Given our current extraordinary circumstances, I have been following the Israeli English news much more consistently than is my norm. And I have been shocked by the wholesale maligning of the Charedi leadership, and in particular of Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita, by so much of the mainstream Israeli media. I am sure that the vast majority of my Charedi brethren are spending their time engaged in much loftier pursuits than reading the news, and that those few who have viewed such biased reporting do not wish to spend their time responding to unfounded attacks. But I feel the need to call out these erroneous allegations, which appear intended to advance the media’s anti-Charedi agenda rather than do what the media is supposed to do in disseminating the news – simply report facts.
I write these thoughts in my name only, and as just a single member of the Charedi community in Israel (I live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef). This opinion piece has not been shown in advance to anyone and I do not purport to represent any person or group.
Over the past few weeks, there has been no shortage of “news” coverage portraying the Charedi community in an overwhelmingly negative light. But I found one article appearing in this publication (“More basic than a crisis of faith: Will the virus upend ultra-Orthodox society?”, Haviv Rettig Gur, 10 April 2020) to be especially irresponsible and vitriolic. What made it so bad were the efforts undertaken by its author to appear balanced, by quoting presumably authoritative Charedi sources to fit his storyline and by inserting feigned compliments of the Charedi community so as not be obviously slanted. These tactics, and especially the article’s attempt to delegitimize Rav Kanievsky – one of our nation’s most crucial and treasured leaders – are beyond the pale of what news reporting should be.
The gist of Gur’s article (and many other anti-Charedi pieces in the Israeli media over the past several weeks) was that the Charedi leadership is responsible for the seemingly disproportionate outbreak of coronavirus cases in Charedi neighborhoods, and that such leadership failed its communities (and Israeli society at large) by delaying in shuttering the yeshivas several weeks ago.
This simply is not true, and the facts paint quite a different picture. Once the Health Ministry was clear and consistent in its directives for all group activities to cease, the Charedi leadership got behind those directives one hundred percent and quickly communicated this position to local community leaders. And at such a time, the Charedi public (the vast majority of whom immediately fall into step with the directives of the Charedi leadership) roundly complied.
But there indeed was a delay in closing the yeshivas. And the cause for this delay is precisely what has been continually misreported. It was widely publicized that on March 15, Health Ministry representatives met with Rav Kanievsky in an effort to have him order a closure of the yeshivas, even though according to the Health Ministry’s own guidance at that time (if social distancing were instituted) many workplaces could still remain open, groups of five could still interact for sporting activities and gatherings could assemble for political demonstrations. Based on the many exceptions (there were over 10) to what were then the Health Ministry’s stated requirements, the feeling of many was that forcing the yeshivas to close would be an unfair and disproportionally harsh result, since the option for them to remain open (by complying with Health Ministry’s recommended social distancing standards) was still available. Why was this decision so roundly ridiculed in the media? Why should the policy of social distancing apply so differently to the yeshivas than to certain workplaces, sports activities or political demonstrations?
In the Charedi worldview, the operating of yeshivas (and synagogues) are of vital importance to the entire Jewish nation (observant and non-observant members alike). Someone who does not grasp this concept does not understand the centrality of Torah learning and public prayer to the entire Jewish people, and does not appreciate how these two pursuits have kept the Jewish people alive and together during our entire existence as a nation and especially during the last 2,000 years of exile.
Certainly, yeshiva learning is as important (and I believe infinitely more) than the operating of non-essential businesses, physical exercise, or the right to demonstrate in public. However, after meeting with the Health Ministry officials, Rav Kanievsky did communicate that the yeshivas (and synagogues) must adhere to the social distancing directives of the Health Ministry. I can tell you that in my synagogue such regulations were strictly observed for over a ten day period (until the Health Ministry mandated that all synagogues be closed). This means that for ten days, we prayed with no more than ten people per room who were standing no less than two meters apart, and this was strictly adhered to (in fact, large signage adorned each entrance stating that this was the directive of our local Rav and that participation was contingent on adherence). I was part of one of these minyanim one morning when the Beit Shemesh police came to “check-in” on our synagogue and the one across the street (and presumably many others), and found that all congregants present were fully in compliance with the then-applicable requirements of the Health Ministry.
So if there was a delay in closing the yeshivas, it was directly due to miscommunicated and contradictory directives promulgated by the Health Ministry. Because during the critical period between March 15 and March 26, according to the Health Ministry it was not forbidden for several groups to continue their activities so long as the strictures of social distancing were observed.
Now I do not mean to be critical of the Health Ministry. I believe that its officials have been doing the best they can under extremely difficult circumstances and with the limited (and seemingly ever-changing) information afforded to them. Even the biggest experts in the field of pandemics (and yes even the WHO itself) have had conflicting views and have modified their guidance several times. It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback, and I am not attempting to be one here. But the point I am making is that the Charedi leadership does not deserve to be besmirched when the guidance actually provided to such leadership was conflicting, and implied that many activities could continue so long as people complied with the Health Ministry’s directives regarding social distancing standards applicable at that time. By refusing to shut the yeshivas prematurely, the Charedi leadership declared that yeshiva learning is no less important than working at a Tel Aviv start-up, playing basketball, or protesting one’s political beliefs among large crowds. And for making such a statement I am extremely proud and grateful.
On another but related note, it is true that some Charedim initially simply did not grasp the severity of the prevailing situation, and that a tiny minority chose not to comply with the Health Ministry’s directives. But I think that several sectors of Israeli society were slow to adhere to the new standards, and that such a reaction certainly was not limited to just the Charedi community. And no fringe group is representative of the entire Charedi community, despite the efforts of the Israeli media to consistently showcase negligible and extremist individuals who happen to be Charedi in order to disparage the entire Charedi community and especially its leadership.
We currently are living through a period of danger and great uncertainty for the Jewish nation and the entire world. Especially at such a time, it is most unfortunate that the Israeli media continues to aggressively pursue its agenda of scapegoating Charedim. We will be a much better and stronger nation when the journalists writing these types of articles, and the media outlets publishing these accounts, are more focused on disseminating balanced and objective news rather than in spreading editorialized “gotcha” pieces meant to advance an anti-Charedi agenda.