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Israeli Haredim, blamed for COVID outbreaks, could see their communities forever changed

After a spike of coronavirus infections in Haredi Orthodox Jewish areas, Israel is now experiencing a flareup of a more familiar ailment in the socially fractured country: religious tension.

“It’s like a barrel of oil,” said Kimmy Caplan, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University, of the strain between Orthodox and secular Israelis in typical times. “Once in a while you put a match to it and it just lights up.”

In 2020, coronavirus has been not just a match but a torch, fomenting criticism of the ultra-Orthodox on social and mainstream media. The most high-profile example came in early April, when Channel 12 news presenter Rina Matzliach claimed that the ultra-Orthodox “feel that the state’s authority doesn’t apply to them” in battling coronavirus.

Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t name Matzliach by name, he slammed what he called “incitement” against the Haredim, whose political parties help make up his right-wing bloc.

The discourse is so heightened that even Yisrael Beiteinu party leader Avigdor Lieberman, who is known for his anti-Haredi rhetoric, has taken steps to lower the temperature, telling his followers that now was not the time to criticize their lifestyles.

Haredim account for about 12.5% of Israel’s population, but health officials say they make up a third of the country’s coronavirus cases. In Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox area outside of Tel Aviv, up to 40% of residents may be infected. Police have set up checkpoints around the city, restricting who is let in and out.

Religious leaders are no doubt partly to blame for the rise in cases, as some respected rabbis urged followers to carry on as normal even as the virus swept through their areas. One prominent leader even said that the Torah was a prophylactic against sickness. But people in the community say the narrative that they brought the coronavirus upon themselves — and thus upon the country — is not fully deserved.

Yakov Eisenthal, an ultra-Orthodox journalist in Bnei Brak, said that he has been sheltering at home since Purim at the end of February, only leaving the house to go to the grocery store or the pharmacy. He said he was frustrated that people continued to congregate, but blamed national authorities for sending mixed messages by not banning prayers outright at first. The Health Minister, Yaakov Litzman, is himself ultra-Orthodox. He recently tested positive for COVID-19.

Eisenthal said that even if the ultra-Orthodox behaved perfectly, he believes they would have still been hard hit, due to the number of large families who live in cramped quarters.

“Even if we had adhered strictly to the rules from the beginning, even if the Health Ministry had forbidden synagogues and religious schools to open, there would still be a high infection rate,” he said. “I think that [secular Israelis] would still be mad at us and hate us.”

Eisenthal argued that secular Israelis have an empathy gap toward their Orthodox brethren, with many Israelis not fully embracing the fact that living through coronavirus restrictions means something very different for Haredim. With no internet, their children cannot do remote schooling, and few have smart phones to distract them. Not many Bnei Brak apartments have balconies, the saving grace amid stay-at-home orders for lots of Israelis.

“It is a psychological catastrophe,” he said of the virus’s impact on his community. “It is a deep sense of loneliness, a sense of boredom and complete helplessness.”

Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis are also pointing fingers at their own — but for a different reason. Signs have popped up in Haredi neighborhoods blaming the coronavirus on wigs, which some rabbis see as an immodest form of female head covering when compared to head wraps.

Coronavirus hit at a sensitive moment for the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society. In recent decades, the population has entered into a slow and painful process of opening to the outside world. Haredim have historically not served in the Israeli military; that started to change in 2007 when the military opened a special enlistment process. The numbers of new recruits, however, are now dropping.

But while the army enlistment effort has had mixed results, ultra-Orthodox are making steadier inroads into the workforce. Women especially are working in greater numbers, with 76% employment in 2018.

Benjamin Brown, a professor of Jewish thought at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says that the coronavirus — and the religious tensions that it has brought — won’t necessarily slow these processes. He predicted that it may actually accelerate them.

Like other countries, Israel is facing a severe economic crisis as a result of the coronavirus. In the long run, that might mean less government money available to fund ultra-Orthodox social programs, or even generally-available welfare stipends that larger, poorer Haredi families disproportionately benefit from. Such shortfalls could lead men to pursue careers in order to be able to provide for their families.

“If something will cause them to change their attitudes, it is not a crisis of faith in their leaders as a result of the coronavirus, but a result of the economic reality,” said Brown.

Health officials now say that Haredim are mostly falling into line with regard to regulations. The health ministry sent vehicles into ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods with loudspeakers broadcasting warnings against the virus in Hebrew and Yiddish. And there’s a concentrated police crackdown. In Bnei Brak, the army is also there, handing out food and supplies. Eisenthal, the Haredi journalist, says fear is also a factor.

“In the last two weeks the majority of residents have adhered to the restrictions,” he said. “They will show what they show on television, but the streets are empty.”

The government is considering the best timeframe to lift coronavirus restrictions. But even if the virus is eradicated, the tensions it inflamed in its wake will likely remain.

“Times of crisis, on the one hand, strengthen solidarity and social cohesion,” said Brown. “They also often help to drag up mutual accusations and deeper sentiments on both sides.”

Naomi Zeveloff is a freelance journalist based in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

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