Religious rebellion in the Eye of the Plague

Roy Isacowitz writes on the response of Israel's ultra-Orthodox to Covid-19

The director of the only hospital in Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv, resigned late last week after describing the community among which he works as an "insubordinate mass that kills people."

"I do not understand what the connection is between religion and what they are doing,” Professor Moti Ravid told an Israeli TV interviewer shortly before his resignation. “They were taught to accept everything and give nothing in return for years."

Ravid’s resignation came at the behest of the hospital’s management, which later apologized to the ultra-Orthodox community for his statement. Ravid himself clarified that he had been “referring to extremist sects.”

Though the number of new Covid 19 infections in Israel has dropped over the past two weeks, it remains the highest in the world. An estimated 50% of all current Covid patients in the country come from the ultra-Orthodox community. In Bnei Brak, the infection rate is apparently above 30%.

The country’s recuperation hotels – tourist hotels that have been converted into recovery and quarantine wards for patients not requiring hospitalization – currently house 6,400 ultra-Orthodox patients and 1,200 secular patients – five times the number of rooms for a community that comprises only 12% of the population.

Things are likely to get worse, before they get better. Prof. Ravid cautioned that this week could see another spike in coronavirus infections following the Simhat Torah (Joy of the Torah) celebrations over the weekend – as happened after mass prayer events during the preceding holidays of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succot.

He said that he had never before seen an entire community “unburdening itself in this way and killing people as a part of it.”

The rebellion of the ultra-Orthodox – their refusal to wear masks, observe social distancing and compromise traditional prayer and study practices, as well as their running street battles with police attempting to enforce pandemic regulations – is a two-headed monster.

One head is the community’s propensity for mass suicide which, in any other context, would be diagnosed as psychotic and dealt with accordingly.

The other is the Israeli government’s spinelessness in handling the ultra-Orthodox madness, an impotence that amounts to criminal collaboration.

An apt analogy would be if the authorities in the US and Guyana had known in advance of Jim Jones’ Kool-Aid plans and blithely allowed him to continue. Except that Kool-Aid does not diffuse through the air and poison those who didn’t drink it.

Most secular Israelis don’t understand the insanity that has gripped the ultra-Orthodox community. They tend to attribute it to the typically large number of children in ultra-Orthodox families, their cramped living conditions, their traditional group prayer and study sessions, their lack of the most basic scientific education and their general insularity in the midst of a modern, technology-rich society.

Those may all be factors in the spread of the coronavirus, but they don’t account for the impunity that the ultra-Orthodox community grants itself – the dispensation to ignore and contravene regulations that everyone else (except politicians, of course) has to abide by.

For the ultra-Orthodox, the pandemic is a blatant challenge to the supremacy of Torah and those who interpret its teachings – the rabbis. It is a showdown between Torah and Science; between scientific experts – in this case those with expertise in virology, immunology and the like – and religious experts, namely the rabbis.

Not that the entire community rejects science; it doesn’t. What they do is turn its methodology into a weapon. Science, of course, is predicated on a continuous process of hypothesis and challenge until consensus is reached. The ultra-Orthodox insist that the science-based edicts issued during the pandemic be treated as hypotheses as well – and that they be subjected to religious challenge.

“Just as a Dayan (religious judge) cannot make a ruling without hearing the opposing side, decrees cannot be made upon the people, if they can be made at all, without a thorough investigation as to whether Torah and the metzius hadevorim (state of reality) support such a decree,” writes Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Smith, of Passaic Park, New Jersey, a practicing corporate attorney in addition to his rabbinical duties.

In other words, temporal law – even if backed-up by scientific consensus – is no more than a hypothesis that can, and must, be subject to rabbinical exegesis. The ultra-Orthodox themselves will decide. Their conduct over the High Holidays appears to indicate that they have decided against science.

It’s important to bear in mind that the rebellion is not restricted to Israel. The ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn (where they number over half-a-million) are also on a self-harm rampage that has the authorities from Governor Cuomo on down pulling out their hair. Their reasoning is no different from that of their Israeli brethren, though it may also have been influenced by Trump-era notions of individual freedom.

Rabbi Smith, mentioned above, is implacably opposed to what he calls “the rule of Public Health” and describes the distinction made between essential and non-essential workers as “something the Nazis used … who is really valuable, who is acceptable, who is healthy.” It is a religious variation of the Trumpian notion of freedom as an individual right devoid of responsibility for others.

The main reason for the pusillanimity of the Israeli government in the face of the ultra-Orthodox revolt is more prosaic than the good rabbi’s pious Trumpism. Since 1948, Israel has always had a coalition government; no single party has ever achieved a parliamentary majority enabling it to govern without partners. With rare exceptions, parties representing both streams of the ultra-Orthodox community – Ashkenazi (European) and Sephardi (Middle Eastern) – have always been included in coalition governments.

Supporting the government of the day has brought the community innumerable benefits – budgets for their schools and seminaries, stipends for families of men studying rather than working, religious control over marriage and divorce, laws that prohibit the provision of basic services on the Shabbat, military deferrals – the list is endless. However insurgent they may be right now, the ultra-Orthodox are totally dependent on the state for their way of life and their politicians are under constant pressure to supply the goods.

Since 2009, the political parties have been indispensable components of the governments established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Had he lost their support after any of the three elections held in 2019, he would have lost power.

And Netanyahu, lest we forget, is facing trial for corruption. Being in power while the trial is in progress may be a legal and moral travesty, but it is what stands between the premier and a prison cell. He can use it to denigrate and browbeat the legal system and attempt to turn the public against it, as he is currently doing, in the hope that something will eventually give and his trial will somehow disappear. Were he to lose power – were the religious parties to withhold their support – he would be just another conman facing his day in court.

Enter the coronavirus pandemic. The ultra-Orthodox, believing in their own exceptionality, refuse to adhere to pandemic regulations. Netanyahu, dependent on their political and personal support, allows them to defy the law with impunity, while insisting that the rest of the country follows the rules to the letter.

The secular public, pissed off by the favoritism enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox, decide that they won’t cooperate either. Unsurprisingly, the pandemic rages out of control. Another lockdown is introduced – and immediately violated by the ultra-Orthodox, followed by some among the secular population. Thousands of small businesses shut down; millions are out of work. Politicians continue to receive their salaries and flout regulations

Anti-Netanyahu protests break out, first outside the prime minister’s residence then – when that is banned by decree – at thousands of squares and junctions throughout the country. Enraged by the protests, the prime minister urges his colleagues to enact tougher legislation. The police are deployed against protesters and conduct themselves brutally. Surrounded in his bunker by a small coterie of advisers, the embattled prime minister hunkers down and rules by decree.

An up-to-date picture of Israel during the days of awe.