Israel Faces Challenges In Fighting Coronavirus In Ultra-Orthodox Communities

Like fundamentalists and equivalents of other religions:

Some devout Orthodox Jewish communities have been slow to follow lockdown orders in Israel, helping drive a surge in coronavirus cases that officials are struggling to contain.

Known in Israel as Haredim, or those who tremble in awe before God, ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 12% of Israel’s population — but they account for as much as 60% of Israel’s COVID-19 cases in major hospitals, according to estimates. More than 6,000 Israelis have been infected and at least 31 have died.

This week marked a turning point for the community’s leadership, after a senior rabbi finally urged his followers to obey government stay-at-home orders. Many in the ultra-Orthodox community only follow the orders of rabbis, not health officials, and for weeks, many ignored government bans against large weddings and prayer services. Many do not own smartphones or TVs, leading authorities and volunteers to employ alternate methods to get the word out about infection prevention.

“Do not hold a prayer gathering! Do not gather for study in synagogues and seminaries! Anyone who defies doctors’ and health officials’ orders to protect against coronavirus is considered as if plotting murder and you must turn him in to authorities!” was the recorded announcement by the ZAKA emergency response organization, whose volunteers drove through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods this week, broadcasting the warning from loudspeakers.

“Now I see a mother and a child crossing the street going into a shop,” ZAKA’s David Rose, himself ultra-Orthodox, told NPR by telephone from the car. “Some people are not aware of how severe this plague is going around.”

“Murderers,” screams a poster plastered in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, addressed to those who defy government orders to close synagogues and schools.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem, helped organize the posters in a private capacity.

At a recent meeting at City Hall, she says, “One of the elderly ultra-Orthodox members of the city council said, ‘You’re asking us to do everything against what our sages tell us to do.’ It’s been very, very difficult with the ultra-Orthodox community because it’s just asking them to go against everything they know and everything they are.”

The community turns to rabbinic texts on Jewish law for guidance on life’s challenges — but the plagues and calamities of the past were never tackled through isolation. And social distancing is anathema to the Orthodox Jewish communal way of life.

Many in the community are impoverished and families can include as many as seven or eight children, all living in two- or three-bedroom apartments. To prevent the virus from spreading easily at home, authorities are preparing hotels to quarantine healthy relatives of those infected with COVID-19 in the community.

The virus is also hitting ultra-Orthodox communities in the U.S., but in Israel, the crisis highlights a long-running friction between the government and the community’s leaders, some of whom initially dismissed the government’s coronavirus lockdown orders.

“Israel is a Jewish state on the one hand, but it doesn’t espouse the version of Judaism that Haredi society would like to see going on,” said ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer of the Tikvah Fund, an educational foundation. “Some of the Israeli regulations and laws are seen to be inhibited or restrictive of the Haredi way of life.”

As the virus hit the country last month, Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman — raised in Brooklyn, New York, and himself ultra-Orthodox — tried to convince rabbis not to allow Jews in quarantine to attend public synagogue gatherings for the Purim holiday. But up until this week, he also permitted prayer gatherings to continue — even though about a quarter of Israeli cases of infection were contracted in synagogues, according to his own health ministry. Now he himself has contracted the virus.

With virus cases rising, Haredi newspapers in Israel ran photos of community members who died in New York, London, Paris and Israel, and the community’s attitude shifted.

This week, a leading Haredi rabbi, Chaim Kanievsky, changed his mind and said his followers should self-isolate and those who ignore the government lockdown should be considered as plotting murder. The mayor of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, begged residents last weekend to stop prayer gatherings. His wife got the virus.

Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis are still skeptical. Yoel Krois, who lives in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, an ultra-Orthodox enclave, said he is keeping his family inside more but doesn’t trust the government’s infection statistics.

“Whoever is a bit sick or elderly must be careful and should not leave the home, and no one should visit them,” Krois said, “but forbidding young people from buying something on the street or praying, that’s already going too far.”

Some ultra-Orthodox Jews shouted “Nazis!” as police marched through a Jerusalem neighborhood this week, handing out large fines — some over $1,000 — to those ignoring the stay-at-home orders. To impose the restrictions, police set up checkpoints at entrances to some ultra-Orthodox areas and used drones to enforce the rules, even deploying stun grenades to disperse a crowd.

“If they would have been closed three weeks ago, the way that we asked them to, we would be seeing much, much fewer numbers today,” Hassan-Nahoum, Jerusalem’s deputy mayor, told NPR. “They came too late into this.”

Source: Israel Faces Challenges In Fighting Coronavirus In Ultra-Orthodox Communities

Jonathan Kay: On El Al’s planes, a case study in appalling sexism

Jon Kay, continuing on an earlier theme against the Haredim (Jonathan Kay: Shariah with a Jewish face | National Post):

Of course, stories of Haredi sexual segregation of have been coming out of Israel for years now. In a move that would make Saudi Arabia proud, some Israeli communities even have sex-segregated busses. And some ultraorthodox communities practice a disgusting mouth-to-penis circumcision practice called Metzitza B’peh, which would be the subject of child-sex abuse charges here in North America if Muslims were doing it. Israeli society shouldn’t stand for such deplorable practices, but ultimately that is Israel’s business.

