One in seven Israelis has been infected by COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic, according to a new study of publicly available government health data, with the ultra-Orthodox community the worst hit. By contrast, the Bedouin community had the lowest rates of infection.
The national average rate of infection stood at 13.7 percent at the end of September, with the Bedouin community experiencing the lowest rate of cumulative infections at 8.4 percent, the report said. Infection rates were 40 percent lower among residents of Bedouin towns than Druze or non-Bedouin Arab communities.
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The rate of infection among the ultra-Orthodox community was “exceptional,” the report said, “with high rates of confirmed infections” standing around three times as high as the national average, at around 31 percent.
According to the study, which was conducted by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, some 1.3 million people had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19).
Based on data from the Health Ministry’s online COVID portal, the Taub Center’s Prof. Alex Weinreb mapped out “the cumulative patterns of COVID in Israel over the first 18 months of the pandemic,” with a focus on “variations in rates of COVID testing, infection and hospitalization across and within key sub-populations” such as the Bedouin, Druze and ultra-Orthodox Jews.
If Israel’s Haredi population centers were considered in aggregate as their own sovereign state, “their level of infection would have been more than twice as high as that of any other country in the world,” the report stated. It added that while “the highest infection rates were in Haredi” cities and towns, the highest hospitalization rates were in Druze and non-Bedouin Arab” locales.
“Controlling for rates of poverty, population density and the percentage of residents over age 65 explained only some of these differences,” the report continued, noting that “even after adjusting for differences in [socioeconomic status], population density and other [settlement]-specific characteristics, the risk of infection in Haredi areas was 2.4 times higher than in non-Haredi Jewish areas.”
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Structural factors “like poverty, population density and age structure” only explain part of the higher level of infection experienced in ultra-Orthodox communities, with the rest thought to be connected to “predominantly behavioral issues,” the Taub Center stated. It added that it had also found “a high correlation between infection rate and the share of Haredim in the population in non-Haredi areas as well.”
Ultra-Orthodox Jews were disproportionately affected by the virus during the first three waves of the pandemic. It was widely believed that the high rates of infection in their communities were caused by a combination of demographics (they tend to have larger families and live in denser neighborhoods than their secular counterparts) and their initial resistance to public health restrictions.
Their emphasis on group activities such as communal prayer and learning, and their initial refusal to shut down schools and yeshivas, also hampered the implementation of social distancing measures. In March 2020, several of Israel’s most prominent Haredi rabbis called for schools and yeshivas to remain open, in violation of government directives – before they backtracked and voiced support for various restrictions.
Around the same time, the Health Ministry found that of the people infected in public spaces, more than 30 percent had visited synagogues and yeshivas.
During the second wave last October, health officials reported that Haredim accounted for at least 34 percent of all cases in Israel.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians repeatedly complained during the first year of the pandemic that police and the media were discriminating against their communities, paying them inordinate attention and singling out their neighborhoods for lockdowns.
However, data obtained earlier this year by Be Free Israel, a nonprofit that promotes separation of religion and state, showed that residents of Haredi cities were significantly less likely to be fined for defying coronavirus regulations, even though these cities have experienced some of the country’s worst outbreaks.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters repeatedly clashed with law enforcement over neighborhood closures in 2020 and early 2021, culminating in several days of violent rioting in Bnei Brak in January.
JTA contributed to this report.