Study in Israel: Online Info Adapted for Haredi Community Raises Compliance With COVID Rules
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study religious texts in a hall divided with plastic sheets to prevent the spread of COVID-19, in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv in central Israel, on Oct. 25, 2020. (Yaakov Nahumi/AFP via Getty Images)

Study in Israel: Online Info Adapted for Haredi Community Raises Compliance With COVID Rules

A survey of ultra-Orthodox Israelis during the COVID-19 pandemic reveals the role that digital media can play in promoting safer behavior even in an insular, authoritarian community

Digital media can promote safer behavior by improving compliance with government health guidelines but must be adapted to the needs of different social groups. This is the conclusion of a recently published study based on a representative survey of 500 ultra-Orthodox Israeli adults conducted during the second COVID-19 wave in the fall of 2020, before vaccinations were available.

The study, published on February 4 in the journal New Media & Society, was conducted by Professor Yossi David of the Department of Communication of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Dr. Baruch Shomron, a postdoctoral fellow in his group at Mainz University.

For a variety of reasons, the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community in Israel has been more affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than other segments of the Israeli population. David and Shomron investigated the role of digital media in the health and safety practices of this community.

“Study participants who accessed certain websites and social media were more likely to adhere to government health guidelines, such as wearing a mask. This suggests that in times of crisis, digital media can promote safer behavior in authoritarian communities,” concluded Professor David.

David knows the community well; he grew up ultra-Orthodox, in Netivot, a small city about 10 kilometers southeast of Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip. He broke away from the conservative Haredi lifestyle at age 18 and founded an organization, Out for Change, that supports others like himself who have left the community.

The ultra-Orthodox community was disproportionately hit by the coronavirus: Members comprise about 13% of Israel’s population but account for 28% to 37% of all COVID-19 cases. In 2020, when the survey was conducted, mortality due to COVID-19 was six times higher among elderly Haredim (60 years of age and older) than among the elderly in the general population. Among the factors that may account for this difference: low compliance with government COVID-19 regulations, such as mask-wearing and the prohibition on large gatherings; large families living in overcrowded conditions; and a lack of health information.

“With this in mind, we wanted to investigate how the danger posed by high COVID-19 case rates could be mitigated by information and communication technologies,” said David.

However, the Haredi community is ultra-conservative and purposely isolates itself from the outside influences that can come with modern communication technologies, including the internet. Content carried by the mass media that is traditionally used within the community – print and radio – is tightly controlled by influential rabbis.

Only 47% of participants in the study had internet access at home. Only 20% accessed online news websites, and only 8% read mainstream sites. Non-mainstream news sites frequently carry unverified, pseudoscientific, and disproven theories, sometimes supported by wild conspiracy theories, and community members often have only a limited secular education that hasn’t prepared them to distinguish real from fake news. Thirteen percent of participants use social media, which provides another avenue of access to both real and fake news.

Community leaders frequently rail against televisions and smartphones, approving for most community members only the use of so-called kosher phones, which enable one to make phone calls but not to access the internet or even text messaging. While 99% of participants owned cellphones, 84% said they used only kosher phones.

A company that specializes in facilitating surveys within the ultra-Orthodox community carried out interviews for the study. Half of the 500 participants were men, half were women. The average age of participants was 40.

The study found that acceptance of the government health regulations and recommendations in the ultra-Orthodox community was higher among women than men, and increased with age, but did not vary by socioeconomic or education level.

The study revealed that Haredim who frequently used the internet for study purposes, social media, or essential services such as e-banking, and those who read mainstream Israeli online media, were more likely to comply with COVID-19 rules. But using the internet for work, email, online shopping, accessing specifically ultra-Orthodox websites, or other purposes had no effect on their likelihood to comply.

“Health communication needs to be adapted to the needs of all segments of society, to their media habits and cultural beliefs,” concluded David and Shomron. “In times of national and international emergencies, digital media could serve as an effective means of communicating with authoritarian and closed-off communities, including those that reject science and spread conspiracy theories, extreme right-wing groups, and conservative, insulated religious groups.”

Here are the latest COVID-19 numbers for the Middle East and North Africa as of 8:10 pm Greenwich Mean Time (UTC±0) on Thursday.

CountryConfirmed CasesDeathsRecoveredActive Cases
Palestinian Territories580,8735,345574,1441,384
Saudi Arabia750,0809,034732,7418,305
United Arab Emirates889,1082,302860,51326,293


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