El Al, on the other hand, is a company that uses Canadian airports and flies hundreds of Canadian passengers to and from Israel every day. Putting aside the question of whether the episodes described above violate Canadian human-rights law, how does it look for Israel’s national flagship carrier to put on display, in front of rows of horrified passengers, the poisonous prejudices of the most narrow-minded constituency in Israeli society?

We are always told (by Stephen Harper and Benjamin Netanyahu alike) that Israel is a beacon of progressive thought, democracy and pluralism in a Middle East brimming with repressive, retrograde attitudes. And in general, that is true. But it seems to me like Elana Sztokman can be forgiven for feeling otherwise.

Jonathan Kay: On El Al’s planes, a case study in appalling sexism

Écoles juives: les hassidim sont prêts à négocier | Le Devoir

A reminder of the challenges of fundamentalism and the limits of faith-based education:

Selon lui [Alex Werzberger, le porte-parole de la Coalition d’organisations hassidiques d’Outremont (COHO)], certaines matières obligatoires au programme ne seront jamais enseignées dans les écoles juives, « point final » affirme-t-il, très catégorique. Exit le cours Éthique et culture religieuse ainsi que les cours de biologie et de sciences. « On ne veut pas enseigner la théorie de l’évolution. À un enfant à qui on a dit toute sa vie que c’est Dieu qui avait créé la Terre, on ne va pas soudainement lui dire le contraire. »

Sur d’autres sujets, comme veiller à ce que tous les enseignants embauchés aient des brevets, il admet qu’ils devront « mettre de l’eau dans [leur] vin ». « Ça doit se faire des deux côtés, réitère-t-il. Dans une négociation, il faut qu’il y ait du give and take. On a l’impression que le gouvernement fait juste take, take, take. »

Écoles juives: les hassidim sont prêts à négocier | Le Devoir.

The reminds me of this article by Patrick Martin in The Globe of some of the medium and long-term challenges facing Israel and the growth of Jewish fundamentalists:

First of all, there has been a sharp decline in the length of formal studies taken by Haredi men. More than 47 per cent of Haredi men aged 35-54 (prime working age) have no more than a primary school education. Ten years ago only 31 per cent were limited to a primary education.

The reason for the substantial decline in formal education has been a steady transition to religious studies, the Taub report states, at the expense of secondary school and academic studies. And the trend will only grow.

More than 90 per cent of Haredi men aged 25-34 chose to take religious rather than academic studies. Fifty years ago, only about half of Haredi men forsook academic for religious studies.

All this has had a dramatic economic impact. “Israel’s poverty and income inequality rates are among the highest in the developed world – and considerably higher than they were in Israel several decades ago,” the Taub report concludes.

Why illiteracy may be the greatest threat to Israel’s survival

Jonathan S. Ostroff: Standing with Israel, but rejecting conscription | National Post

Reinforces much of the points made by Jonathan Kay (Shariah with a Jewish face), including the similarities with Muslim (and other) fundamentalism (e.g., expressions like “rampant immorality”):

Ben-Gurion and the other founders of the secular state of Israel wanted the army to be a melting pot for immigrants from all over the world. Haredi Jews did not, and still do not, want to be melted down. Living in an environment of rampant immorality and lack of commitment to Jewish observance is toxic to their youth. And yes, Haredim believe that marriage is between a man and a women; they do not want to serve in an institution that enforces the acceptance of homosexuality. Religious Zionists who consider it a great virtue to serve in the army complain that more than 20% of their youth loose their religious commitment during their service.

This is why many Haredi parents here in Canada and the United States refuse to send their sons to live in dorms in a co-ed secular universities. This is why Haredim have separate schools, separate newspapers, no television, no unfiltered Internet. They spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on education systems that isolate their children from secular culture.

Jonathan S. Ostroff: Standing with Israel, but rejecting conscription | National Post.

Jonathan Kay: Shariah with a Jewish face | National Post

Good piece by the parallel fundamentalism of the Haredim by Jonathan Kay:

What’s worse, Haredim exhibit a level of misogyny and sexual phobia that is more commonly associated with militant Muslim fundamentalists. Public spaces in Haredi communities are rigidly segregated by sex. In extreme cases, the women even dress in Jewish burquas (colloquially referred to as “frumkas,” a play on a Yiddish word indicating piety). What’s worse, Haredim have demanded that the wider Israeli society adapt to their primitive views — insisting, for instance, that bus lines offer sex-segregated service, that advertising should be free of female faces or bodies, and that beaches maintain separate areas for men and women.

Haredi publications routinely censor out women — including, in the most appalling examples, the faces of female Holocaust victims in reprinted photos from the 1940s. The editorial policies of such publications are dictated by a board of religious censors, much like in Saudi Arabia. Haredi communities even have their own Jewish small-scale versions of the ministries of vice and virtue imposed by the Mullahs of Iran and other Muslim theocrats. This is, in essence, shariah with a Jewish face. And it is destroying Israel’s hard-earned reputation as an island of Western values in the heart of the Middle East.

Jonathan Kay: Shariah with a Jewish face | National Post.