(January 28, 2021 / JNS) The mayor of Antwerp, the Belgian city that is home to about 15,000 ultra-Orthodox haredi Jews, has warned that their failure to comply with coronavirus measures threatens to trigger a wave of anti-Semitism.
The Belzer Chassidic sect shut their synagogue in the city after the police twice found it was violating emergency measures forbidding group prayer. COVID-19 infections in two heavily Jewish neighborhoods of Antwerp are reported to be four times higher than in the rest of the city.
This is a pattern being repeated in many countries: haredim dying from the virus in hugely disproportionate numbers, but with their communities’ significant infractions of the COVID regulations provoking widespread criticism and fury.
Supporters say they are being scapegoated. Many of these communities have been observing the restrictions; a number of prominent rabbis have ordered the closure of yeshivahs and schools; and others have reversed their previous rulings to keep them open when they have become aware of the risks.
Certainly, there’s a tendency to lump all the haredim together and unfairly blame them all. But the behavior of many—in keeping open their educational institutions against government instructions, ignoring social distancing at weddings and other large gatherings, and refusing to wear face masks—is deeply troubling and is having tragic consequences.
In London’s Stamford Hill, the police have launched an investigation to find out who was responsible for arranging a 150-strong wedding that took place on the premises of a haredi girls’ school. In a particularly distressing irony, the school’s former principal, Rabbi Avrohom Pinter, himself died of COVID after trudging in desperation from house to house to beg the area’s haredim to stop flouting the restrictions.
In Israel, according to Roni Numa, head of the ultra-Orthodox desk at the coronavirus taskforce, some 15 percent of haredi educational institutions have been operating during the country’s current lockdown, and in the last month, some 12,000 ultra-Orthodox students have contracted COVID-19.
There have been violent disturbances in several haredi population centers in Israel as the police have tried to enforce COVID restrictions towards which official blind eyes have long been turned.
In Bnei Brak, haredi rioters set a bus on fire, almost killing the driver who managed to free himself before the vehicle burned down to its metal frame.
In a notably tragic case, the virus claimed the lives of the mother, father and brother of Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the founder of the volunteer rescue and recovery organization ZAKA, which gathers human remains from the scene of terrorist attacks. His relatives died after his mother ignored her son’s pleas and went ahead with a family Hanukkah party.
Grieving that so many in his community were “dropping like flies,” he said: “There are leaders of the community who have blood on their hands, and it’s the blood of my mother and of many others.”
Last October, he laid the blame for such reckless behavior among the Chassidim on rabbinic leaders whose word on all aspects of life was treated as sacred. “There are groups,” he said, “mostly of Chassidic people, who say ‘our obligation is to uphold Torah life,’ and who say that if this can’t continue [without infection] they are willing to pay the price of people becoming infected in order to do this.”
In Israel, soaring coronavirus infection rates and violent disturbances among the haredim have brought to a head social and political tensions between the secular and religious worlds that have been bubbling inside Israel since its foundation.
Secular Israel has long been beyond exasperated by the refusal of so many haredim to accept the same obligations of citizenship as everyone else, and in some cases, even actively to oppose the “Zionist” state.
Such secular critics fail to acknowledge the changes for the better in the haredi world (albeit at a slow pace), with more of them working and joining the army, and with the birth rate per woman dropping from 12 to around eight.
Some reasons for their COVID disobedience are more understandable than others. Less acceptable is their resentful distrust of the “Zionist” state authorities, who they wrongly claim ignore COVID rule-breaking by hedonistic, beach-going Tel Aviv residents and pick on the ultra-Orthodox instead.
More poignant is the fact that their insular lives cut them off from sources of objective information about the virus and its effects. With enormous families crammed into inadequate living space and with no computers to provide a Zoom lifeline to schools or the outside world, they depend entirely upon the daily school routine to relieve the crushing pressures of lockdown.
Above all, though, their refusal to obey the rules stems from their desperation to retain their religious routine at all costs. They fear that, if they shut down the yeshivahs, they will lose an entire generation of young men to Judaism altogether. They believe that it’s only the authority of the rabbis that keeps these young men on the path of righteousness. They believe that learning Talmud and Torah is more precious even than life itself.
This has all created a threefold crisis for the Jewish world. The first is for Israeli society. For the behavior of these recalcitrants, whom the police have been unable to control, has shown that Israel is in effect ungovernable as one country.
In a poll released this week by Israeli TV’s Channel 12, not only did 78 percent of center-left respondents predictably say that the next government should not include the haredi parties, 52 percent of the center-right said so as well.
So the division in Israel is no longer secular left versus religious, but secular plus national Orthodox center-right versus haredi. The only way to resolve this fracture is to remove the power of the haredi minority to hold successive Israeli governments hostage, and the only way to achieve that is through electoral reform.
Second, this is a crisis for the haredim themselves. With powerful rabbis yo-yoing between ruling to keep their yeshivahs and schools open and then reversing themselves (and vice versa), their leadership is staring at the collapse of their own authority.
The third level of this crisis is the most serious of all. For these rabbinic sages, whose authority is deemed unquestionable, have now been shown to be lethally all-too fallible. As the result of what they have said or not said, people in their communities have died in large numbers.
In Judaism, preserving life is a paramount duty. It is permitted to violate even biblically mandated laws to save a life, with only three exceptions: the prohibitions against idolatry, sexual transgression or murder. Violating the duty to preserve life against the ravages of COVID-19 is, as several horrified rabbis have now said, a desecration of the name of the Almighty.
And if haredi sages have got this one terribly wrong, if they have contravened this core Jewish ethical principle and, through willful recklessness and obstinacy, have caused the decimation of their own community, then how can they continue to have authority over anything else?
The haredim believe that learning is more important than life itself because for them it is life itself. But what if the faithful themselves come to see that this belief has turned into a force that inflicts death on others?
Rabbinic learning has kept Judaism together over the centuries against all the odds. Haredi behavior has created a crisis that is not just about unleashing anti-Semitism and not just about fracturing community cohesion. It is a crisis for Judaism itself.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.
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