The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with secular Israeli officials over coronavirus measures

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish students study religious texts in a yeshiva, or Jewish seminary, using protective plastic shields that allow the customary practice of learning together with a partner, in Bnei Brak, Israel, on Aug. 27, 2020. (Oded Balilty/AP)

JERUSALEM — Israel's rapidly escalating coronavirus crisis is aggravating a religious divide in the Jewish state, with ultra-Orthodox leaders accusing mostly secular health officials of discrimination and fostering anti-Semitism by focusing on outbreaks in highly observant communities.

As the government struggles to contain the outbreak, ultra-Orthodox Jewish rabbis, cabinet ministers and parliament members have resisted attempts to curtail activities in ultra-Orthodox areas, including many that have emerged as covid-19 hot spots.

Facing particular ire has been Ronni Gamzu, the pugnacious former hospital administrator appointed last month as the government’s “corona czar.” Gamzu has clashed with religious leaders over his efforts to impose targeted lockdowns on neighborhoods with high infection rates, block a yearly pilgrimage to the grave of a revered Hasidic rabbi in Ukraine and compel virus testing for thousands of foreign students who have recently arrived to attend religious schools, or yeshivas.

Gamzu said last week that 80 percent of the most recent coronavirus cases occurred in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. The government expects to enact targeted restrictions Monday in 10 hot spot communities, many of them ultra-Orthodox.

The tensions have riven Israel’s coronavirus cabinet, the government body that sets policy. On Friday, one day after Israel recorded 3,141 new cases — the largest single day per capita increase in any country since the pandemic began — cabinet discussions grew heated over proposed lockdowns during the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur later this month.

“You want a lockdown during the High Holidays because you don’t want people praying,” Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman said to Gamzu, according to Israeli media reports. “We will not let this happen.”

Gamzu says that his recommendations are data-driven, applied equally to all sectors of Israeli society and designed to prevent the need for another nationwide lockdown. He has not hesitated to fire back at those who want to avoid restrictions, including some business owners and school officials whom he has accused of hindering the country’s recovery.

“Stop the insanity,” he said in an emotional appeal to the public Thursday. “All Israel is at war.”

In arguments that echoed those of some church leaders in the United States, a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Kanievsky, accused Gamzu of wanting to keep yeshiva scholars from their religious studies even as secular Israelis are allowed to go to beaches and restaurants.

Gamzu, who was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in early August, was overruled during his first week on the job when he sought to block this year’s crop of foreign yeshiva students from entering the country. But he insisted they be quarantined to start their stay and then tested and isolated if results are positive.

Several hundred boarding students, many of them teenagers from the United States, have tested positive in recent weeks, although most show no symptoms. The northern Israeli town of Karmiel reported last week that almost half the 400 students at a local yeshiva had tested positive.

Kanievsky, however, advised schools not to test even in cases when students showed symptoms because it would disrupt their studies.

Gamzu’s blunt retort — “Rabbi Kanievsky’s announcement endangers the ultra-Orthodox public” — sparked outrage, with one ultra-Orthodox newspaper calling for Gamzu’s resignation over his “despicable defiance of the Torah’s authority.”

Gamzu faced another backlash when he lobbied Ukrainian officials to bar ultra-Orthodox Israelis from making their annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the Ukrainian town of Uman. The celebrations, involving crowds of dancing men, had super-spreader potential, he warned. Officials in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, announced the ban this week, but not before Ukrainian media reported that locals in Uman had attacked Jewish travelers who had already arrived.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders were furious with Gamzu, and several Israeli officials accused him of “fueling anti-Semitism” in the words of parliament member Miki Zohar, from Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Gamzu declined to comment for this article.

The arguments between religious and secular camps are not new. Ultra-Orthodox Jews — or Haredim as they known in Hebrew — live in insular communities, putting higher priority on their religious practices than civic obligations. Many, for instance, don’t celebrate Israeli patriotic holidays, and most don’t serve in the military, a near universal requirement for other Jewish Israelis.

Health experts say the ultra-Orthodox are particularly susceptible to the spread of infection because they typically have large families, live in crowded neighborhoods and routinely gather in large numbers for worship and funerals.

Haredi distrust of the government runs deep, and initially their rabbis resisted orders that Israelis wear masks and avoid crowded indoor prayer. Minor clashes broke out when the Israeli army was deployed in a few high-infection Haredi areas to help enforce lockdown orders.

But religious leaders began complying after they saw Covid-19 deaths spiral elsewhere, including Hasidic communities in the United States.

“They were shocked by the casualties in New York among their own people and began taking it very seriously,” said Tamar El-Or, an anthropology professor at Hebrew University who has studied Haredi culture.

Since the epidemic began, confirmed cases have topped 126,000 in a country of nearly 9 million people. About 22 percent of infections have been in ultra-Orthodox areas, according to health data, second only to 28 percent in Arab towns and neighborhoods. And the latest surge of infections, which came after Israel loosened its public health restrictions, has hit the ultra-Orthodox even harder.

But with total deaths remaining relatively low — less than a thousand — and hospitals so far able to handle the volume of seriously ill patients, many ultra-Orthodox are insistent that they be able to continue activities that are important to them.

“There is sickness yes, but it’s not like we are piling up corpses,” El-Or said of their attitude. “It’s not that they want to go back to normal. It’s about where to draw the lines.”

Elimelech Lamdan, an ultra-Orthodox psychotherapist in the city of Givatayim, said his community is angry over the government dictates largely because they see Gamzu as a secular Israeli who would like the religious to disappear.

“In the eyes of many Haredim, these rules are applied selectively. They are a put-up job,” said Lamdan, who noted that he agreed with some, but not all, of the criticisms leveled against Gamzu. “Life should be ruled by the Torah and not by the consensus of the governing body.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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