The Silence of ultra-Orthodox Politicians in Israel Betrayed and Imperiled Their Own Community

The city of Bnei Brak got the message. Reality had sunk in, after long weeks in which the ultra-Orthodox community ignored the coronavirus pandemic and consequently saw record infection rates. On Thursday, synagogues which until recently were still surreptitiously open were finally locked. The few people walking in the city streets were wearing face masks and all seemed to be out for essential purposes, mainly procuring the basics for the upcoming Passover holiday, pushing baby carts filled with sacks of potatoes and trays of eggs.

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The Israeli media was bursting with headlines of “curfew” and “humanitarian disaster” in the ultra-Orthodox metropolis, as well as news that the military was taking over the hapless city council. At street level, however, Bnei Brak seemed to be acclimatizing to the new situation. Charities distributed food for Passover, strictly maintaining social-distancing orders. Aid organizations evacuated the sick to hospitals while delivering medication to the elderly in quarantine, sanitizing their cars between trips. A municipal truck with loudspeakers roamed the streets, admonishing those who failed to keep a two-meter distance from one another.

On the face of it, there is no community better prepared for confronting COVID-19 than the Haredi community. Who is more disciplined than them? They only eat what they’re told. They don’t travel when they’re told. Men don’t touch women and everyone immerses their bodies in water and washes their hands when told. If anything, it’s the rest of the world that’s now leading a strict Haredi lifestyle, obeying orders from above. Now it looks like the Haredim are observing the coronavirus shutdown regulations better than anyone else. But why did it take so long?

Jewish ultra-Orthodox women wear face masks during Purim celebrations in Bnei Brak, Israel, March 10, 2020. Oded Balilty / AP

If only the rabbis had realized on time. If only the messages sent out to other Israeli citizens had been received by the ultra-Orthodox at the same time. If only they had closed the synagogue doors before the virus got in. If they had, then despite their overcrowded living conditions, the Haredi community would have had a chance of riding out the plague just as smoothly as other communities in Israel, if not better.

The judgment of rabbis like the venerable Chaim Kanievsky and the circles of askanim, or behind-the-scenes operators, no doubt played a major factor in the delay. It was their decision to reject the government instructions and keep schools and synagogues open.

The Haredi ethos of unquestioning obedience to the rabbis and Torah study as the ultimate ideal, above safeguarding personal and public health, also contributed greatly to the wholesale infection in the community. The taboos surrounding television and radio, the censorship of the Haredi press by “spiritual committees,” and the blocking of mobile phones to internet and messaging apps all prevented crucial information from getting through on time.

File photo: Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (R) and his followers, Jerusalem, 2013. Olivier Fitoussi

But even if the spokesperson of the Health Ministry had a direct line to the kosher phones of every ultra-Orthodox man and woman in Israel, they couldn’t have ensured the message got through.