Michael Boyden

COVID-19 – Spotlight on the Litvaks

The way that the Lithuanian Charedi community has responded to the COVID-19 pandemic serves to illustrate who they are and the nature of their relationship with the State of Israel.

Today’s ultra-orthodox daily newspaper HaMevaser, identified with the Agudat Yisrael political party, carries the banner headline “The percentage of those seriously ill in the Charedi community is four times higher than that of the general population”.

Recently released figures confirm the sorry state in which they find themselves. Whereas just four percent of those tested in Tel Aviv were found to be carrying the virus, the figure for Bnei Brak was 20%.

In the early days of COVID-19 the Charedi community contended that their society did not have access to electronic and digital media and was, therefore, less aware of the dangers of the coronavirus. A year later that excuse hardly holds water.

Their apparent disregard of the pandemic that has already killed over 4,000 Israelis also reflects itself in the numbers that have come forward to be vaccinated. In comparative population terms, three times as many people in Tel Aviv have been vaccinated as those in Bnei Brak. Statistics from other Charedi towns confirm the disproportion.

The pandemic has served to illustrate how the Charedim relate to our country’s civil authorities. They don’t act on the basis of government regulations imposed to restrict the spread of the virus, but rather take their marching orders from their rabbinic authorities.

Nothing could better illustrate the nature of their relationship with the state than the fact that Israel’s prime minister had to personally implore Rabbi Kanievsky to keep Charedi schools closed until the end of the current lockdown.

Some Charedim continue to hold large weddings in defiance of government regulations and the authorities seem reluctant to take action. Their political representatives in government remain silent. When the police turn up to close their schools, break up illegal wedding celebrations and enforce the lockdown, they are called “Nazis” as though they were the agents of an anti-Semitic foreign power.

Unfortunately, coalition politics have stopped our government from acting. In the early days of the pandemic, flights bringing Charedim from pandemic stricken New York were allowed to land in Israel. Health Ministry proposals to differentiate between towns on the basis of infection rates were not implemented.

All of us are paying the price for the government’s failure to impose restrictions. Rather than the Charedim respecting the authority of the government, we are a nation that is frightened of the Charedim. And yet the Mishnah warns us: “Pray for the wellbeing of the authorities, for were it not for our fear of them, we would swallow each other up alive”.

About the Author
Made aliyah from the UK in 1985, am a former president of the Israel Council of Reform Rabbis and am currently rabbi of Kehilat Yonatan in Hod Hasharon, Israel.
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