Coronavirus: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox endanger the public – opinion

Litzman’s failure to deal with this crisis without invoking his own biases is inexcusable, and he should be held responsible for consequences of the spread of coronavirus.

A NEIGHBORHOOD in Jerusalem where police have recently been sent to enforce the lockdown. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A NEIGHBORHOOD in Jerusalem where police have recently been sent to enforce the lockdown.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Judaism, there is the concept of “pikuah nefesh” – there is no Jewish law above the preservation or saving of a life. It is the only circumstance under which a Jew is permitted to eat on Yom Kippur, break Shabbat, or break any other Jewish law.
How shameful, then, that some of Israel’s most religious communities, religious leaders, and even the health minister himself refuse to take the threat of coronavirus seriously enough in their own observant communities.
The ultra-Orthodox disdain for secular society in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic endangers both their own communities and the general public. Because the Israeli government has tolerated being held hostage by ultra-Orthodox factions on a variety of issues, religious communities have again gotten away with a failure to adhere in full to the coronavirus regulations that the rest of us must follow. Once again, the ultra-Orthodox are permitted by the government to interpret laws and regulations as suggestions. Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman and other ultra-Orthodox leaders are playing politics with people’s lives, and it must stop.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, Israel has been at the forefront of restrictive travel regulations and other preventive measures. Yet, as expected, coronavirus arrived in Israel, and it is still spreading. As Israelis, the IDF, Magen David Adom and the entire health system scramble to control the spread of the potentially fatal virus, some ultra-Orthodox groups have done the opposite.
For example, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, actively called for yeshivot to stay open, in direct opposition to the Health Ministry’s directives. One of the members of Kanievsky’s inner circle told the press that “Rabbi Kanievsky says canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona.”
Instead of working together with the government, police and other religious leaders, some communities have not only disobeyed the rules, but even protested in the streets against the regulations, in an appalling act of disrespect for their fellow Israelis.
Following the announcement of stricter regulations, some ulta-Orthodox communities responded by opening their shops and organizing protests with gatherings of far more than 10 people. In Mea She’arim, hundreds gathered to protest, with some even calling police “Nazis” for enforcing the ministry’s directives. When confronted by police enforcing social distancing measures, they attacked police with rocks. Protesters refused to disperse, and some had to be detained by police – endangering the lives of all parties involved.
If that’s not enough, while the ministry ordered mikvaot (Jewish ritual baths) closed for men early on, it opted not to close mikvaot for Jewish women, as it is an obligation for a Jewish married woman to go to the mikveh regularly. This is despite reports that the mikvaot were not up to par with ministry regulations, even prior to coronavirus. It was reported that Litzman even argued with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the closure of mikvaot, despite the fact that they are clearly a risk for contracting COVID-19. Allegedly, Litzman pressured Netanyahu not to implement stricter measures that apply to religious communities, stating, “It can’t be that one can take their dog out, but the mikveh is closed.” In response, Netanyahu stated, “What can you do, the virus doesn’t respect religion,” prompting Litzman’s disturbing response: “Well, if it doesn’t respect [religion], we will.”
In an sordid display of contempt for his fellow Israelis, our health minister, tasked with handling the biggest pandemic of our time, cares more about proving a point to secular society than he does about preventing the spread of a potentially fatal disease. He also opposed the stricter regulations to shutter synagogues announced on March 25. This response, however, is hardly surprising given that this is the same attitude with which the ultra-Orthodox approach most issues in government – cutting off their noses to spite their faces. This time, however, it will cost both sides lives.
Last week as the number of cases rose to over 1,600, the news broke that 24% of coronavirus infections came as a result of those who went to synagogue. Additionally, 14 people contracted coronavirus after visiting a mikveh, and 5% of cases came from yeshivot -- many of which aggressively flouted the initial restrictions to close down schools weeks ago.
Instead of cracking down on these yeshivot, the government, spearheaded by Litzman, negotiated a “compromise” that allowed yeshivot to stay open much later than all other schools but in “groups of less than 10 people.” Even more disgraceful, Haaretz reported that police were apparently instructed not to disrupt synagogue gatherings of up to 20 people, despite the fact that it is a violation of the health ministry’s regulations and that the rest of the country is effectively on lockdown.
In response to the data released last week about contagion in synagogues, many rabbinical leaders acted responsibly in calling for synagogues to close. Indeed, most Orthodox and even some ultra-Orthodox communities have complied with the directives in full.
But in immediate response to the information, Israel’s Chief Rabbi Lau and Chief Rabbi Yosef still did not order synagogues to close. The chief rabbis have both explicitly said it’s a requirement that gatherings have less than 10 people, but delayed closing synagogues for weeks, even calling for a day of fasting and mass prayer instead – and even when synagogues were finally directed to close for seven days on March 25, it was in opposition to the wishes of many religious leaders (including Litzman).
THIS IS not a political game. The laws and regulations of the State of Israel apply to all its citizens equally, from the prime minister to the ultra-Orthodox communities.
Our government and our police have an obligation to enforce the law, because the right to religious freedom doesn’t come above the right to life.
Closures of synagogues, yeshivot and mikvaot are an attempt to save the lives of those in religious communities, not damage their ability to practice religion.
Israel must not continue this dangerous trend of allowing the ultra-Orthodox to be above the law, before it’s too late. A festering problem which began with special tax breaks and exemption from army service has now progressed to endangering public health.
Litzman’s failure to deal with this crisis without invoking his own biases is inexcusable, and he should be held responsible for consequences of the spread of coronavirus.
It’s high time all of Israel’s religious leaders follow their own religion and put the sanctity of life above all.
The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative, a boutique digital marketing firm.