Some 40 percent of all people diagnosed with the coronavirus this week were ultra-Orthodox; that’s about three times their proportion of the population. The share of tests that came back positive in this community was 26 percent. As many as one in four ultra-Orthodox Israelis may already carry the virus. This mass infection is currently the driving force behind the virus’ spread in Israel. To a large extent, all of Israel is under a tight lockdown with an unknown end date because of the disease’s rapid spread in the ultra-Orthodox community.
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It’s wrong to blame the ultra-Orthodox alone. Their lifestyle makes it very hard for them to stop the virus’ spread – large families living in crowded apartments, tens of thousands of yeshiva students studying together in dormitory schools, mass prayer services. They need substantial assistance to cope with the health threat.
Nevertheless, a large portion of the excess incidence of the illness in this community stems from their decision to disobey the regulations and their refusal to deviate from their communal lifestyle, even for the sake of stopping the virus. The ultra-Orthodox insisted and still insist on observing their Jewish holiday customs – mass prayer services, mass public meals with the rabbi, celebrations on Sukkot and Simhat Torah – even though it’s clear that these customs are very dangerous right now.
They also insisted and still insist on continuing to study in yeshivas, which in practice have become coronavirus incubators. Many of them don’t practice social distancing, and they obey their rabbis’ orders rather than those of the state. That’s what happened during the wedding of the grandson of the Belz Hasidic sect’s rabbinical leader and the meal hosted by the Vishnitz sect’s rabbinical leader.
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This lawless behavior is the result of years of capitulation by successive Israeli governments, which in practice allowed the ultra-Orthodox community to act like a state within a state. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned this history of capitulation into a political strategy that ensures his survival in power. Netanyahu effectively sabotaged efforts to curb the virus when he caved in to ultra-Orthodox mayors and canceled the lockdown on cities with a high incidence of the virus, and also when he compromised with the ultra-Orthodox on a controversial plan to allow yeshiva studies to continue.
Netanyahu has neither the political nor moral ability to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox, even when their lawlessness costs human lives. This is yet another aspect of his catastrophic failure to deal with the coronavirus crisis, and yet another reason why he’s unfit to be prime minister.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.