Israel’s faulty treatment of its ultra-Orthodox population has already emerged as one of its most serious failures in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. For weeks now, many have been preoccupied with criticizing the very fact that a problem is being pointed out, as if doing so constituted an “anti-Semitic” assault on a certain sector. In the meantime, the community has been left to fall ill in ever-growing numbers.
Who have they protected with these claims? No one.
Internal Health Ministry data is clear: There has been a sharp increase in the number of people in the ultra-Orthodox community infected with the virus. Hundreds more have contracted the virus in a three-day period, at a much higher rate than the national average.
This will come as no surprise to those who follow epidemiological investigations and patterns of infection. At the very beginning of the outbreak synagogues were identified as the most dangerous infection sites in the country – as Haaretz reported last week. And yet, the response of the Netanyahu government, under the auspices of the ultra-Orthodox health minister, was shamefully weak and very hesitant. It left synagogues open for too long and even now allows prayer quorums to meet and ritual baths for women to remain open, while everyone else has been asked to remain under almost total lockdown.
The government thus surrendered to the religious and ultra-Orthodox public, which has not yet understood the outstanding significance of this time. Instead of protecting the health of this group, as it would be expected to do, the government has cast this responsibility on the rabbis.
On March 15, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the chief rabbis, the secretaries of the Council of Torah Sages, the chairman of the committee of yeshivas and leaders of the ultra-Orthodox sects. At this meeting, it was decided according to Netanyahu’s office, that “the Health Ministry’s directives are to be followed while finding solutions for continued Torah study.” Encouraging these leaders to assist in making sure the directives are followed was essential, but in no way could it have replaced the government’s sovereignty over its citizens.
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Israel’s policy of no-man’s lands is not new. The coronavirus crisis is only another example of the way this policy might blow up in all of our faces at any time now. From the ultra-Orthodox, to the Arab community, hilltop outposts in the territories to communities of asylum seekers in Tel Aviv – Israel has abandoned entire groups until it is too late. Health, welfare and law enforcement authorities are almost non-existent until suddenly, intervention is needed and the only response that remains is always to use violence. That’s the way it is with the hilltop youth going wild in the outposts; it’s the way things are with crime in the Arab community and the same goes for the ultra-Orthodox community.
Violent suppression is the only tool the state has left in places where it has invested almost nothing in education, explanation and regular policing.
There is no doubt that violence is the only solution that will remain in this case as well if the government doesn’t come to its senses immediately. The police will soon have to drag people from prayer services, certainly among the more problematic groups like the extremist Peleg Yerushalmi and the communities in Mea She’arim and Beit Shemesh. These pictures will be shocking and spark protest – but they will save lives.
Instead of reaching this point, the government should open its eyes and see that efforts at explaining the situation and enforcing the directives are still lacking. True, Netanyahu met with a few rabbis and Arab doctors, a few flyers were distributed in Yiddish and Arabic and a few more too-late attempts were made to prevent disasters.
But this is not enough and it isn’t working. Police are handing out masses of tickets to people sitting alone on benches in parks, while completely ignoring what’s happening on Shabbat in Bnei Brak, which is becoming a hotbed for the virus. Officials in ultra-Orthodox local authorities told Haaretz that the Health Ministry doesn’t even inform their residents that they have to go into isolation, because they don’t have smartphones. People in the unrecognized villages in the Negev report similar problems.
The Israeli government must understand that what is happening now is the result of ongoing dereliction of minorities, ultra-Orthodox, Arabs or others, and turning them into unofficial autonomies, which is not to their benefit. The police can’t be sent to put out the fire by force, certainly not when it comes to an epidemic.