Coronavirus is ultra-Orthodoxy's Katrina moment

Middle Israel: The morning after the plague, many in the community will question the leadership that led them into the ghettos where the plague found them trapped

Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak (photo credit: ROI HADI)
Coronavirus test site for the residents of Bnei Brak
(photo credit: ROI HADI)
The facts are plain. Ultra-Orthodox towns were infected by the corona plague far more than others.
Bnei Brak, for instance, counted by Sunday 1,218 infected inhabitants, just 7% fewer than Jerusalem’s 1,311, even though the capital’s population is more than four times Bnei Brak’s. Modi’in Ilit, population 73,000, diagnosed 117, while Holon, population 194,000, diagnosed 110; and Elad, population 50,000, counted 132, while Haifa, population 283,000, counted 101.
This wouldn’t be Israel if these perplexing numbers had not immediately sparked a secular outcry rife with ignorance, malice and spite.
Some, shaken by clips of black-clad youths shouting “Nazis!” at policemen as they imposed the shutdown, failed to realize those cardboard jihadis were a fringe group of fanatics who nest in Mea She’arim, ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem’s casbah.
Others, voiced by Channel 12’s Rina Matzliah, sweepingly accused “the ultra-Orthodox” – as though they are of one cloth – of ignoring the state, whose benefits they enjoy. The ultra-Orthodox, charged the anchor of Israel’s Meet the Press, “feel uncommitted to the state” and must therefore “learn to accept the state, for better and worse."
It was a sweeping generalization that expressed the common secular view of ultra-Orthodoxy, which judges it from afar, and only in terms of its effect on the rest of Israel, unaware that most ultra-Orthodox citizens, like most Arab-Israelis, actually respect the state and obey its laws.
Other critics veered from the realms of generalization to the even trickier personal realm, honing in on Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, especially after a TV revelation that he violated his own agency’s instructions by praying with other violators inside a synagogue.
“Litzman doesn’t even have a high-school degree,” charged brain researcher Prof. Yoram Yovel, while Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid demanded Litzman’s dismissal, claiming that as long as he is in his job, “Litzman is depriving the government of its moral license to run the corona crisis.”
The jury on Litzman is indeed out. On the one hand, he willingly assumed the thankless job Israeli ministers want least, and during the decade in which he dominated the Health Ministry its budget more than doubled. On the other hand, the crisis exposed his inability to communicate with the broad public (unlike, for instance, his colleague Moshe Gafni) and his difficulty to part with sectarian priorities even at the height of national crisis.
Whatever the verdict on Litzman, and whatever the rest of Israel now makes of ultra-Orthodoxy, that community’s crisis lies in neither of these, but in what will happen within its tall walls the morning after the plague. And that morning may well prove that the pandemic was ultra-Orthodoxy’s Katrina moment.
THE TERM “Katrina moment,” which originated in the 2005 hurricane that killed more than 1,200 and left a trail of carnage worth $125 billion, refers to an external shock that exposes political decay.
In Katrina’s case, the decay lay not in political corruption but in governmental stagnation, the result of the conceit with which Republicans emerged from America’s defeat of communism. The consequent blind faith in small government and budgetary stinginess drowned under Louisiana’s flooded levees.
A Katrina moment attacks unannounced a ruling class, party or idea, the way the Yom Kippur War shattered the Labor Party, the way the Chernobyl disaster debilitated the Soviet Union, and the way the Great Crash of 1929 humbled capitalism.
Similarly, the corona plague will challenge ultra-Orthodoxy’s faith in its leaders and in the entire arrangement they crafted with the Jewish state, whose emergence and success defied its founders’ thought.
When the plague’s wrath subsides, and the rest of Israel returns to its routine far from ultra-Orthodoxy’s ghettos, some within the ghettos will ask themselves two questions.
The first question will be how come ultra-Orthodoxy’s highest living authority, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, overruled the government’s order that all educational institutions be shut, and ordered instead all ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivot to remain open.
LIKE THE Soviet citizens who, while fleeing Chernobyl’s nuclear cloud, lost faith in the Communist project, people within the ghetto will now wonder how their leader exposed them to plague, claiming that disrupting Torah’s study was more dangerous than the plague that soon invaded their homes.
Then they will ask the second question: who maneuvered the ultra-Orthodox community into the cramped ghettos where most of its families live? Why does Bnei Brak, with 23,700 people per square kilometer – almost twice Gaza’s 13,000 – have to be among the world’s 10 most crowded cities?
Doubt will have to creep in. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men and women will now question their rabbis’ infallibility, responsibility, and relevance.
Yes, rabbinical misguidance already maneuvered in the past thousands to calamity, when European sages banned immigration both to America and to Palestine, where their flock would have avoided Hitler’s sword. Yet those rulings’ fatal results took decades to arrive, not days, and having been issued a technological eon ago, they took years to circulate, not minutes, as Kanievsky’s videotaped call did.
Yes, many of his followers, probably most, will not be fazed by their leader’s misjudgment and aloofness, but a critical mass will ask not only how he erred so colossally, but how he made his reckless decision, consulting no one, possessing no relevant knowledge, and overruling a battery of experts.
Once they ask this basic question, ultra-Orthodox Israelis will conclude that their sage was not equipped to make the ruling that 10 days later he was compelled to reverse.
And those who undergo this epiphany will then question everything else they have been made to do, like deprive their children of the general education and military service that threaten their rabbis’ rule of the ghetto they built; the ghetto where, the day corona invaded, ultra-Orthodox Israelis learned they are religiously blinded, socially chained and medically trapped.
The writer’s best-selling Mitz’ad Ha’ivelet Hayehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sfarim, 2019) is a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s leadership from antiquity to modernity.