would argue that this cannot go on, as human life is at stake. We need to reconfigure our route regarding the question of our relationship with the state.

The secular public does not understand how decisions are made through a grandson asking an old rabbi a question.

Yanki Kanievsky, Rabbi Kanievsky’s grandson, acts with great responsibility and tremendous decency. However, as a system, this cannot work. Matters of whether or not schools should be reopened cannot be determined through a circulated recording of ‘Grandfather, what say you?’ We all certainly want to hear what Rabbi Kanievsky has to say, but these new media channels are creating chaos. We need to implement a structured decision-making process.”

This required process, he says, means “reconvening Mo’etzet Gedolei HaTorah (the Council of Torah Sages) where decisions are made. Each of the political parties has such a council.” He reminds us that “these are the same leaders who make the decisions today, but through a different process, not someone rushing from one house to the next asking questions. That’s how accidents happen.”

How do you explain that breaking the law has become a norm among Haredim?

“We have a problem with our civics education. If you grow up in this sector, which is becoming more and more separatist, the word ‘law’ doesn’t mean much to you. You don’t relate to the concept. What we need are words like ‘dangerous’ or ‘contagious.’ I mean that as a starting point.”

But Paley also has plenty of criticism for the state’s attitude towards the Haredi population throughout the corona crisis. He is critical of the fact that they were not consulted before the transition to home-based learning, especially as online learning is not viable option for most. “Does anyone really think that eight children in one living room can continue studying? It’s impossible under these circumstances. And we’re not talking about one or two weeks but many months. And it begs the question, does this protect from the disease or create the conditions for its spread? You cannot make non-implementable and irrelevant decisions and think that it’s the community’s problem to solve, because in the end, it just won’t work.”

The Haredi sector is in the government that made these decisions. Who are you addressing your complaint to?

“I am addressing my complaint to the professional echelon that established a war room where decisions are made, but doesn’t take into account that 20% of the education system is comprised of institutions with a different structure.”

Litzman was minister of health at the time.

It didn’t help us. When he dared raise anything with a Haredi outlook, he was pounced upon and accused of abusing his power.”

Paley believes that a large part of the conflict could have been avoided if a special plan for opening the Haredi schools during the second lockdown was permitted. But such a plan was shot down with claims of discrimination between the sectors. “It was a wonderful and fascinating initiative by the Haredi sector. But they said that because of the way the sector had behaved, they couldn’t allow them to open up [before other sectors]. So we now find ourselves in situation where everybody is breaking the rules.”

Putting education aside, how do you explain huge weddings and mass gatherings?

I have nothing good to say about the tisch gatherings and weddings held during the corona crisis. I cannot speak to the necessity of holding a wedding or not and under which circumstances. But it is clear that we cannot just have anyone organizing their own tisch, holding a wedding or opening a school. If there’s a Hasidic group that thinks that big weddings are a necessity, they have representation in the Knesset. Present your claim for a parliamentary process and to the Council of Sages, and initiate legislation. We cannot have everyone making their own rules.

“Double benefit” 

Many old people died in your communities from COVID-19. What happened to the fundamental principle of piku’ach nefesh, saving lives?

I agree with you entirely. We paid a very high price in terms of human life. In conversations I had with poskim, rabbinical adjudicators, they told me that in the beginning there was a sweeping decision to toe the line and that they closed the synagogues and schools. The turning point was when the rabbis realized that there is an exception to piku’ach nefesh when it comes to freedom of expression. A democracy must allow demonstrations if it is to survive, I have no argument with that. But how can you justify to a rabbi that freedom of expression is an exception to piku’ach nefesh. If these decisions are made based on a discussion with Deputy Attorney General Raz Nizri or the latest survey that Bibi read, that isn’t a language that a Haredi posek can handle, and now we are all paying the price.”

Paley’s institute develops strategic plans for integrating Haredim into civil service. He says that “having Haredi professionals in those echelons will significantly improve the quality of decision-making and will also ensure that the Haredi population is part of the process and not external to it. That will naturally change the discourse of us vs. them.”

For decades, Haredim avoided joining the police force and studying medicine. Now you’re complaining? 

Even if we assume that the Haredi sector is responsible for not having Haredi police officers, this must change. The fact that Haredim are not represented in the police force is not conducive to effective law enforcement.

Now? After you finally convinced us that you don’t care about the country?

“That is exactly what I want to change. If you are not part of the game, you do not develop a sense of solidarity, and instead create a culture of illegitimacy. Integrating the Haredi population will have a double benefit: valuable manpower after they undergo civics training, and a much heightened sense of accountability towards the country.”