Analysis |

The Silence of ultra-Orthodox Politicians in Israel Betrayed and Imperiled Their Own Community

There is no group better prepared for confronting COVID-19 than the disciplined Haredi community. So why did it take so long?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at an election event, Kiryat Gat, February 25, 2020
Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at an election event, Kiryat Gat, February 25, 2020Credit: Ilan Assayag
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The city of Bnei Brak got the message. Reality had sunk in, after long weeks in which the ultra-Orthodox community ignored the coronavirus pandemic and consequently saw record infection rates. On Thursday, synagogues which until recently were still surreptitiously open were finally locked. The few people walking in the city streets were wearing face masks and all seemed to be out for essential purposes, mainly procuring the basics for the upcoming Passover holiday, pushing baby carts filled with sacks of potatoes and trays of eggs.

The Israeli media was bursting with headlines of “curfew” and “humanitarian disaster” in the ultra-Orthodox metropolis, as well as news that the military was taking over the hapless city council. At street level, however, Bnei Brak seemed to be acclimatizing to the new situation. Charities distributed food for Passover, strictly maintaining social-distancing orders. Aid organizations evacuated the sick to hospitals while delivering medication to the elderly in quarantine, sanitizing their cars between trips. A municipal truck with loudspeakers roamed the streets, admonishing those who failed to keep a two-meter distance from one another.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

On the face of it, there is no community better prepared for confronting COVID-19 than the Haredi community. Who is more disciplined than them? They only eat what they’re told. They don’t travel when they’re told. Men don’t touch women and everyone immerses their bodies in water and washes their hands when told. If anything, it’s the rest of the world that’s now leading a strict Haredi lifestyle, obeying orders from above. Now it looks like the Haredim are observing the coronavirus shutdown regulations better than anyone else. But why did it take so long?

Jewish ultra-Orthodox women wear face masks during Purim celebrations in Bnei Brak, Israel, March 10, 2020. Credit: Oded Balilty / AP

If only the rabbis had realized on time. If only the messages sent out to other Israeli citizens had been received by the ultra-Orthodox at the same time. If only they had closed the synagogue doors before the virus got in. If they had, then despite their overcrowded living conditions, the Haredi community would have had a chance of riding out the plague just as smoothly as other communities in Israel, if not better.

The judgment of rabbis like the venerable Chaim Kanievsky and the circles of askanim, or behind-the-scenes operators, no doubt played a major factor in the delay. It was their decision to reject the government instructions and keep schools and synagogues open.

The Haredi ethos of unquestioning obedience to the rabbis and Torah study as the ultimate ideal, above safeguarding personal and public health, also contributed greatly to the wholesale infection in the community. The taboos surrounding television and radio, the censorship of the Haredi press by “spiritual committees,” and the blocking of mobile phones to internet and messaging apps all prevented crucial information from getting through on time.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, right, and some of his followers in Jerusalem, 2013. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

But even if the spokesperson of the Health Ministry had a direct line to the kosher phones of every ultra-Orthodox man and woman in Israel, they couldn’t have ensured the message got through.

Israelis talk about Haredim a lot. Almost always in one of two ways. Either they hate them for being “parasites” living off their taxpayer money, or they talk of them in schmaltzy nostalgia, buying into the illusion that they represent an authentic, ancient Judaism.

The Israeli public doesn’t know how to talk to the Haredim. They don’t share a common language. Not for the last 130 years when Eliezer Ben-Yehuda fought the rabbis of the old yishuv (Jewish community before Israel's establishment) in Jerusalem in order to revive the ancient Hebrew tongue of prayer and study.

The Israeli Hebrew of the 21st Century is a local language which isn’t just taught at schools – it accumulates throughout the course of “Israeli life” – in the army, university, workplace, comedy and on the evening news. It’s a civilian language that helps to navigate life in Israel, including in its less comfortable zones, like when coming in contact with authorities and institutions. In the last twenty years, it’s also become the language of the Israeli internet, of websites and search-engines, where you can ask questions and find answers.

The city of Bnei Brak on March 17, 2020. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Those who grew up in the Haredi education system and haven’t left its neighborhoods and townships, don’t master the Israeli Hebrew which has evolved away from the siddurim and Halacha books. Without that language, they don’t have the skills to navigate Israeli society. This is most fiercely felt at the place where Haredi men and women have no choice but to come in to contact with the outside Israel – when they need medical treatment.

“Haredi patients are very polite and quiet,” says a long-serving physician who has treated Haredim throughout her career. ”But they expect to be spoon-fed. They won’t discover information about their illness on their own or make an effort to obtain better treatment.”

The public healthcare providers in Israel receive government funding according to the number of members they serve and are therefore in keen competition to win over the ultra-Orthodox community. The different providers all have community clinics in the Haredi neighborhoods and run advertisement campaigns specifically tailored for them. When it comes to more complex treatment, however, the ultra-Orthodox have to deal with the general system. There are of course “experts” within their community, like the famed Rabbi Elimelech Firer, who have made it their job to speak both types of Hebrew and mediate between the two world when it comes to medical issues.

The Haredi medical experts are part of a small ultra-Orthodox elite that navigates between ultra-Orthodox autonomy and the “outside world” in Israel. This elite includes of course the Haredi political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and children stand behind barred windows in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on April 2, 2020.Credit: AFP

Their politicians, however, are unreliable translators, and they translate in one direction only. They don’t interpret the messages of the Israeli mainstream for their rabbis and voters. That is why Health Minster Yaakov Litzman attempted to get an exemptions for Haredi institutions to remain open. He was exposed to all the epidemiological information on the increasing danger of COVID-19, but chose to remain silent about it in front of his own community.

“Only now we’ve finally understood that the Angel of Death is walking among us,” said on Thursday Avraham Ben Mordechai, a melamed (teacher) at a small yeshiva in Bnei Brak. “I can’t really blame the rabbis, because they didn’t have the full information and didn’t get the message.” But why didn’t they? Wasn’t it the job of Litzman, and his Haredi colleagues who sit in cabinet and in Knesset committees? How about the Haredi “medical experts” like Firer? Why didn’t they warn that the “Angel of Death” is here? The Haredi political elite didn’t even try to interpret the information for their rabbis. Their silence betrayed and imperiled their community.

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