Analysis |

Israel Needs a 'Traffic Light' Reopening, but ultra-Orthodox Likely to Block It

Coronavirus numbers are improving across Israel, but less so in Haredi communities – and rabbis are insisting on reopening schools right away

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Ultra-Orthodox men pray in Jerusalem, October 2020.
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Two clear trends in the spread of the coronavirus are becoming apparent at the end of the Sukkot holiday. The first is the downward trend in all the important parameters of the pandemic, including the rate of positive tests, the number of confirmed carriers and the number of seriously ill patients.

The second trend is that the drop in these parameters is seen among all groups in Israel except the ultra-Orthodox, in which only a slight drop has been registered. Many Haredi communities are continuing to defy the regulations, without the state making a real attempt to enforce compliance, meaning with force if necessary.

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The conflict between these two trends will be the focus of the coronavirus cabinet’s discussions, expected to take place on Tuesday. By rights, the rate of decline in the number of carriers and positive tests should allow for a significant easing of economic restrictions. However, since what is happening among some Haredi communities is tantamount to civil disobedience, there is no escaping a return to a differential model, with an easing in “green” cities and a lockdown in “red” ones, and with state assistance to help bring down the number of cases in these communities too.

However, it seems that this is not the government’s plan. The Health Ministry’s director general, Prof. Chezy Levy, told the Kan public broadcaster on Sunday that objectively, a tight lockdown needs to be maintained in only 13 red cities. Levy acknowledged the Haredi anger at the differential model. Thus, the plan is to lift restrictions gradually, across the board, disregarding the differences in the level of the crisis in different communities. This will begin next Sunday.

The problem is exacerbated by the insistence of Haredi rabbis and politicians on the reopening of schools, first for younger pupils and then in yeshivot, starting next week. Haredi leaders are very concerned about the consequences of a prolonged shutdown of educational institutions. Thousands of pupils left yeshivot at the end of the first lockdown in April. Along with that, Haredi cities report a sharp rise in the number of homes connecting to the internet despite rabbinical prohibitions.

From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox, an immediate return to school is an essential step in countering a possible slackening of faith. However, this does not accord with the health needs of their communities: Schools can become foci of contagion once again. Moreover, it’s hard to believe that the rest of the Israeli public will agree to such blatant discrimination against it. According to the government’s plan, in other educational streams only kindergartens and the lower grades will open in the first phase, with higher grades only returning to school towards January, while Haredi pupils will be able to return to school almost immediately, even though many of them ignore coronavirus guidelines.

Meanwhile, in other debacles...

The government’s problems are not restricted to decisions about the virus. It appears that its functioning throughout the current crisis has veered from dangerous to alarming to grotesque.

The chain of events in recent days is a good example. The resignation of the Finance Ministry’s director general, Keren Terner-Eyal, following the resignations of other senior treasury officials, reflects the severity of the rift between the ministry’s professional echelons and Finance Minster Yisrael Katz and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This happened both due to Terner-Eyal’s tense personal elations with Katz, and to the Likud’s insistence on forgoing the approval of this year’s budget, purely for political reasons.

On Channel 13 News Saturday night, a police officer repeated totally fake news, stitched together coarsely, as if the protesters against corruption were planning on using tear gas against policemen. Transportation Minister Miri Regev was busy dealing with what was truly important – settling scores with newscaster Eyal Berkovich, who dared say on Channel 12 that senior Likud officials were behaving like a crime organization in their defense of Netanyahu. Regev found the time to approach the attorney general, asking him to intervene and prevent the appointment of Berkovich as the national soccer coach, something that is purely hypothetical in any case. This might have been funny if the country were not entering its fourth week of lockdown, with over 30 deaths a day and hundreds of thousands of citizens not knowing how they’ll earn a living.

The wide web of protection surrounding Netanyahu, which unfortunately includes the police, is intensely busy inciting and distracting the public. This process is taking place in view of the vise Netanyahu is in, with the link created between continued infection rates and the intensification of protests. In her TV interview, Regev did not shy away from further deceptions and lies, claiming that European countries were in lockdown too and that mortality rates in Israel are the lowest in the world. In fact, despite the sharp spike in the number of infections in Europe, there are only localized lockdowns there, with restrictions on nighttime entertainment in some cities. Mortality in Israel, per million inhabitants, is particularly high in comparison to most other countries, which encountered a second wave of the virus after us.

In the face of these deliberate deceptions, three simple facts should be remembered: First, the cabinet exited the first lockdown rapidly and injudiciously, thus (with statements such as: go have fun) bringing about a second lockdown. Secondly, if Netanyahu had agreed to a differential lockdown on time, as the professionals recommended, a second lockdown might have been avoided entirely, but he avoided this so as not to annoy the Haredim. Thirdly, a lockdown is the last resort, attesting to a failure of all other methods. Its damage to health and the economy, as well as to the mental state of the country’s citizens, could yet compete with the damage wrought by the disease itself.

Stepping into the breach

The IDF announced on Sunday that two new coronavirus wards would be opened at Rambam Hospital, to be staffed by 100 members of the army’s Medical Corps. These wards will be able to handle 80 coronavirus patients. This is the first time since the state was established that the IDF will treat civilians, even though military doctors have treated civilians in disaster areas around the world, when Israel sent emergency teams to assist.

The unusual mobilization of the army in the campaign against the virus will come to some extent at the expense of daily care given to conscript and standing army soldiers. The decision was made by chief of staff Aviv Kochavi after lengthy deliberations among the army’s top brass regarding the extent of involvement required of the army in contending with the second wave. It seems the army’s involvement will gradually increase, but the General Staff is wary of taking full responsibility for the crisis, preferring to subordinate the army’s capabilities to the decisions of the Health Ministry.

The army still has some backup plans for worst-case scenarios such as a worsening pandemic due to the onset of winter. In such an event, the construction of field hospitals will be considered, to be located in two bases for new recruits, Golani Brigade base in Wadi Ara, and Paratrooper Brigade base in the northern Negev.

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