In two weeks’ time, Muslims around the world will mark the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month in Islam. Observing its customs is considered an obligation and one of the pillars of the Islamic faith. However, it is already clear that the social and ritual customs of Ramadan will not take place this year as they usually do.
As in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, the challenge facing the Arab Muslim society in Israel during Ramadan is a difficult one. Further complicating matters is the obstacle posed by the crowded living conditions, alongside the spike in unemployment and growing financial difficulties due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Arab families, which can sometimes have dozens of people living in one house, are used to convening around the table twice a day, every day, during this month: at the meal that starts the fast and the one that breaks it.
Without a massive information campaign by the state, the localities and spiritual leaders, infection rates may skyrocket and create dangerous outbreaks. We’re already seeing the fast spread of the coronavirus in towns like Tama, Umm el Fahm, Daburiyyah and Jasr a-Zarka. In addition, a large number of Arab towns are among the country’s poorest and most densely populated.
By government directive—as in many other places in the world—all mosques and prayer houses in Israel have been closed. This is, without a doubt, one of the most painful yet significant and lifesaving steps that have been taken so far to combat the pandemic. During the month of fasting, the sites where crowds usually gather should not be accessible, and it should be forbidden to conduct the Tarawih prayer, which takes place every day after Iftar, the meal of breaking the fast.
Normally this prayer lasts half an hour and is followed by a sermon. The mosques are usually full since even non-religious people come to the mosques to pray during Ramadan.
The government effort ahead of Ramadan should be doubled, both at the information level and in terms of practical solutions for aid. The deployment of the Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command—soldiers and officers in uniform, and military vehicles—could be an opportunity to change attitudes towards the IDF. However, if the attempt to bring order and forcefully enforce regulations is carried out without discussions with all factors and local leadership, and their cooperation, it could also add friction.
The government needs to improve its messaging in Arabic, and share the decision-making and enforcement with the Arab leadership at both the national level and the local level, by involving mayors, spiritual leaders and civic society organizations.
In recent weeks, they have all demonstrated national responsibility and their commitment to the Arab public and all of Israeli society. Together with these figures, the government must create and implement a dedicated action plan and give priority to addressing the towns at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Finally, a painful issue that must be addressed is one that has made headlines this past year: the violence in Israeli Arab society. One of the dangers that could erupt during Ramadan is a spike in violence, especially domestic violence, as entire families are stuck in crowded homes, with both parents unemployed and a drastic drop in income. Many families that are already suffering could find themselves under even more pressure from health, financial and existential problems.
This is not a problem unique to Arab society, but the contextual factors of large families, poverty and being on the fringes of society mean that it demands a higher level of attention.
Jalal Bana is a media adviser and journalist.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.