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Haredi Leaders Take a Health Gamble. Price Will Be Paid by All Israelis

Masses of ultra-Orthodox Jews courted COVID infection in synagogues over Yom Kippur

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A synagogue in Jerusalem, September 24, 2020
A synagogue in Jerusalem, September 24, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

At the end of Yom Kippur, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he is proud of the Israeli public “which demonstrated responsibility and observed the directives on Yom Kippur.” Like many of Netanyahu’s declarations during the coronavirus crisis, this statement was only tenuously connected to reality.

As indicated in the reports by Anshel Pfeffer and Aaron Rabinowitz in Tuesday’s Haaretz, the prime minister’s praises applied mainly to the general public. In the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods and communities, large numbers of people ignored the directive not to pray in closed and crowded spaces in the synagogues. At the end of the holiday it turned out that many thousands of yeshiva students had violated the agreement with the government, and had gone home without being tested first for COVID-19.

Haaretz podcast: Israel in lockdown limbo, and what's really stuffed in Bibi's laundry suitcasesCredit: Haaretz

And on Tuesday, as though following a script, there were already long lines at the COVID-19 testing stations in the Haredi community. These lines will only become longer in the coming week, when the results of the crowded prayers on Yom Kippur are felt. If in the coming days it turns out that Israel broke records for positive results – almost 10,000 identified carriers a day, almost 15 percent testing positive (and over 25 percent among the Haredim) – probably nobody will be surprised.

These high numbers will later be translated into an additional increase in the number of the seriously ill, those on ventilators and the dead. Although these are small percentages of the overall presence of the illness, which is mostly asymptomatic, it will be enough to impose another burden on the health care system, erode even further what remains of inter-communal solidarity and lead to accusations against part of the Haredi leadership, whose irresponsible behavior has pulled all of Israel down.

It’s not the end of the country, as claimed in a somewhat hysterical announcement by Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman. (“Netanyahu and the Haredi parties are bringing the State of Israel closer to its demise.”) But it’s definitely a harsh and unnecessary nadir, which could have been prevented had Netanyahu demonstrated more responsibility and courage in his contacts with his “natural partners,” the Haredim. Of course some people will claim that the prime minister has already lost interest in marginal issues such as the citizenry’s health and welfare.

People attend a coronavirus testing station in the ultra-Orthodox Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 29, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Apparently those Haredi rabbis who insist on gatherings and crowded, mask-free prayers are not only fighting for their freedom of religion. They believe this is a battle for preserving religion itself, for protecting an entire way of life, with roots in Eastern Europe hundreds of years ago. The fear that they express, even in discussions with health care representatives, relates to the possibility that the synagogues and the yeshivas will be closed for a long time due to the pandemic, a whole generation of young Haredim will go astray and the entire community will collapse.

If preventing that means several thousand elderly people and those with underlying conditions are sacrificed, those rabbis seem prepared to take the risk. This is a race toward Haredi “herd immunity,” whose estimated threshold is far from clear. In any case this is being done without government consent and certainly without asking the rest of the Israeli public, which will bear the entire economic and health-related burden if the experiment fails.

In the face of the rabbis’ behavior, there is no police enforcement or significant punishment, and no clear position expressed by the political establishment, other than criticism in the opposition. No Haredi rabbi or politician has publicly opposed those violating the law – and of course Netanyahu himself, his ministers and his toadies haven’t said a word. They’re still busy keep track of the dangerous anti-government demonstrations, which take place in the open air, for the most part with masks and a far smaller number of participants.

That’s the way to nurture venomous hatred whose influence will be hard to neutralize. The step to sow separation between the tribes – Israelis versus Jews, as Transportation Minister Miri Regev blurted out – continues apace. It’s unclear how long Netanyahu will remain in power in light of his failed handling of the crisis and his approaching trial, but the rifts he is causing in Israeli society will last for many years to come.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man attended a synagogue with social distancing measures in place in Mea She’arim, Jerusalem, September 24, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Meanwhile a very unfestive milestone was reached on Tuesday. At noon there were 811 patients in serious condition in the hospitals – more than the threshold of 800, which was recently defined as the health care system’s “insufficiency” bar. In effect, care for the patients continues. Last week senior health care officials said that the real threshold is closer to 1,300 seriously ill patients. On Monday, Netanyahu said he had instructed the health care system to prepare to accept 1,500 patients starting on October 1. This number matches the estimates of the number of seriously ill that will be reached toward the end of the Sukkot holiday.

Doctors in Israel’s north and center told Haaretz that it’s already difficult to administer proper treatment, first of all in the non-coronavirus wards. These are being closed, downsized or evacuated to other parts of the hospitals, due to the need to enlarge the coronavirus wards or to open additional ones. The main problem is training many new teams to treat coronavirus patients, with the senior teams tired after months of demanding work with no respite.

The promised increase in work slots is being only partially implemented, and in any case will be insufficient for dealing with the anticipated high level of illness. All this is before the expected arrival, in slightly over a month, of winter viruses, especially flu. Netanyahu already announced on Tuesday for the first time that the total lockdown will continue “for a month and perhaps longer,” far more than he indicated last week.

A hospital staffer fixes her protective suite at a coronavirus ward at Ichilov Hospital, Tel Aviv, September 21, 2020. Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/Reuters

On Tuesday the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, at Likud’s initiative, approved harsh restrictions on the right to demonstrate during the pandemic. The law will limit participation to demonstrations only a kilometer from people’s homes, thus putting an end, legally, to the demonstrations in front of the prime minister’s residence, which is the Netanyahu family’s main concern.

The Likud MKs retreated from the attempt to prolong the restriction beyond the lockdown period and for the entire period of the pandemic. When it comes to the combination of limiting demonstrations and the serious invasion of privacy through massive Shin Bet cell phone surveillance, Israel is far more extreme than other Western democracies. At the same time it is easily bypassing them in the spread of illness.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, as always more candid than his partners, blamed himself yesterday at the memorial service for victims of the Yom Kippur War. “We have to admit honestly: This time too we were caught unprepared. We starved the health care system. We didn’t respond properly. This time too we will pay a heavy price in human lives.” But it’s still not clear why Gantz and the Kahol Lavan leadership didn’t insist on taking the health portfolio.

Another incipient problem is reinforcing the police with young soldiers. About 1,000 soldiers have been mobilized to assist the police with security, in order to release policemen for other tasks. Demonstrators have recorded paratroops stopping the convoy of cars en route to the Knesset and clashing with demonstrators. Former Chief of Staff MK Moshe Ya’alon demanded an investigation.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit condemned any harm to soldiers, explaining that they are only accompanying the police and have no enforcement authority. That’s not necessarily clear to a 19-year-old soldier who has difficulty understanding the limitations of his mission.

That’s exactly what officers feared already at the start of the crisis – that the pandemic would lead to an unprecedented social protest and an attempt to drag the army into it. This is a dangerous and slippery slope. Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, who has greatly intensified his involvement in handling the crisis of late, must be alert to those dangers, and relate to them more clearly and unequivocally.

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