Bnei Brak

With more than 570 cases, the ultra-Orthodox city has more than 10% of the country’s nearly 5,000 cases.

HAREDIM GATHER en masse in Bnei Brak. Is their leadership’s political model sustainable? (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
HAREDIM GATHER en masse in Bnei Brak. Is their leadership’s political model sustainable?
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Bnei Brak, just east of Tel Aviv, has turned into Israel’s hot spot for the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. With more than 570 cases, the ultra-Orthodox city has more than 10% of the country’s nearly 5,000 cases. This is massively disproportional to the city’s 200,000 residents. The municipality has not only the most cases but is among the highest per capita in the country.
In addition to enforcing the existing lockdown and quarantine regulations, the Knesset should consider declaring Bnei Brak a special region for the treatment and testing of coronavirus in order to isolate the spread of the virus in that area. Similarly, the government must identify through mass testing all areas in the country where the spread is taking place. All of these places must be closed off from the rest of the country so the virus can be contained. Israel is already doing more than 5,000 tests a day. We can do more and should concentrate on areas where the problem appears to be most threatening.
Through severe measures, such as quarantining the entire city of Bnei Brak while showing empathy for the people there, Israel can use an approach that combines both enforcement and incentives. Some ultra-Orthodox areas have generally resisted the lockdown guidelines, with images showing police needing to hand out fines and forcefully shut down synagogues.
These are not the images we want to see. Rabbis and community leaders must take responsibility for encouraging social distancing, as opposed to communicating to residents that gathering for prayer is some kind of act of resistance against the state that offers divine protection. While everyone has the right to pray, prayer in a minyan offers no protection from infection. Last week, the Health Ministry announced that a quarter of Israel’s sick had been infected in synagogues. Congregating there needs to stop.
The state needs to have better methods to deal with local populations. This is not just an issue relating to the ultra-Orthodox population, but all minority groups who need to understand the guidelines and why they are in place. It is proper and good that Israel is sending hundreds of unarmed soldiers to help the police at this time. But we must be wary of only using the stick and not the carrot. Police and soldiers are there to help, not just to hand out fines and punish.
One of the issues in ultra-Orthodox areas is that they often see the police as only being there to punish, not as part of the community. That is why community leaders, rather than obtaining special exemptions as they did in the past for schools, prayer and funerals, need to be communicating better with their population about the guidelines.
We all want the lockdowns and other restrictions to be relaxed and for our lives to return to normal. With almost a million people out of work, we need a path toward a return to normalcy. Reducing the number of new infections is the only path to that. It is not an act of resistance to become ill with the virus.
Images of people shouting “Nazi” at police officers are shameful and those who curse the police should be punished. This is especially difficult to see as Jews, since we cannot have a situation where an attempt to save lives in this pandemic is twisted around as a way to slander officers, as if this is the 1930s and the government is the enemy. Unfortunately, a small minority propagates these views and they should be identified, and if necessary detained and isolated from the general population so that life can carry on for the vast majority who are obeying the guidelines.
The virus knows no boundaries between communities, between secular and religious, Jew and Arab, poor and wealthy. We are in a war together against an invisible enemy. All wars require sacrifices on the home front. We have already sacrificed much, and some communities have unfortunately become hot spots of the pandemic. We need to show sympathy for these communities, while isolating those most at risk, for their own safety and the safety of the general population.
Now is the time: Quarantine Bnei Brak and put in place incentives to slow the spread of the virus, with clear communication about when restrictions will be relaxed. The country needs to see a path to the end of this difficult period.