(March 31, 2020 / JNS) The carry-on about the dangerous spread of COVID-19 within the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel is understandable. While the rest of us are cooped up at home, with increasingly severe limitations on our freedom of movement, certain ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods have been conducting business as usual.
Indeed, the contrast between Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood and the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv with the shuttered shops and empty playgrounds of cities from Metula to Eilat naturally causes rage on the part of a populace forced to comply with regulations aimed at flattening the curve of the coronavirus. Video footage from a funeral in Bnei Brak this past Saturday night—attended by masses of members of an extreme haredi sect all huddled together, yet not arrested by police for ignoring the two-meter-apart rule—elicited furious reactions from secular and religious Israelis alike.
For the past month, health officials have bemoaned the situation in the nation’s hospitals and warned that the exponential rise in infection, due to the incredibly contagious nature of the virus, would result in disaster. More specifically, it would lead to a situation in which the number of patients requiring ventilation outweighed the equipment. At such a point, doctors would face dilemmas about which people to put on respirators. It is imperative—the authorities tell us ad nauseam—for everyone to comply. No exceptions.
Finally, after daily persuasion and the threat of fines for violators, we began to get the message. Whether or not we thought that destroying the Israeli (and global) economy was a cure far worse than the disease—with a sudden soaring unemployment rate and a virtual demolition of small businesses—we began to follow the directives.
We remain apart from family and friends. We stray only 100 meters (328 feet) from our buildings. We do not attend synagogue services, weddings or circumcisions with more than 10 people, a number that the government just lowered to two.
We are not able to visit loved ones in the hospital. When one dies, only a handful of us is at liberty to attend his or her funeral.
The conversations we hold by phone, Skype or Zoom always include a discussion of the latest draconian measure imposed on us to prevent the virus from becoming unmanageable. Arguments abound about the effectiveness of practically impossible quarantines, particularly in small apartments with multiple children and single bathrooms.
Social media, too, is rife with cynical comments about the futile and oppressive lockdown, with some skeptics going as far as to consider it arbitrary at best and a plot by politicians to exert power at worst.
The anti-haredi sentiment has reached fever pitch (no pun intended). If the kind of vitriol spewed at the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole had been uttered by non-Jews, it would have been considered anti-Semitic—and rightly so.
The anger in Israel stems from two emotional impulses: blame and resentment. The current statistics show that more than half of all coronavirus patients and casualties are from haredi communities. We alternate between fearing that they are endangering our health, and fuming at the idea that the government in general and ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Yaakov Litzman in particular are treating them with unjustifiable lenience.
The truth is more complicated. Unlike the rest of us, who spend all day in front of cell-phone and TV screens, many haredim are off the information grid. So getting the message to them about COVID-19 has been more challenging.
This is slowly changing, with more rabbis issuing decrees to their congregants to obey the health directives. Even Litzman is now pushing to isolate Bnei Brak completely from its surroundings.
Whether the campaign to educate the haredi community to practice social distancing will work is questionable, as many live in cramped quarters with 10 or more children. Parents of two children are climbing the walls these days. Imagine what it must be like for those who have a dozen rug rats to keep occupied, not to mention fed, in the confines of small flats. All day, every day.
Turning against the haredim may be a national pastime, but in this case, we would do better to learn an important lesson from their lack of social distancing: that isolation is an effective policy. In other words, the haredim have served unwittingly as a control group in the experiment to combat the pandemic.
It is of little comfort to those whose lives are at risk, to be sure. But it should provide us with a degree of confidence that the disruption in our lives and livelihoods hasn’t been for naught.
Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”
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