Israel covid (Getty)

Israel’s Orthodox Community is Struggling With COVID-19

In Israel, COVID-19 has hit ultra-Orthodox Jews particularly hard. Now the country’s Ultra-Orthodox health minister Yaakov Litzman has infected himself, likely due to not complying with his own regulations.

Israel’s Battle Against Coronavirus

In some parts of Israel, coronavirus contagion has become quite severe. Recently, the Israeli government quarantined the mostly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which serves as a prime example of why the country’s most religious have become the most likely and at-risk COVID-19 victims. Neighborhoods and cities with a high proportion of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel have a far above-average infection rate compared to the rest of the country. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox currently represent half of all those infected with the virus in hospitals, even though the group only makes up twelve percent of Israel’s total population.

Ultra-Orthodox Told to Stay Away from Services

The Ultra-Orthodox themselves are not blameless in this situation. Synagogues and religious educational institutions remained open for a very long time, also at the request of rabbis in charge of deciding that. Meanwhile, other churches and even schools had already closed in the rest of the country. Only after the pressure from the authorities became too severe health minister Litzman called on his fellow Orthodox Jews to stay away from services.

Now, with a few exceptions, most of Israel’s Orthodox are adhering to the guidelines. Accordingly, synagogues and even the quorum, which is otherwise a must for Orthodox believers, are now all closed down.

Calls for Litzman to Resign: ‘Endangering the Health of All Citizens of Israel’

Litzman himself was nevertheless heavily criticized and was even asked to resign by many in the secular media. Also, the leader of the opposition nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu Avigdor Lieberman accused the ultra-Orthodox leadership and Litzman of acting irresponsibly and “endangering the health of all citizens of Israel.” The reason for the criticism of Litzman is not least due to the fact that he infected himself. Contrary to his own provisions, he continued to pray in a synagogue, where he was exposed to the virus.

Meanwhile, both Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have backed the Ultra-Orthodox. Netanyahu demanded that citizens respect their beliefs and said there should be no agitation against them. However, Netanyahu’s call is also clearly self-interested, since Litzman and his United Torah Judaism party are, after all, an important coalition partner of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc in the Knesset.

It is not the first time that special treatment has been applied, however. Israel was quick to close its borders after the start of the pandemic, but there were still special regulations within the country for the Ultra-Orthodox ⁠— primarily through Litzman’s influence and policies to ensure that their tight-knit community life and worship services did not further spread the disease.

Netanyahu Puts in Place Tougher Restrictions

On Monday, April 6, Netanyahu announced tighter restrictions for all Israelis prior to the Jewish Passover festival that began on Wednesday. Travel between cities was banned and Israelis have not been allowed to leave their homes since last Wednesday. With these actions, it is not only the Ultra-Orthodox who have restricted their activities and freedom of movement but the whole of Israel. As the Minister of the Interior Aryeh Deri explained it: everyone should be celebrating the festival “at home with the immediate family.”

According to Lieberman, on the other hand, the expansion of the measures from the Ultra-Orthodox to the entire country was simply a way of “appeasing” the group by indicating that a measure directed primarily against Ultra-Orthodox was now applied to the entire country.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Defense Forces Chief of the General Staff Aviv Kochavi has tried to convince Netanyahu to hand responsibility for dealing with the pandemic to the Israeli military. The military and its leadership appear to be dissatisfied with the government’s actions to date. A decision in this regard is still pending, however, and rather unlikely, at least until a new Israeli government has been formed. To date, more than eleven thousand people have been infected in Israel, 113 of whom have died and 1,689 of whom have recovered.