Haredim and Arabs react to the corona crisis

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines in the Bukharim quarter on April 17. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines in the Bukharim quarter on April 17.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

With almost 3,000 identified coronavirus cases in Jerusalem, the capital holds the questionable honor of the highest rate of corona in the country, and concern continues unabated.

Much has been written about haredi defiance of the rules enacted to prevent the propagation of the disease. The complex reasons for this include a profound lack of confidence in Israel’s official authorities. Adding in the often-pervasive haredi feeling of being singled out and denied basic needs and rights enjoyed by the general public, one may begin to understand what drove many in that sector to act as they did – at least until about 10 days ago.

Many epidemiologists cite Purim events as a major turning point that caused numerous contaminations, especially among the ultra-Orthodox. 

“That is true,” confirms Moshe Levkovitch, an Alexander Hassid living in Romema, “but don’t forget that the rule then was not to exceed more than 1,000 attendants at Purim events, so why accuse only the haredim? They indeed held large-scale events, but at Purim it was not yet forbidden.”

Many in the media point to the Peleg Yerushalmi faction as the major rule-breaking group that continued holding minyanim, yet it is not a typical haredi group.

Avrum (not his real name), a 42-year-old non-hassidic ‘Lithuanian’ haredi with six children who studies in a kolell, says a mixture of fear, misunderstanding and internal conflicts between the different parties influenced the haredi community in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Asked why it took so long for large parts of these communities to internalize the danger of the virus, he replies, “We were cruelly abandoned by all the parties – our rabbis and leaders, the government and public opinion. Instead of helping us, we were pointed at as carriers of the virus, just like the non-Jews did to the Jews in Europe centuries ago.”

Levkovitch says that right from the beginning, Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman met with key admorim (leaders of hassidic streams), stressing the danger of the virus and asking them to lock down the synagogues and yeshivot immediately. 

“The Belz Admor, usually a man of great common sense and pragmatism, refused to do so, arguing that in times of danger, the first thing to do is to repent and ask for Heaven’s mercy – praying and learning Torah more than ever.”

THE INFLECTION point came two weeks after Purim. The terrible news about the high number of victims among haredi communities in New York and New Jersey rocked the local haredi communities, as well as those in France and Great Britain. 

“The haredi newspapers in the US began to publish many pages of obituaries, with names and photos of so many of the dead [photos of women were still prohibited]. It was a shock here,” recounts Levkovitch. “All of a sudden it was something that concerned us, too – the pain and sorrow, plus the anxiety caused by the fact that with so many victims there, donations that enable hundreds of thousands of haredi families not to starve would not arrive now. The fear became panic.”

Why didn’t this fear, once the reality of the pandemic became clear, translate immediately into strict adherence to the rules? Avrum says: “We felt betrayed by all sides – the rabbis who did not warn us, the government that most of us still consider as hostile to us – and then we began to hear about so many non-haredim who broke the rules, but were not harmed by the police – we felt and still feel totally alone.” 

Avrum says that while most of them still don’t watch TV or read non-haredi newspapers, the news and rumors spread quickly. 

“We could not understand why prayers from private balconies were forbidden, while 1,000 more secular citizens gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Protest is more important than prayer? Maybe we are right when we feel that we are hated, unfairly singled out and betrayed.”

A serious post-pandemic crisis in the haredi sector could occur in response to anger toward the rabbis from inside the communities. 

“They didn’t tell us the truth, they didn’t react as quickly as requested by the leadership and they left us alone with a medical threat on one side, and the misunderstanding and hatred of the seculars on the other side,” says Avrum.

Asked if they also fear an eventual crisis of faith, both say this will not happen. “Remember what happened after the Shoah – believers became even more faithful to the world of Torah and rebuilt a society of Torah learning and haredi way of life, even more than before World War II,” says Levkovitch. “This is what will happen this time. Regarding our leadership, I am not so sure. Perhaps the earth will shake under some of them.”

