Angry at ultra-Orthodox Jews for ‘Defying’ Coronavirus Rules? It’s More Complicated Than That

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified both anxieties and generalizations around Haredi – or ultra-Orthodox – Jews in Israel, the U.S. and the UK. Media outlets in these countries have mostly represented Haredi Jews as either ignorant or deliberately defiant of public health restrictions. Their level of compliance with those restrictions is viewed as a litmus test for how poorly Haredim are integrated in state and society.

Yet the Haredi public’s relationship problems with public health in Israel and the UK are long-running and unresolved, a situation I have witnessed first-hand working as a medical anthropologist with Haredi communities in both countries.

Rather than the coverage that descends into an endless, and often vicious, blame game, we should be asking different, constructive, serious questions. The coronavirus crisis demonstrates the urgency of addressing broader questions around minority-state relationships, responsibilities and rights. 

Commentators have frequently discussed, often in patronizing tones, the need to "educate the Haredim." But there has been much less discussion about how this lack of education and engagement on a devastating public health crisis has come about. 

The truth is that there has been a fundamental breakdown in responsibility on the part of both the state and religious leaders to prepare Haredi Jews for this challenge. Given that the priorities of public health and Haredi leaders are not in opposition, there should be frank discussions of how the two parties now move forward and meet their mutual responsibilities to the Haredi population. 

In Israel, Haredi Jews have formed a disproportionate number of morbidity, hospital admissions and deaths from COVID-19. Many people have rushed to claim that Haredi Jews are endangering the public by ignoring government restrictions around home isolation. 

– Mannie Fabian tweet

More footage from the funeral last night in Bnei Brak.

Despite the clear violation of the Health Ministry restrictions the Police allowed it to continue.

— Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian (@manniefabian) March 29, 2020

The uproar over one event captured this sense of outrage: A funeral attended by approximately 400 people in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. This kind of discourse plays into broader religion-state anxieties around Haredi "exceptionalism": most notably, their exemption from the military draft. Many Israelis will say: While we have to abide by the rules, Haredim do not.