Is the proliferation of COVID-19 really the fault of the ultra-Orthodox?

So why this apparent contempt for Jews with side locks, black coats and hats?

A Haredi man walking with a mask in the neighborhood of Meaa Shearim   (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
A Haredi man walking with a mask in the neighborhood of Meaa Shearim
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
My job as a journalist is to bring up and discuss questions that Israelis care about. I have therefore chosen to jump in the deep end and examine one of today's most controversial subjects.
Never in my long memory have so many column inches been written in our newspapers, and multiple segments devoted on our radio and television channels, to the lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox members of our population. The media have commented on the large families, hygiene, extensive Torah studies in yeshivot (schools), their places of worship and general routines. That should not surprise us. After all, we do live in a Jewish state.
However, all that is not presented as an educational human-interest story, but rather as an opportunity to deride 12% of Israel's population by those who, although Jewish, are in varying degrees removed from regular practical observance. Actually ultra-Orthodox Jews could similarly criticize their denouncers, were it not for the Torah prohibition of idle talk.
So why this apparent contempt for Jews with side locks, black coats and hats?
It is regrettable that the gross generalization of the general public will tar all black-coated, black-hatted Jews with the same brush, accusing them of flouting the Health Ministry's instructions to stay at home, close places of worship and ritual baths for men, maintain social distancing and restrict funerals and circumcisions to 10 persons.
The sudden appearance and rapid spread of the coronavirus and its danger to life has placed all of us into a state of anxiety. The experts are searching for its origin. The ultra-Orthodox attribute it to a general lack of Torah observance.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel in 2019 was estimated to be approximately one million. Only several small, very tight-knit sects, if I can use that term, are known to be evading the instructions. That's why among Jews we must expand the definition of “we”  and shrink the definition of “they.”
The lifestyle of those groups prohibits the possession of such secular items as TVs, radios and computers of any kind - and even cellphones are constructed to only allow phone calls and SMS messages to and from designated phone numbers on what have been dubbed “kosher phones.”  
So unlike the rest of us, who are daily bombarded by the latest news, these groups are totally divorced from the rest of society; cut off from the secular world and the seriousness of the health crisis. It's no wonder, therefore, that the percentage of infection in those communities is much higher than in the rest of the country.
Even the ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman has been infected with COVID-19, allegedly contracted during an illicit prayer meeting held against his own instructions. As he has been in contact with his ministerial colleagues, they all had to enter voluntary isolation, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, Health Ministry Director of Public Health Services Sigal Sadetzki, Mossad Director Yossi Cohen, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat.
It is also most astonishing that for so many years Litzman ran the affairs of state while refusing to have either a cellphone or computer with Internet access in his home.  While at home he was not only ignorant of world affairs, including the latest on the health crisis, but most importantly, incommunicado with his own ministerial office, an intolerable situation for a minister. In the UK that would have long been a strong reason to resign. Litzman should be relieved of his post. But this is Israel, where the ultra-Orthodox sector of our society has disproportionate influence. 
It's unfortunate that a small part of this sector, who are even less informed, believe themselves to be living in the Land of Israel rather than the State of Israel, which means they do not recognize the authority of the government. Their authority rests with their spiritual leaders, who were slow to enlighten their flock and are responsible for the consequences that have now enveloped the majority of their followers.  
Because their mindset is not attuned to the realities of the secular world, it is unwise and ineffective to impose Health Ministry orders and restrictions on those particular communities in the same matter-of-fact way that we receive them. 
We already saw that this triggers their automatic defense mechanisms and obstructions to the extent that some wild ultra-Orthodox youths commit some inexcusable acts that are condemned by everyone in the Torah-observant world.
SENSATIONALISM ALWAYS gets the most publicity, even if foul acts are committed by just a very few.  We see it when a few settler youths attack an Arab. It's the case of “man bites dog.”  The mainstream ultra-Orthodox world  absolutely condemns those hooligans. So let's not tar all hassidim with the same brush.   
It will have little effect to simply order the offenders to stay home and disrupt their strict Torah-observant lifestyle. That comes as a shock they cannot accept because they do not understand it. 
It is necessary to explain in simple language the reasons behind the restrictions, using leaflets and the usual wall posters in both Hebrew and Yiddish. Also included should be explanations of the symptoms of COVID-19 and how to report them. 
These things should not be phrased as government orders, but as commands by their spiritual leaders. Only then will we prevent the widespread infections among these groups.           
                
The government was wise to discard the intention to totally isolate the worst affected ultra-Orthodox areas, in order to pre-empt accusations of discrimination. Instead, a blanket curfew was imposed on the whole country. 
It has to be said that the largest part of the ultra-Orthodox communities are law-abiding citizens who accept the limitations on their religious routine as pikuach nefesh, preserving life. An excellent example of this is the ultra-Orthodox township of  Kiryat Yearim, also known as Telz-Stone, near Jerusalem, that in mid-March faced lockdown as the most infected community in the country and is today almost free of infection. All residents stayed home and just 100 are still in official quarantine. Only one case was reported in the last seven days.
Unfortunately, the gross generalization regarding the ultra-Orthodox sector of our population is clearly motivated by political considerations such as ministerial appointments, particularly in health and education; considerations that for some irresponsible members of our legislature seem to override today's most important matter: the health of the nation.
In his Passover message to the Jewish world, President Reuven Rivlin said, "We are one family with a shared history, shared values and a shared destiny." 
Today, more than ever, we have to stop the blame game and take responsibility for one another. As we say each month: Chaverim kol Yisrael. We are one people.
The writer is a survivor of the Nazi era and WWII frontline veteran. He hosts the weekly Walter's World on Israel National Radio and The Walter Bingham File on Israel Newstalk Radio, both in English.