I write this column with trepidation, as it discusses how the ultra-orthodox Jewish cities and neighborhoods in Israel have become the central hot spots of the coronavirus.
With trepidation, because no matter how careful I will spin the tale and report on the below, it is bad news. The good news is that, in a recent report, Israel was identified as one of the safest countries at the time of this pandemic. That is encouraging news, but it can still change.
The bad news is that earlier this week, about a dozen cities, towns, and neighborhoods were identified as the hot spots of the coronavirus in Israel. By order of the government, they were effectively closed off, through barriers and roadblocks, by the police and assisting army troops, and cut off from the outside world.
It concerns communities that are religious-Jewish and mainly ultra-orthodox. The number of infections is increasing rapidly, especially in the city of Bnei Berak, where about 200,000, mostly ultra-orthodox, people live, mostly in cramped conditions. The virus has spread so rapidly that the local hospital is already overloaded and has requested assistance from other hospitals.
How could this happen?
Weren’t those very severe measures announced and implemented by the government observed by all, and didn’t they prove to be effective? Didn’t the population adhere to the prescribed rules and imposed restrictions?
Certainly, but with one notable exception! In the ultra-orthodox communities, the regulations issued by the governmental authorities were mostly ignored. The ban on public gatherings was blatantly disregarded. The synagogues, the yeshivot (Talmudic schools for youth), and kolels (learning houses for adult men) remained open. Funerals drew many hundreds of mourners, despite the explicit prohibition.
Why, do you ask?
Because those communities do not recognize the authority of the government, including the police and military. More precisely, the members of those communities prefer the authority of their religious leaders. On the streets, police officers are regularly, also recently, called “Nazis.” When female soldiers make the mistake of appearing in uniform, they are spat on and called whores. Sure, those are the excesses, but the fact is that it happens, and when it happens, no one intervenes or says anything about it. And that says a lot.
Anyone who is somewhat familiar with the social, political, and religious relations in Israel will not be surprised by the latter data. In politics, the secular majority is confronted time and again with the political clout of the ultra-orthodox parties, who master the political game of blackmail. Every Israeli citizen knows that the current “status quo” of everyday social life is upheld by the orthodox, including the ultra-orthodox.
Many tens of thousands of ultra-orthodox men do not work but are funded by the state with a stipend to learn in yeshivot and kolels. They do not serve in the military, nor are they required to perform alternative military service. They receive considerably more money than soldiers serving their compulsory three years of service in the IDF, and about four times as much as older people who have to live on the AOW.
There is no public transport on the Shabbat. The majority of Israel’s citizens would like to see that change. The ElAl airline does not fly on Shabbat, while Saturday is the most profitable day of the week for most airlines. There is hardly any room and certainly no political and financial support for pluralism in the experience of Judaism. Orthodoxy has a monopoly.
When these issues come up for discussion, the average Israeli shrugs resignedly, “It is as it is.”
Why did the ultra-Orthodox not follow the rules? Why could the coronavirus spread so quickly in these ultra-Orthodox cities, towns, and neighborhoods? Because they are led by old men who, in some cases, half-blind, half-deaf, have no idea and don’t want to know what is going on in the outside world.
These old men – praised and blindly trusted by their followers – refuse to live in the modern world. They consciously deprive their followers (boys and girls, men and women) of pursuing a proper, general education and training so that they can function as full members of our modern society. The state and Israeli society are at their service. They think, and sometimes let it slip, that secular jews are worse than goyim.
During many critical days, these same old men – rabbis – kept their followers from obeying the measures taken regarding the coronavirus. With all the current consequences. Once these old and flawed rabbis saw the light or were made to see the light, it was already too late, much too late.
But now, the majority of Israel’s citizens seem to be done with being resigned. Suddenly, those ultra-orthodox communities are not just only a burden – political, economic, cultural – on the modern state. They suddenly also pose a life threat to “Clal Israel,”to all of Israel’s people. What you mostly hear and read, in the media, and also hear on the street, is that the vast, secular majority of Israel’s citizens are fed up with the behavior of the ultra-orthodox.
A now clear red line has been crossed.
One of Israel’s most popular newscasters, Rina Matzliach, expressed this feeling the day before yesterday during a news broadcast on channel 12. Freely translated, she said, “It is time for ultra-orthodox to accept the state of Israel for better and for worse. It is time for them to feel obligated to the state.” She received a torrent of, often vile, criticism.
Batia Cahana Dror, a columnist on the online news site Ynet, defended Matzliach. “It was an authentic statement that exposed the absurd relationship between the ultra-orthodox and the state. The criticism of her statement tried to cover up that the onus of the extremely high level of contamination of these communities it exclusively on the ultra-Orthodox rabbis. They bear the immediate responsibility for this potential disaster. This is also the time to call into question the lack of ultra-orthodox participation in Israeli society,” Dror wrote.
Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist in the daily HaAretz, concluded that the current crisis and the failure of the rabbis would have implications for how their followers perceive them. They proved to be failing and had no choice but to conform to the authorities, not to religion, he said.
Hope springs eternal.