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Israel’s main virus threat comes from its ultra-Orthodox community 

April 8, 2020 at 11:03 am

An Israeli police officer speaks to an Orthodox student in Bnei Brak on 3 April 2020 [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

Israel’s first confirmed case of the Covid-19 virus was on 21 February, after a citizen returned from Japan, since then the number has increased steadily, standing currently at 9,248 with 65 recorded deaths. These figures are modest when compared to the likes of Italy, Spain and the US, which all have hundreds of thousands of cases and tens of thousands killed by the pandemic.

The epicentre of Israel’s outbreak appears to be overwhelmingly among the Haredim, or ultra-Orthodox Jews concentrated in Bnei Brik, east of Tel Aviv. The authorities are said to be having a tough time in convincing members of this strictly-religious community to comply with measures imposed to curb the virus spread. An estimated 40 per cent of the city’s inhabitants have been infected; the population is nearly 200,000 people. If the infections are confirmed, that will have a dramatic impact on Israel’s overall virus statistics. It is a serious threat to the state.

At present, Israel is ranked between South Korea (which has managed to flatten the infection curve through its early strategy of widespread testing and other mitigation methods) and Sweden (which refused to implement a lockdown and is now expected to witness a surge in deaths as a result). However, the impact on the occupation is certainly felt more significantly than many of the most-affected countries (bar a couple, such as Switzerland and Austria) because of its smaller population.

Indeed, so serious is the security threat posed by the virus, that Israel’s military intelligence agencies have now shifted their focus away from contemporary foes Iran and Hezbollah to the “new enemy” which has killed 60 Israelis in the past month. This is by no means exclusive to Israel, as there has been a global paradigm shift in security, away from state-centric responses to transnational terrorism and intra-state warfare, to rethinking human security, a holistic discipline from the early 90s that was largely overshadowed and neglected until now. Coronavirus is the “new terrorism”, according to the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, who has compared it with the pretexts for “counterterrorism” rights violations post 9/11.

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Within the context of the virus, the Haredim arguably pose a serious security threat to Israel, one which the government is trying to contain. Late last month, CNN reported that ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel were continuing to ignore government restrictions on large gatherings. While most Israeli citizens stick to the rules, “The seriousness of the situation seems yet to have fully penetrated the ultra-Orthodox community.” This should not be a surprise, as such tight-knit, closed communities tend to shun modern technology, like the internet and smartphones, relying instead on posters and signs to obtain and disseminate important information.

Despite making up just 10 per cent of Israel’s population, the Haredim account for more than half of the country’s coronavirus cases. Many community members insist on prioritising religious requirements over government directives on social distancing, especially in matters such as congregational prayers. Ahead of the lockdown over the Jewish Passover holiday this week, Health Ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov expressed fears that “people will gather on Passover despite the ongoing ban, and that the situation will worsen.”

Hospital staff in protective gear during Israel's coronavirus outbreak on 16 March 2020 [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Images]

Hospital staff in protective gear during Israel’s coronavirus outbreak on 16 March 2020 [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Images]

Minister of Health Yaakov Litzman is a member of the ultra-Orthodox community, and was mocked recently for claiming that the awaited Messiah will come before Passover to save the Jewish nation from coronavirus. It emerged last week, though, that Litzman had tested positive for the virus after continuing to attend congregational prayers and disregarding the need for social distancing. Litzman, who also leads the United Torah Judaism party, now has internet access at his home from where he works while in quarantine.

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Israeli news outlets have been brutally honest about the security threats posed by the virus. One opinion piece in Haaretz warned that the Haredim face “devastation” although the government has been complicit in allowing the community to “forego basic education in the subjects that are crucial to understanding the threat of Covid-19.”

A writer for the Tel Aviv-based +972 Magazine interviewed a Haredi journalist who also echoed claims that the explosion in cases among his community was not solely down to poverty, population density and ignorance or distrust of the government: Health Minister Litzman had effectively failed to communicate properly with the Haredim. For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also been criticised by the Coronavirus Committee for mismanagement of the crisis.

Inevitably there have been reported run-ins with the police in places like Bnei Brik, especially among those refusing to abide by social distancing orders. “Nazi” slurs have been heard and footage has circulated showing some Haredim deliberately coughing in front of Israeli police officers, which is basically a criminal offence in many countries in light of the pandemic. There have also been reports of Israeli settlers spitting on cars belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, by the way, allegedly in an effort to spread the virus. According to the Jerusalem Post, though, there has been media bias against the Haredim within Israel over the outbreak.

In Israel, however, the Haredim exemption from military service is already a bone of contention in the majority secular population; coupled with the community’s relatively high birth-rate, this makes it perceived to be a security threat for Israel’s future. However, as the world focuses more on non-military security risks in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the Haredim are seen as a serious threat for Israel.

Indeed, the ultra-Orthodox communities in other countries continue to be infected disproportionately: in London’s Stamford Hill, for example, there are reported to be “hundreds” of infected people, with five dead, including a leading rabbi; the governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, had to call on the Haredim to halt large gatherings after a crowd attended a rabbi’s funeral, warning that the police “do what they need to do” to enforce social distancing regulations; Belgium’s Haredim community in Antwerp is projected to face an 85 per cent infection rate, strikingly higher than the wider population; and in Melbourne, there are concerns about the spread of the virus within the local ultra-Orthodox community as some are still defying preventative measures.

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Israel, therefore, is not alone in facing the virus threat with a significant community which basically ignores government measures to curb the spread of Covid-19. What makes it stand out, though, is the relative size of its ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in relation to the total population. It has to take this threat seriously, and so do the Haredim.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.