Will COVID-19 reshape ultra-Orthodox leadership?
According to figures provided by the Ministry of Health, the rate of coronavirus infection is higher among ultra-Orthodox communities than the national average. In Bnei Brak, the country’s largest ultra-Orthodox enclave, one out of every three people tested was found to have the virus. The densely populated city is home to about 200,000 people, most of them large families of ten or more people living in tiny apartments. Such conditions make it almost impossible to prevent the spread of the virus. In fact, the situation is a ticking time bomb with the potential to collapse Israel’s entire health care system.
The blame for all this has fallen primarily on Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (Yahadut HaTorah), who has been accused of being exceptionally lenient toward the ultra-Orthodox community from the beginning of the crisis. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also come under criticism for ignoring Litzman’s behavior for political reasons, that is, so as not to harm his alliance with the ultra-Orthodox parties. There were even calls for Netanyahu to fire Litzman and replace him with a professional.
Litzman has rejected the criticism of course, asserting that he has no plans to depart the ministry even after a new government is formed. He has, however, come to realize that he is playing with fire, which is why on March 30 he announced his support for imposing a closure on Bnei Brak to prevent the spread of the virus elsewhere. In doing so, he closed ranks with the professional staff at his ministry, who had asked him to take drastic measures in Bnei Brak before the situation spirals out of control.
A total closure is yet to be imposed on the city, but it has been cordoned off by police roadblocks and soldiers to prevent non-residents from entering. Furthermore, laws prohibiting prayers in synagogues and immersions in ritual baths have been strictly enforced. The same holds in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, where such laws have been enforced more severely. For instance in Meah Shearim, synagogue doors were welded shut after it was learned that hundreds of people had been violating the emergency regulations.
According to reports, the situation in Bnei Brak is, in fact, serious. Terrified residents are confined to their homes, while a large police presence patrols the empty streets. Ultra-Orthodox journalists report a humanitarian crisis in the making, with many residents feeling like a flock without a shepherd, just days before the Passover holiday, which begins April 8.
The public outrage directed at the ultra-Orthodox community can be felt across social networks. “Very soon Bnei Brak will turn Israel into Italy!’’ tweeted the journalist Doron Herman. “All the responsible bodies are dragging their feet, unable to get the sick people out of the city.” Other tweets were even more outspoken. It is becoming increasingly clear that the coronavirus could be a tipping point in ultra-Orthodox society’s relationship with the secular community. Israeli society’s willingness to tolerate the lack of equality when it comes to sharing the burden of military service could well shift as a result of the coronavirus crisis. One expression of this would be a growth in support for political parties with an anti-ultra-Orthodox agenda, such as Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu.
This is also a big test for the ultra-Orthodox. After all, they will one day have to account for what happens. One potential outcome is that the crisis gives rise to a different kind of leadership among the ultra-Orthodox, producing one that understands the importance of such situations and promotes greater involvement of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society at large, including in the workforce and the military.