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The media’s obsession with haredi wrongdoing exposes its bigotry

I wore a mask on Purim. Not a Mordechai or Esther mask, and not the face mask my wife and I wear when food shopping these days. It was the kind of simple dust mask I use when I mow the lawn. I used a felt marker to draw a large smile on the mask, in keeping with the spirit of the happy holiday.

It was intended as a joke. Purim fell on March 10, and while the coronavirus was in the news, the first directive against crowding, limiting gatherings to 500 people, hadn’t yet been put forth. School closures in New York where I live were still more than a week in the future, and, even then, affected only educational institutions, exempting religious gatherings. Only the sort of people who panic at every reach-for-ratings media report of dangers were staying at home. We now know that the fears of those who panicked were, in this case, worthy ones.

One of the Torah’s highest ideals is the preservation of human life, and it is considered a Jewish religious imperative to avoid any risk to our health. But three weeks ago during our Purim celebrations, most of us accepted the medical consensus that the virus was spread by sneezes. We were reassured by high government officials that the potential danger of COVID-19 was very limited, and that things were under control. So we all Purim-partied as usual, joining crowds in shuls, delivering and receiving mishloach manos — the traditional holiday gifts of foods — and joining celebrations where we danced, ungloved, hand-in-hand.

Now it seems likely that our celebrations spread the virus, which we are now told has been largely transmitted in a variety of ways by asymptomatic people who had no idea they were the noxious agent’s carriers.

It’s tragic. And yet, considering the limited recognition at the time of the danger posed by the coronavirus, it was not irresponsible or foolhardy.

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You wouldn’t know that from the media. Reports around the world have noted the virulence of COVID-19 in Haredi communities, like in parts of Brooklyn, Lakewood, New Jersey and Bnei Brak, a Haredi town near Tel Aviv. Most of the reports put major blame for the rapid spread of the disease in such places on alleged Haredi disregard of medical advice and governmental authorities.

To be sure, there are individuals in Haredi circles, as in other communities, who continued — and continue — to doubt the severity of the situation even after once-skeptics like me, and the vast majority of Haredim, long since recognized the reality. But these people are certainly a minority. For most of the Haredi community, it wasn’t stubborn flouting of medical advice but rather the dovetailing of innocent ignorance about the virus and human interactions on Purim that was the main engine of infection in Haredi communities.

Much of the media focus was on Bnei Brak, which became a hotspot for the virus’s spread in Israel. It is the most densely populated town in Israel, and its families are large and live in close proximity with others — factors that inevitably facilitate the spread of viruses even when all proper precautions are taken.

Of course, media reports ignored this, placing the blame squarely on the allegedly irresponsible residents of the town and their leaders — despite the fact that once clear regulations were instituted in Bnei Brak, the rabbinic leadership both in the town and throughout Israel quickly came to realize the virus’s threat and insist on absolute compliance with all of the regulations instituted by the Israeli Department of Health.

The calls have been heeded by all but the tiniest minority of the community. Top rabbis called for the closing of all synagogues This, in a society where men come together to pray in the synagogue three times a day and the synagogue is an important religious anchor. The maintenance of proper “personal distance,” moreover, has become the norm in that town, and gatherings of even a few people have all but disappeared.

And when the Israeli health department finally banned even outdoor prayer quorums, one of the most respected religious leaders in Israel, Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who heads the famous Ponevezh Yeshiva, declared that under current circumstances, public prayer is “a danger, impossible… a sin.”

But Haredi bashers, as always, saw only what they wanted to see. “Virus Soars Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Many Flout Israel’s Rules,” proclaimed The New York Times, despite the fact that the Times’ report itself noted the other factors that strongly figure into the equation.

And of course, they were not alone. Even responsible reporters can, if for a time, assume the worst about Haredim. Kurt Siegelin, the anchor of News 12 New Jersey, issued a lengthy, detailed and anguished apology on March 31 for having trusted another reporter and Toms River police and publicized a note that a school bus “full of kids from Lakewood” was stopped by police because “Apparently [a] school is still ‘open’ despite mandatory shutdown.”

The post evoked a flood of anti-Haredi vitriol on social media — “ugly stuff” was how a pained Mr. Siegelin described it afterward, and “pretty scary.” But it turned out that the bus was delivering food to residents, and that the driver was accompanied by two of his own children, since he couldn’t find day care for them. No Lakewood school has been functioning since the state mandated school closures.

“The calls of complaint to police about busses in town,” the reporter mused, “are these people wishing harm on the Jewish community? I don’t know. But there’s enough evidence from the feedback I got on twitter, that yes, it could very well be. In which case, I got played.”

And why, he asked in his apology to the community, “would Toms River police send us something not on point?”

Why indeed.

Of course there are scofflaws among Haredim, as there are among other groups, who have flouted regulations aimed at protecting us all. But judging a community by the actions of its worst actors is the very essence of bigotry.

Anti-Semitism is rightly seen by all civilized people these days as a primitive, obnoxious prejudice. Unfortunately, endorsing false, negative stereotypes of Haredi Jews is still acceptable.

It’s time it was recognized for just what it is.

Avi Shafran is a columnist for Hamodia and blogs at rabbiavishafran.com.

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