As Israel Plans Exit From COVID Lockdown, the Key Issue Is Also the Riskiest

Cabinet discussions on easing the coronavirus lockdown are held as infection rates in the Haredi community remain high ■ Decisions are likely to be made only on Saturday night

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Ultra-Orthodox men pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Bnei Brak, October 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox men pray during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, Bnei Brak, October 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The figures presented to the coronavirus cabinet Tuesday show a continuing decline in the number of virus carriers diagnosed daily, a fall in the percentage of tests coming back positive and a slight dip in the number of seriously ill patients. According to the Health Ministry, only 29 towns, including 20 classified as cities, are currently labeled red, meaning the incidence of the virus there is high.

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The infection coefficient, R, has fallen to 0.8 or 0.7. That represents the average number of people infected by each patient, and it’s down from 1 or a bit more last month.

The task force responsible for monitoring the hospitals’ situation is still worried by the number of patients needing intensive care and the inability to move geriatric coronavirus patients to geriatric hospitals.

But the bottom line, at least compared to the panic before a second lockdown was imposed on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, is a bit more optimistic. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz agreed that the lockdown would continue through Sunday, the cabinet has started discussing an exit strategy. Decisions aren’t expected to be made until Thursday – or more likely, based on the track record, until the very last minute, on Saturday night.

For now, however, only minor relaxations of the lockdown are being discussed – reopening businesses that don’t face the public directly and reopening day-care centers and preschools for children up to 6, a step that could help businesses reopen.

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu in Jerusalem, October 13, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Within the coronavirus cabinet, there’s a clear divide between the stringent approach advocated by Netanyahu and senior health officials and the group that wants a more rapid easing of restrictions, composed mainly of ministers from Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party. The coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, recommended postponing any decisions for a few days, since incidence of the virus remains high – around 3,000 new patients a day – and the impact of last week’s Sukkot holiday isn’t yet clear.

But the discussion was overshadowed by one critical fact – the high incidence of illness in the ultra-Orthodox community. At best, there are preliminary signs that the spread of the virus there is slowing. But that’s before the impact of the mass Sukkot festivities held by some Hasidic sects have become evident.

The numbers are instructive. What’s happening among the ultra-Orthodox isn’t happening anyplace else. Just compare the situation in certain ultra-Orthodox towns to that in other Jewish towns.

The ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak is averaging 223 patients per 10,000 residents and the proportion of positive tests was 16 percent last week; nearby Givatayim has 21 patients per 10,000 residents and a 2.4 percent positive rate. The ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit has 294 patients per 10,000 residents and a 12.4 percent positive rate; the comparable figures in neighboring Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut are 25 patients and 3 percent. The Haredi town of Elad has 182 patients per 10,000 residents and a 14 percent positive rate; the figures for Hod Hasharon are 24 patients and 3.5 percent.

In other words, ultra-Orthodox towns have an infection rate 10 times higher or worse, while their proportion of positive tests is five times higher or more.

In one sense, the coronavirus has been similar worldwide. The virus has stripped every country and society of its pretenses and lies and provided an x-ray of its real situation.

In Israel, the past seven months have revealed chaotic management, an inability to engage in long-term planning and a complete absence of leaders who set a personal example. But the virus has also highlighted longer-term problems, first and foremost the state’s problematic relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community.

Ultra-Orthodox men praying in a synagogue in Jerusalem, October 13, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The implications of developments that experts like Prof. Dan Ben-David of Tel Aviv University have warned about for decades have been revealed in all their severity by the coronavirus crisis. A decent percentage of ultra-Orthodox Israelis are increasingly disconnected from the state and don’t see themselves as bound by its laws and instructions, even during a crisis.

The result is evident in the work of the most precious resource during a pandemic – the growing burden on medical personnel, who can’t treat all the seriously ill.

A selection of media reports from the past few days suffices to show the severity of the problem. Many Hasidic sects held mass gatherings throughout the recent holidays. The police refrained almost entirely from ticketing such gatherings in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. Hospitals and health maintenance organizations arranged VIP treatment at home for certain Hasidic rabbis, including some who urged their flocks to ignore the virus. Ultra-Orthodox schools opened after the holiday in violation of the lockdown law.

Even as all this was happening, an ultra-Orthodox member of the governing coalition, lawmaker Israel Eichler of the United Torah Judaism alliance, described police officers as storm troopers conducting pogroms in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. And Culture Minister Chili Tropper of Kahol Lavan admitted that the cabinet didn’t shift to a differential lockdown, in line with Gamzu’s “traffic light” plan, because it was afraid of upsetting the ultra-Orthodox.

An ultra-Orthodox man wears a mask sporting a yellow star with the German word 'Jude' written across it to protest a coronavirus lockdown in Jerusalem last yearCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The tension over policy toward “red” cities, a significant portion of which are ultra-Orthodox, isn’t expected to fade anytime soon. Next week is critical for the ultra-Orthodox community; that’s when yeshivas are supposed to reopen. Meanwhile, the non-ultra-Orthodox public is impatiently awaiting the reopening of public schools.

It’s impossible to give VIP treatment to a community where incidence of the illness is 10 times higher just because its cabinet representatives are applying pressure while leaving the rest of the country imprisoned at home. That would be grounds for a civic revolt – this time by non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis.

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