Ultra-Orthodox Jews Need To Reflect On Pandemic

Israel has been hit tremendously hard by the novel coronavirus, which has so far killed 79 Israelis, infected nearly 10,000 and virtually shut down the country, in the worst natural disaster to befall it since its creation 72 years ago.

The group most affected by this deadly pandemic has been Israel’s insular ultra-Orthodox community of 1.1 million, representing about 12 percent of the population and forming a kind of a state-within-a-state. According to the Ministry of Health, the rate of infection among haredim doubles every day, compared with the national average of every six days.

One of the largest outbreaks has occurred in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, which has roughly 200,000 inhabitants and is the most densely populated urban area in Israel. Close to Tel Aviv, Bnei Brak had recorded 1,386 cases by April 5, or 67 cases per 10,000 people, Israel’s highest rate.

Having been classified as a “restricted zone,” Bnei Brak was closed off by the police on April 1, forcing the Israeli army to deliver nearly 1,000 tons of food and hygienic products, plus 15,000 prepackaged meals, to needy families.

The decision to impose a closure on Bnei Brak was announced on March 30 by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leading member of the haredi community and a leader of the United Torah Party, a key ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government. On April 6, however, Litzman condemned the closure, describing it as “discriminatory and humiliating.” He also denounced allegations that haredim had helped spread the virus, branding them “false and dangerous.”

Only Jerusalem has had more cases than Bnei Brak, which is much smaller. Of Jerusalem’s 1,465 cases, 75 percent were concentrated in haredi neighborhoods such as Meah Shearim, a stronghold of anti-Zionism. The case load in other Israeli cities has been much lighter, with Tel Aviv-Jaffa having registered 393 cases, Petah Tikvah 172, Rishon Lezion 152 and Ashdod 145.

The lowest rates were reported mainly in Arab-majority towns and cities.

On April 2, Litzman and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting Netanyahu, Mossad director Yossi Cohen and Netanyahu’s national security advisor, Meir Ben-Shabbat, to go into quarantine because they had all met Litzman in recent days.

Litzman has been accused of being lenient in enforcing social distancing rules in the ultra-Orthodox community, with critics having charged he was derelict in not calling for the closing of synagogues or the stoppage of prayer quorums in a timely fashion. They claim that Netanyahu ignored Litzman’s disobedient behavior so as not to damage his political alliance with haredi parties, which have propped up his government.

The disproportionately high infection rate among haredim is due to several converging factors — densely populated neighborhoods, large families, a traditional way of life that assigns great importance to religious and communal activities, and a profound reluctance to tamper with age-old customs and Jewish law. Consequently, many haredim initially dismissed social distancing regulations, resulting in a disastrous rate of infection.

Examples abound.

On March 29, hundreds of haredim attended the funeral of Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar, the principal of Bnei Brak’s Beit David yeshiva, despite government directives banning more than 10 people at funerals. The mayor of Bnei Brak, Avraham Rubinstein, appeared at the funeral as well.

On April 6, residents of the ultra-Orthodox town of Modiin Illit clashed with police in protest over a lockdown order and a ban on religious gatherings. On the same day, two prayer services with 15 people each were broken up by police.

On April 7, 30 members of the haredi community in Beit Shemesh were fined for praying together in a synagogue in violation of Ministry of Health rules.

This pattern of disobedience was set by respected haredi rabbis, one of whom, Chaim Kanievsky, instructed yeshivas and synagogues to stay open. Under pressure, he modified his rabbinic order and then cancelled it altogether.

The open defiance of government regulations by some haredis has precipitated indignation and outrage in secular circles. Non-religious Israelis, who constitute a majority of the country’s population, strongly believe it is unfair, discriminatory and scandalous that tens of thousands of yeshiva students, supported by state subsidies, are exempted from military service and do not share this burden.

It’s an issue that seeps into the very heart of Israeli politics. Last year, Avigdor Liberman, the head of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, twice blocked Netanyahu from forming a new government over a proposed enlistment law concerning haredim.

On April 6, Liberman, a staunch secularist, sharply criticized the haredi political leadership, accusing it of “endangering the health of the public” by fostering a mood of disobedience within the community. “It is important to remember that most of the ultra-Orthodox public listens to (government) instructions and follows them,” he said. “But what should worry us is not the law-breaking minority, but the ultra-Orthodox leadership.”

Rina Matsliah, a Channel 12 news presenter, went a step further, accusing haredim of violating the government’s health regulations. The haredim need to learn to accept the authority of the state, she said.

Netanyahu has condemned “wild incitement” against haredim, claiming they have now internalized the magnitude of the crisis. And President Reuven Rivlin has urged Israelis to refrain from attacking “a whole community because of the bad deeds of individuals.”

Sweeping generalizations can indeed be misleading and dangerous. But the fact of the matter remains that the haredim, in large part, brought this disaster upon themselves.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,