Opinion |

Are Arabs and Haredim Practicing Coronavirus Preachings?

Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat
Police tape enforcing movement restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Belz, Jerusalem, May 1, 2020.
Police tape enforcing movement restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Kiryat Belz, Jerusalem, May 1, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Odeh Bisharat
Odeh Bisharat

Finally, Israel’s Arab citizens are, with astonishing momentum, helping to set coronavirus infection records. During the first wave, the Arabs actually flattened the curve with their low incidence of infection. Now they are compensating for that mess-up, and together with the ultra-Orthodox are raising the curve ever upward. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu once said that leaving aside the Arabs and Haredim, Israel’s economic situation isn’t bad.

A physician friend of mine, disappointed at the behavior of the Arab population, said the slogan ought to be that it’s every man for himself. One can understand his bitterness, even if that’s a slogan that conveys despair with a pinch of selfishness, because what can you do about people’s unreceptiveness? You beg people to stop holding mass weddings and it’s like talking to the wall; they nod as if they agree, but when it comes to the wedding of their child, the coronavirus evaporates.

LISTEN: Kosovo, COVID and Bibi's brilliant bravadoCredit: Haaretz Weekly Podcast

Nearly every Arab public official is prepared at any moment to deliver a Churchillian address on the need to follow the rules, but in the evening you’ll find those same officials in a lively debka dance circle. There are those who cannot contain their emotions and they end the dance with a round of embraces and kisses, as the poor masks wilt in the tumult.

This dichotomy between emotional preaching and practicing the opposite raises the question of whether this is the case only among Arabs. We are told, in a comforting tone, that this is not only the Arabs’ lot – look at Netanyahu, who violated the guidelines and held the Seder with his son while masses of Jews had to celebrate alone. But no one expects Netanyahu to serve as an example.

The main question is how things changed so drastically between the first wave and the second. The answer is weddings. The Arabs have an ancient lesson that goes, “Life is to lend and to borrow.” In this context, it means that if someone has attended your affair, you must reciprocate. Back in the day, the gifts provided by acquaintances even helped the happy couple support themselves when they first started out.

An Israeli Arab shop owner wears a mask and gloves in the village of Deir el-Assad, on April 16, 2020.Credit: Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP

So people suffer an oppressive conflict when they receive a wedding invitation, and in Arab communities you can get at least one wedding invitation a week. A person who would otherwise observe the coronavirus guidelines says to himself, “But he was at my son/daughter’s wedding, how can I not go with an envelope that contains at least the same amount that he gave?” It’s not easy. These are customs that bind social life, it’s a solidarity that is deeply rooted. Indeed, to overcome the coronavirus it’s important to deal with this problem: how to fulfill your moral and economic obligations without putting yourself or others at risk.

Still, if one is looking for something positive in this gloom, it’s this: The wedding season is coming to a close. And as Amrua Alkayas said when he learned during a party that his father had been murdered, “Today wine, tomorrow revenge.” In a translation appropriate for our time, today the wedding, tomorrow the war – against the coronavirus. Now is the time for war.

It should be noted that there is almost no Arab public figure challenging the medical and official institutions. One must recall that during the first wave, mosques and churches observed the safety guidelines, and unlike in the Haredi community there were no revolts against the restrictions, which greatly disturbed worshipers. On the contrary, religious figures were careful to uphold the guidelines. Nor is there almost anyone in the Arab community saying that the spread of the virus is a plot by Global Zionism to paint the sublime Arab community in a bad light. On the contrary, on Facebook one can see a flood of self-criticism.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish boy receives a COVID-19 test in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020.  Credit: Ariel Schalit / AP

And the last positive thing (for now) is that Netanyahu cannot blame the Balfour Street protesters for spreading the virus among the Arabs and Haredim, because there’s almost no one among either group attending those demonstrations, and yet they are topping the charts for coronavirus infections. Perhaps if they attended, their situation would improve. Something to think about.

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