Ultra-Orthodox trust rabbis on COVID-19 far more than medical officials

Some 75% of those polled said they had “absolutely none” or “very little” confidence in the Health Ministry’s efforts to combat the coronavirus.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX men – one masked, one not – are seen in the haredi enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, on October 6.  (photo credit: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX men – one masked, one not – are seen in the haredi enclave of Borough Park in Brooklyn, New York, on October 6.
A new study polling attitudes in the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel to the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that while members of the community are fully aware of the dangers of the disease, they are far more trusting and willing to follow the orders of their rabbis than those of the government and state institutions.
Dr. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute that commissioned the survey, said it demonstrated that the community’s behavior during the crisis came about not due to a lack of understanding of the serious threat posed by COVID-19 but instead due to a conscious choice to prioritize community values above others.
The study, conducted for the Israel Democracy Institute on a sample of 860 men and women in the three major components of the ultra-Orthodox community – hassidic, Ashkenazi non-hassidic, and Sephardic – showed that the sector has extremely little trust in Israel’s national institutions.
The study showed that fully 75% of those polled said they had “absolutely none” or “very little” confidence in the Health Ministry’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, including 42% of hassidic respondents who had “absolutely no” confidence in the ministry.
The hassidic community has in general been the least likely to adhere to government COVID-19 regulations.
The study similarly showed that the ultra-Orthodox community had little trust in the Finance Ministry and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis, and absolutely rock bottom confidence in the police, with fully 87% saying they did not trust its operations during the COVID-19 crisis.
When asked what considerations guided decision-makers in the campaign against coronavirus, 60% said mainly or only political concerns, compared to just 34% who said health-related concerns.
By comparison, the group receiving the highest confidence in the ultra-Orthodox population was easily the rabbinic leadership, with 90% of the community saying they trust the rabbis' decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked who they rely on the most for evaluating the risk posed by COVID-19, rabbis were by far the most trusted authority.
Of those polled, fully 61% said they trusted rabbis the most, followed by medical experts who are the most trusted by only 22% of respondents, followed by “God” for 4.5% and the prime minister and advisers at 2.6%.
Asked whether it is necessary to include rabbis when setting COVID-19 policy, 92.9% said yes.
But the survey did demonstrate that the general ultra-Orthodox population does have great concern for the health risks of the disease, with 78% saying they believe COVID-19 is a mortal danger.
THE LEADING rabbis in the hassidic and Ashkenazi non-hassidic communities have however frequently issued instructions to their communities that violate the government’s health regulations.
This has included endorsing mass prayers and celebrations, indoor prayer services and blanket school attendance despite government regulations to the contrary.
But the ultra-Orthodox population does not believe that such activities have had anything to do with the high rates of COVID-19 infection in the sector.
Instead, a majority of 58% believe that the main cause is the high population density in ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods, along with 12% of respondents who said the high infection rate was due to the “lack of consideration for the ultra-Orthodox way of life by those who issued the instructions.”
By comparison, just 2.2% of respondents said the main cause of high ultra-Orthodox infection rates was due to “rabbis’ instructions to continue normal life,” only 4.4% who said it was due to “the ultra-Orthodox community’s failure to comply with the government’s instructions,” and a mere 1.9% said “lack of enforcement of the directives in the ultra-Orthodox sector.”
Indeed, fully 81% said they follow Health Ministry guidelines to a great extent or a very great extent.
The survey also demonstrated resentment against the government regulations, with 81% saying the fact that synagogue services were banned while political demonstrations were allowed was proof that there is discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel.
“Most of the ultra-Orthodox have little – and sometimes very little – trust in the state institutions charged with dealing with the pandemic,” noted Friedman.
“The lack of trust in the key agencies in charge of responding to the pandemic has evoked strong suspicion of the considerations decision-makers take into account when formulating policy,” he continued, noting the belief expressed in the survey that the main driving factor in COVID-19 policy making is political and the widespread belief that the ultra-Orthodox has been discriminated against during this crisis.
“In sum, the ultra-Orthodox fully understand the gravity of the pandemic and its perils. Their behavior throughout these months has not stemmed from a lack of understanding of the threat, but rather from conscious choices deeply rooted in community values,” he said.