Last week, Ohad Hemo, an indefatigable reporter from Channel 12 news who usually covers Arab affairs and frequently risks his well-being by entering hostile West Bank areas, went to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood to speak to members of extreme ultra-Orthodox factions breaching the coronavirus lockdown restrictions on mass gatherings.
As Hemo conducted his interviews, attempting to make sense of the insistent contagion-spreading behavior, one young boy approached and, in full and deliberate view of the cameras, mock-sneezed at him — symbolically infecting the reporter with the deadly virus.
The very public and contemptuous refusal of a substantial minority of Israel’s 12 percent ultra-Orthodox community — and of small sections of ultra-Orthodox communities elsewhere, notably including New York — to honor the governing authorities’ rules and restrictions in the battle against COVID-19 defies explanation.
They are placing their own lives in danger. They are placing others’ lives in danger. But still more inexplicably, if that’s even possible, they are contradicting the values they say they most revere and hold sacred. In so doing, they are committing hillul haShem, desecrating the Lord’s name.
Ultra-Orthodox Judaism builds higher fences to protect the would-be faithful from the challenges, temptations and pollutants of our flawed human nature. And yet here is a substantial minority that is willfully costing lives, showing contempt for others, and reveling in it
Judaism at its core is about the sanctity of life. Humanity was created by the Lord in his image; to save a life is to save the world; to act morally is to sanctify the Lord’s name.
Orthodox Judaism follows a code of ethics and behavior designed to ensure we act honorably in the eyes of our Creator. Ultra-Orthodox Judaism builds higher fences to protect the would-be faithful from the challenges, temptations and pollutants of our flawed human nature.
And yet here is a substantial minority of this self-described profoundly God-fearing community that is willfully costing lives, showing contempt for others, and reveling in it.
The grim, unavoidable conclusion is that this minority, amid its emphasis on full-time study of our holy texts, its unthinking fealty to its leaders, its focus on raising the fences ever higher, has lost sight of Judaism’s precious core — the very humanity and morality the ultra-Orthodox approach is intended to elevate.
The result is catastrophic — for all of ultra-Orthodox Judaism, marked out by its distinctive appearance, and inevitably all lumped in together with its most extreme elements; and for all of Jewry.
In Israel, we have long suffered intra-Jewish frictions, between the secular and Orthodox Jewish mainstream, on the one hand, and the ultra-Orthodox minority, on the other. This is a function of the deep entanglement of religion and state, with ultra-Orthodox politicians at the heart of most of our governing coalitions. It is born of a sense of injustice that most ultra-Orthodox youths neither serve in the IDF nor perform alternative national service; and of the fact that the community includes anti-Zionist factions that live at least partly at the expense of the state and its taxpayers, while simultaneously denouncing them and in extreme cases even consorting with our enemies.
In its early weeks, this pandemic brought such historic tensions to the fore because of ultra-Orthodox flouting of social-distancing rules. In large part, however, this was less a case of willful disobedience and more a dismal failure to communicate between the national authorities and the ultra-Orthodox leadership, in a community where large families and crowded living conditions further complicate the battle against COVID-19.
With time, however, the disconnect has deepened, become less explicable, and prompted further hostility to the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole — even though there has been no shortage of defiance and selfishness in other sectors of Israeli society.
It has intensified with the evidence that Israel was placed under fairly stringent national lockdown a month ago, with dire and widespread economic and social consequences, because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dared not alienate the ultra-Orthodox electorate by imposing local lockdowns on the most affected COVID-19 areas — largely ultra-Orthodox areas. And it has reached fever pitch as statistics showed the rising and disproportionate rates of ultra-Orthodox contagion and death, against the backdrop of extremist factions’ rule-breaking mass indoor prayers and festivities.
Outside of Israel, notably in New York City, meanwhile, public defiance of COVID-19 rules and restrictions by ultra-Orthodox minorities risks heightening not only intra-Jewish friction but, inevitably, non-Jewish antipathy to the ultra-Orthodox and to Jews as a whole. In New York, too, there is a political component, with some asserting that the ultra-Orthodox community is being unfairly targeted for lockdown measures by Democratic leaders because of its support for the Republican president. (In Brooklyn, the ultra-Orthodox journalist Jacob Kornbluh was mobbed and denounced as a “moser” — informer — for reporting anti-lockdown protests.)
In an interview conducted by The Times of Israel’s health reporter Nathan Jeffay earlier this week, Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, an ultra-Orthodox, former anti-Zionist activist turned healthcare pioneer, carefully distinguished between the ultra-Orthodox mainstream scrupulously heeding the regulations, the Hasidic dynasties that have unilaterally embarked on a life-or-death experiment in attaining herd immunity, and the extremists so consumed by antagonism to the secular state as to be deliberately fomenting confrontation with it. These latter two groups, said Meshi-Zahav, remain deaf to his warnings and entreaties even though he is among those who are carrying out the actual body bags of Israel’s coronavirus victims — a walking, talking, expert witness from their own community to the fatal ravages of the pandemic.
Meshi-Zahav professed himself largely out of ideas to snap the extremists out of their pernicious, lethal defiance. Along with firm, nondiscriminatory law enforcement, however, the path that he suggested should have been followed remains the only viable path: communication. A way simply has to be found to build more effective roads to communicate to the leadership of the ultra-Orthodox extremists the fatal dangers of their blinkered disrespect for humankind’s efforts to thwart this pandemic. All too evidently, they are not about to change their behavior because of the entreaties and warnings of mere mortals, much less secular officials, and least of all journalists.
But, as Meshi-Zahav lamented, their behavior is indeed a desecration of the name of the Lord. The challenge falls to credible, effective leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community to embark on the uphill battle to get that message across.
** This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.