Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said in an interview broadcast Saturday that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox were disproportionately hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and that the community needed to do “soul-searching” as a result of the crisis.
Deri, head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said that most of Israel’s infections were among the ultra-Orthodox community. The group constitutes around 10 percent of the general population.
“Within our public, we need to do very deep soul-searching, unfortunately. Around 70% of the sick in the State of Israel, in the entire country, 70% of the sick are ultra-Orthodox,” Deri said in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar HaShabbat.
He said that the high rate of infection for ultra-Orthodox Jews was not only in major population centers, which saw widely publicized, severe outbreaks, but also in smaller ultra-Orthodox enclaves.
“Don’t count just Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beitar [Illit], Elad and Modiin Illit. It’s also in other cities in Israel. Someone who knows the data like I do, knows that it’s also in the neighborhoods [in other cities], it’s mostly ultra-Orthodox. For this we also need to do soul-searching,” he said.
“We have explanations — Purim, synagogues, weddings, it’s all correct,” Deri said.
He added that ultra-Orthodox communities in other countries, including the US, UK, France and Argentina, had been hit hard by the virus outbreak.
He also cited Israel’s “miracle” containing the pandemic, saying that New York had seen a death rate about 60 times higher than Israel’s.
“What does that tell us? On one side, [God] is protecting us, and on the other side, he is telling us something,” Deri said.
In March, Deri was reportedly appointed by the cabinet as the government point man on the issue of encouraging stricter adherence to virus-related restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox community.
The majority of the cities in the top 10 list of per capita cases of infection are predominantly ultra-Orthodox.
According to the latest Health Ministry data, four out of the top seven cities with the most total infections are predominantly ultra-Orthodox, including Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Elad and Beitar Illit.
Jerusalem, where most of the cases have been in the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, has the most total infections, and Beit Shemesh, which has a large plurality of ultra-Orthodox residents, has the fourth most cases.
Tel Aviv, which has a much larger population than the ultra-Orthodox cities listed, has the third most infections.
Many members of the ultra-Orthodox community were slow to begin heeding social distancing regulations and initially resisted the shutdown of schools and synagogues. Several prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis initially opposed government efforts to shutter yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox schools as the pandemic began to spread across Israel in March.
As the situation in the ultra-Orthodox community worsened and as the government stepped up its efforts to reach out and provide information about the pandemic, people in the ultra-Orthodox sector began to take the issue more seriously and compliance with Health Ministry social distancing directives began to increase.
Educational institutions and synagogues were closed and ultra-Orthodox leaders made an about-face and called on their followers to observe government regulations.
Small segments of the ultra-Orthodox community have remained resistant to government directives, particularly those shutting down synagogues and yeshivas. Some members of extremist sects have clashed with security forces attempting to enforce rules.
The large size of ultra-Orthodox families and fact that many of their communities are located in some of the densest urban areas in Israel have also made battling the virus extremely difficult.
Jewish communities abroad have also been disproportionately affected, with high infection rates in the New York neighborhoods of Borough Park, Williamsburg and Crown Heights.
At the beginning of April, Bnei Brak was the first city placed under a strict lockdown, with residents only allowed to leave municipal boundaries to work in key industries or to receive medical care. Several Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods were also put under lockdown last month.
In late April, the cabinet ordered a lockdown on several mainly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh and Netivot due to a spike in infections.
With the number of new infections steadily dropping and the death toll at a relatively low 247, the government has begun loosening the measures put in place to curb the virus’ spread, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announcing a dramatic easing of social distancing restrictions on Monday.
A total of 16,454 Israelis have been infected by the virus, and 11,376 have recovered, as of Saturday evening.