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Ultra-Orthodox Defiance of Coronavirus Rules Ratcheting Up Tensions in Israeli Society

Opening of Haredi schools on Sunday in violation of regulations sparks outrage

Torah trumps everything for the Haredi Jewish community, a top Israeli political scientist tells The Media Line in explaining why hundreds of ultra-Orthodox schools reopened Sunday in open defiance of the government’s coronavirus rules.

“For them to have tens of thousands of young men risk their lives in order to study Torah is a more healthy way of living than forfeiting study of Torah in the community in order to try to do away with what the state thinks is the best way of eliminating the virus. They think they are doing something that promotes health,” says Prof. Dan Avnon, the Leon Blum Chair in Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The opening of yeshivot for boys in grades one to eight, mostly located in cities and neighborhoods with high coronavirus infection rates, categorized as “red zones” as part of coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu’s “traffic light” policy, sparked outrage in the government, with three advisers to Gamzu reportedly threatening to resign and the Justice Ministry drafting a plan to strip funding from schools that violate emergency coronavirus regulations.

The Israeli government on Sunday started the first phase of a multistage exit from the country’s second lockdown that could take months to fully implement. Preschools, kindergartens, and daycare facilities were allowed to reopen but all other educational institutions, including yeshivot, were required to remain shuttered.

The ultra-Orthodox sector has been a major source of the spread of the coronavirus in Israel. A recent report from the Israel Democracy Institute, citing analysis of Health Ministry data by Prof. Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science, and others, finds that the rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Haredi community in October is five times greater than non-Haredi Israeli Jews and seven times greater than Israeli Arabs, accounting for 50% of the total infections this month despite being only 12.5% of the population.

“The rampant flaunting of the law and regulations by the ultra-Orthodox stems chiefly from their distrust of the authorities, the low level of enforcement by the police, priorities that elevate religious tradition and community life above public health considerations, and the living conditions of the ultra-Orthodox,” the report states.

Hebrew University Prof. Benjamin Brown, a research fellow in the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute, tells The Media Line that most of the Haredi community complied with the government coronavirus rules during the first lockdown, but cited what he describes as both objective and subjective factors in the defiance during the second lockdown, including small apartments with big families and many boys stuck at home in quarantine instead of at yeshiva and the value of Torah learning which in addition to an education system is seen as a way to keep Haredi boys off the streets.

Brown also points out that the Haredim are already suspicious of the Israel government and science.

“During the second wave, the government treated prayers differently than protests. They are both public assemblies but were treated in different ways, making the Haredim suspicious,” Brown added.

They are bringing the criticism on themselves. They are trying to show that we know better. That Torah learning is more important than other prescriptions. It’s an ideological situation with no resolution to it.

As of Monday’s update from Worldometers, the total number of coronavirus infections in Israel stood at 303,846 with 2,209 deaths and 272,015 recoveries. The number of active cases stood at 29,622 including 619 patients in serious or critical condition.

“They are bringing the criticism on themselves. They are trying to show that we know better. That Torah learning is more important than other prescriptions,” Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Politics and Government Prof. David Newman tells The Media Line. “It’s an ideological situation with no resolution to it.”

Newman says that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu must walk a tightrope when dealing with the Haredim, who represent one of the embattled premier’s core constituencies but one that will follow their rabbinical leaders over government authorities.

Netanyahu on Saturday night in an address to the Israeli public called on the Haredi community not to reopen schools on Sunday when asked about Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky’s instructions to the heads of schools to reopen. However, Netanyahu also said that “we can’t send police to every street corner or every city” in response to a question about sending police to keep religious schools from reopening.

Kanievsky, 92, recently tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. He is the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community and a posek, a legal scholar who determines the position of Jewish religious laws.

“Netanyahu knows he can’t clamp down on the Haredim too hard because if it came to doing what Netanyahu or Kanievsky tells them to do, the majority will say they are going to do what Kanievsky tells them to do,” Newman notes.

Newman continues: “And that same Rav Kanievsky, if he is still alive next elections, can turn around and say to all of his supporters to vote for Netanyahu or don’t vote for Netanyahu.”

Kanievsky gave the same order to study during the first coronavirus wave but was neutralized by other Haredi leaders, according to Brown, who added that it was also Passover season so the schools were already closed, causing less of a disturbance.

“Now it is clearly against the government’s order and there is no one else to balance the decision and the Haredim are already in a state of mind to go against the government and so they decided to follow his order instead of the government,” Brown said.

Avnon says that the Haredi community violating the coronavirus rules is increasing tensions with the rest of Israeli society as it becomes clear that the country is emerging from the second lockdown with a high possibility of being reinfected because of the civil disobedience by ultra-Orthodox communities.

“For two months this has not been a public item. In the past week it has come up to the surface,” says Avnon. “You hear it across the board of Israeli society, including among religious Jews, that they are saying enough is enough.”

Are there any solutions to the current standoff between the ultra-Orthodox and the Israeli government?

Brown suggests some ideas. They include the government arranging for yeshiva studies to take place outside with social distancing and for yeshiva students to be in seclusion. Other options include the use of police force, sanctions against yeshivot and reducing their budget.

Still, Brown acknowledges that there are no easy answers.

Says Brown: “These solutions are not practical because the government depends on the Haredim and the police are weak, and legislation is a long process. A wholesome solution is not practical. Together they need to find ways to work with the education system and not forbid it altogether.”

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