Analysis |

Israeli Politicians Bicker Over Protests While COVID Cases Skyrocket in Haredi Communities

Cases in ultra-Orthodox areas have been climbing for more than a month, and the government has not made any real effort to enforce distancing rules in them

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A pedestrian walks in Jerusalem on September 25, 2020.
A pedestrian walks in Jerusalem on September 25, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Political controversy in the country these days seems focused on the continuing protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the (marginal) contribution of these demonstrations to the spread of coronavirus infection.

But the real story about the virus is what has gone on in recent weeks, particularly in recent days, in the ultra-Orthodox community.

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On Friday the authorities reported 2,692 new Haredi carriers of the disease, a figure that accounted for a third of all cases diagnosed and double the proportion of Haredim in the population.

The number of tests among Haredim are 25 percent of the total or three times as high as among non-Haredi Jews in the country. This is the main reason for the rise in the rate of positive tests among the general population, which is about 15 percent — a rate that is high compared to European countries that are also seeing a second wave of coronavirus infections.

The spread of the virus in the Haredi community has been climbing for more than a month, since the start of yeshiva classes at the start of the month of Elul. Most of the carriers are young people and therefore the high numbers didn’t translate into that many serious cases. A large number of the ill stayed at the yeshivas, delaying the spread of the illness to their families.

But the spread of the virus continued on Rosh Hashanah and at least two focal points of contagion were identified in Haredi synagogues which were opened specifically for older worshippers, age 65 and over. This took place, of course, in utter violation of calls by state authorities for elderly people to avoid any gatherings, especially prayer in closed spaces. This spread of infection among the elderly immediately led to an increase in the number of serious cases.

A substantial number of the new cases were among Hasidic communities including the large Ger sect, which had been relatively strict about social distancing. The staff of coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu has been setting up isolation centers for patients from some of the yeshivas, including the Ger yeshiva in Ramat Hahayal in Tel Aviv and the Hebron Yeshiva, similar to the hotels the Home Front Command set up as isolation centers for the wider public. This trend has raised a lot of local opposition. The flow of infected people to the Ger yeshiva has angered secular neighbors and Gamzu’s phone is full of angry messages.

Haredi leaders of various factions played a role in this situation. Studies went on in a large number of schools for younger boys contrary to the rest of the country whose schools have been on a break for more than a week. And despite the calls of rabbis to avoid worship in closed spaces on Yom Kippur, there are those who openly say they intend to defy the rules. Among the Vishnitz Hasidim, there have been calls to open the synagogues as usual with instructions for only the elderly to stay home.

As opposed to the usual friction over the protesters at Balfour Street, the state has not made any real effort to enforce distancing rules in the Haredi community and it’s hard to imagine the police trying to enforce these rules in synagogues over Yom Kippur.

However, news from overseas may accomplish what the police are failing to do. In recent days, there has been a rise in infection and even some cases of fatalities among Haredi communities in New York and New Jersey.

The infection rate among the Haredim is expected to rise, despite talks over the last few days to try to curb the rate.

The number of cases diagnosed remains higher than in Arab communities, where 13 percent tested positive on Friday. The growing list of so-called red cities — those with the highest infection rates — is led by Haredi communities. Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illilt, Beitar Illit and Elad are among the top 20 and there are also high numbers of infections in Jerusalem, Ashdod and Petah Tikvah, which are very influenced by what goes on with their Haredi neighbors.

With the exception of Bnei Brak, other Haredi communities have a very young population, resulting in a relatively low mortality rate.

Nobody has an accurate number, but according to some assessments, the rate of infections in Haredi communities is close to 20 percent, and perhaps even higher. In other words, those who support the theories about a low threshold for herd immunity ought to keep an eye on these communities in the coming weeks.

After days of marathon discussions led by Netanyahu no legislation has been passed to restrict the demonstrations during the lockdown. This permitted organizers to initiate the convoys of vehicles to Jerusalem on Saturday night. Protesters said police seemed confused at the checkpoints and some of them weren’t aware of the guidelines permitting the convoys to head to the protests. There were cases in which protesters negotiated with soldiers at checkpoints, contrary to the norms of any democratic society.

Netanyahu, who with one hand tries to restrict protests for the duration of the lockdown, tries with the other to steer public debate away from his failures in handling the pandemic, to the “lefties who spread diseases” by participating in protests. Even yesterday there were incidents of violence reported and stone throwing at protesters.

Data based on cell phone information show a significant drop in movement of citizens outside their homes in recent days. But it seems this restraint is offset by the rise in infection among Haredi communities. It seems this factor will lead to social divisions that will stay with Israeli society for a long time to come.

The cabinet decided last week on a three-week lockdown, but assessments are growing that it will be extended for longer than that, which will deal a terrible blow to the economy, and to the health and psychological wellbeing of many citizens.

One person who appears to be truly sick of this conduct is Gamzu, who was quoted as strongly criticizing Netanyahu’s decision for such a tight lockdown. Gamzu has already marked himself an exit point on November 1, when he will resume his job as director-general of Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv. On the other hand, Netanyahu was not particularly close to his czar and chose to quote Prof. Gabi Barbash, who had been his first choice for the coronavirus czar job, on Thursday .

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