“What I fear most,” he adds, “is an eventual race between the different political representatives of the haredi sector for political support. I just heard that Litzman wants to re-open the mikvaot for men, with three people each time – this is crazy, we all know it is one of the most dangerous places for contamination, so obviously this is a decision driven by the need to garner support. This is first a terrible danger for us, but who cares?”

IN ISSAWIYA, which has been an arena of intense clashes with the police for the past few months, most of the residents are quarantined at home. The same goes for most of the Arab neighborhoods, although concern for the financial situation is as high as fear of the coronavirus. 

“I am afraid to leave home to work outside, on Jerusalem’s western side,” says Amdjad, a 40-year-old father of four who lives in Jabel Mukaber, “but if I don’t go to work [Amjad cleans staircases in a few buildings on the Jewish side], who will feed my children?”

Habeeb, a father of three including a five-month-old baby, sounds even more worried. 

“We have been staying inside the home for a month already – no work, no income and a lot of fear. We all know, in the Arab sector, that nobody cares about us. So we take no risks.”

Habeeb and Amjad and many others say their concern is both medical and financial. 

“The municipality has opened a testing center close to Jabel Mukaber,” admits Amjad, “but it serves only those who have a car. What about the others? I take risks because I know that otherwise I will lose my job, so I took the test and I’m OK. But this is not enough.” 

Amjad knows that he is entitled to an unemployment allocation if he loses his job, but says this is not a solution for him.

“OK, suppose I register at the employment agency, and I get 70% of my very modest salary for a few months. Then what? Who can promise me I will find another job? We all understand that the economic situation once coronavirus is over is not going to be easy, so I have no choice. There is no leadership from my community and we are not exactly the center of attention of the Israeli government, so we are on our own. 

“I have no illusions. Most of my concern goes to my 90-year-old mother, who lives alone away from me. I talk to her every day on the phone, and her neighbors help, but I am worried.”

Asked if the different health fund branches help, Habeeb responds, “They are not exactly the best-operated places anyway, so certainly not now.” In his case the future is less stressful, as his employer, a restaurant owner in west Jerusalem, will reemploy him as soon as the government allows it. 

“For now we are at home, as are most of my neighbors.”

WADI JOZ residents, meanwhile, have expressed their anger at repeated cases of price gouging of vegetable and grocery merchandise. Names and addresses of such shops circulate among the residents, with warnings to avoid them, but Suleiman, a 47-year-old father of five and Abu Tor resident, says, “In most of the cases, people are behaving with solidarity. We are all in the same boat.” 

Suleiman, who works in a large supermarket chain on the west side, is not worried about his job but more about his wife, who has been quarantined for over a month with all their children. 

“I work overtime to replace her salary, which is not coming in anymore, but she seems depressed and I don’t know what to do. How long will this situation go on? Nobody knows, but most of my neighbors stay at home, taking no risks.”

Last Sunday members of parents associations, including on the Arab side, learned the Health Ministry was discussing reopening the schools. They expressed strong opposition: “We refuse to put our children in danger until we are totally sure that the virus threat is over,” wrote one the mothers on the association’s Facebook page.

In an unusual statement, Daoud Siam, mukhtar (chief of village) of Silwan, declared that what the Arab sector needs now is the massive presence and involvement of the IDF Home Front Command, to enforce home confinement in order to prevent more contamination. Siam complained, “Too many residents (mostly young ones) refuse to remain at home, walking freely in Silwan’s streets and endangering the population. We need the soldiers to stop this.”

At the same time, a week ago, police shut down a corona testing center in the neighborhood opened and run by representatives of the Palestinian Authority. Silwan residents I talked to are angry about this.

“How will this test station harm the Israeli presence? Israel occupies east Jerusalem, but gives us so little help – so what’s wrong with the initiative? We are so afraid of this virus, what’s wrong with helping us to take more tests?”

Asked if Arab residents who test positive would hesitate to go to hospital, Amer, who took a test before the station was shut down, says that people are so afraid they would run to the hospitals. 

“Like everybody else, we don’t want to die.”