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An insider's plea

Haredi health pioneer: COVID-19 defiance fuels anti-Semitism, sullies God’s name

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav says many ultra-Orthodox are fighting virus, but a worrying number refuse and won’t reconsider even as death toll rises and hatred of community spreads

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (courtesy of ZAKA)
Yehuda Meshi-Zahav (courtesy of ZAKA)

An ultra-Orthodox health pioneer has expressed intense frustration at coronavirus disobedience, and said it’s bringing hatred on his community and fanning the flames of anti-Semitism.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav hauls body bags of the COVID-19 deceased, but even the warnings he delivers after carrying out this gory work fall on deaf ears, he said.

His organization ZAKA, a medical aid and rescue nonprofit, has helped some 1,800 God-fearing Diaspora Jews killed by the coronavirus to fulfill their dying wish, transferring them from planes for eternal rest in Israel’s sacred soil, he said. He also personally retrieves bodies of Israelis who have died.

But he is astounded that nothing he can say or do — whether talk of the body bags, Israel’s dizzying coronavirus stats shared in Yiddish, or personal stories of those who died — can convince the slice of the Haredi community that is insistently noncooperative in the battle against the coronavirus to change its ways.

A worker from ‘Hevra Kadisha,’ Israel’s official Jewish burial society, prepares a body before a funeral procession at a special morgue for COVID-19 victims in Holon, September 23, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Meshi-Zahav spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday, at the end of the Jewish holiday season, amid numerous reports that mass gatherings had taken place among Israeli Haredim in defiance of coronavirus rules.

These included celebrations for Saturday’s Simhat Torah festival, held despite statistics indicating that ultra-Orthodox Israelis, around 12 percent of the population, are catching the virus out of proportion to others. Hospitals are heavily populated by Haredim, while some members of the community are being treated by a program to give breathing support at home, without knowledge of the authorities.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men pray in The Hurva Synagogue sukkah on Hoshana Raba, the last day of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, in the Old City of Jerusalem on October 9, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

“I explain to people that others are looking at them, and saying that we’re in this situation because of Haredim, and that the 12 percent is infecting the 80-plus percent, and that ‘you’ are ‘stealing’ the breathing machines,” Meshi-Zahav said. “And I say that this hatred is terrible, but what people see is the continuation of singing, dancing, public prayers, and simchas [celebrations] — as well as continuation of protests.”

He said that some people in the ultra-Orthodox community are playing down the danger of the virus, despite what he stresses are its devastating consequences for Jewish communities in Israel and around the world. “Seeing the bodies arrive and counting them, sometimes 15, 16, 17 in a day, you understand the impact this virus is having on Jewish communities,” he stated. “But even this doesn’t help change attitudes.”

A ZAKA volunteer collects a palette with the bodies of Diaspora Jews who died from the coronavirus, for burial in Israel (courtesy of ZAKA)

Disobedience born of poor leadership

It’s a misconception to assume that Haredi refusal to follow virus rules is driven by disrespect to others, he said, arguing that it stems from a misguided desire to retain religious routine at all costs. In his view, strong and determined leadership could fix this with a clarion call insisting that the religious imperative to save life comes above all, but there is no such leadership on the horizon.

Chairman of ZAKA, Israel’s voluntary emergency response organization, Yehuda Meshi Zahav (courtesy of ZAKA)

He said there are large parts of the Haredi community where coronavirus rules are carefully followed, and there are rabbis who encourage this. And he stressed that disproportionately high virus rates among Haredim don’t reflect disobedience alone, but to a large extent also circumstances, like large families and cramped conditions.

Yet he is worried that a notable minority is breaking rules, which causes infection to spread, and lamented: “People don’t understand we’re all in the same boat. It’s like the story of the people who drill a hole under their seat in boat, saying it’ll only affect them, but of course, it affects everyone.”

Meshi-Zahav is particularly concerned by the fact that Haredi disobedience has an international element. In New York’s Haredi community, where virus rates have been high, there have been some very visible expressions of disdain for restrictions, including angry protests against coronavirus shutdowns.

Groups of protesters gather in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park to denounce lockdowns of their neighborhood due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on October 7, 2020 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

Fueling anti-Semitism

And he believes that the situation in Israel and New York is playing into the hands of anti-Semites. “If Jews are saying the things I mentioned about each other, of course others will say them,” he said. “They will take the symbol of a man in Jewish dress, and connect it to the coronavirus.”

The situation now can pour oil on the fire of anti-Semitism, because people will have the impression that to be Jewish means that you’re spreading the virus

“The situation now can pour oil on the fire of anti-Semitism, because people will have the impression that to be Jewish means that you’re spreading the virus. If we’re saying it, why shouldn’t they say it?” He worries that the obvious answer to anti-Semites — that this is a global crisis and Jewish people, the majority of them following all restrictions, are only a tiny piece of it — won’t stop them.

Meshi-Zahav is normally full of suggestions for healing rifts in Israel and the Jewish world. But right now, he is largely out of ideas.

An extremist who was arrested dozens of times at anti-Zionist demonstrations in his youth, Meshi-Zahav set up ZAKA and embarked on a more moderate path after racing to the scene of a 1989 terror attack to help with rescue efforts and deciding that Israelis should unite in the face of adversity. He has become an advocate for social cohesion and coexistence, and in 2003 was chosen to light one of Israel’s Independence Day torches in recognition of his work.

But when it comes to the phenomenon of Haredi COVID-19 disobedience, “there is no answer,” he said. “We need a leader who can bang on the table and say, ‘Enough, what are you doing? Follow the instructions! We’re in the same boat.”

Where disobedience is strongest

He said that compliance with rules is relatively strong among Sephardi Haredim and in many parts of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community, but disobedience is strong in Hasidic communities, led by authoritarian rebbes, sometimes known as admors, whose word on all aspects of life is treated as sacred.

Meshi-Zahav thinks that this authority structure means that any portrayal of the seriousness of the disease or the dangers of not following directives falls on deaf ears. “It doesn’t interest you, because as soon as the admor has said something, you don’t need to think,’ he said.

Screen capture from video of the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, known as the Pittsburgh Rebbe, who died of the coronavirus and was buried in Ashdod, October 5, 2020. (Twitter)

He added: “There are groups, mostly of Hasidic people, who say ‘our obligation is to uphold Torah life,’ and who say that if this can’t continue [without infection] they are willing to pay the price of people becoming infected in order to do this.

“In Hasidic communities the rebbe is a massive figure, and what he says has more weight even than what a doctor says. People go to the rebbe before having an operation, and the decision [regarding whether it’s necessary] is followed. So when they talk about the virus, people follow what they say.”

He said that disobedience is also strong among non-Hasidic extremists, including the Neturei Karta sect in which he was brought up, where the coronavirus has been dismissed in posters as “a Zionist disease.” Meshi-Zahav said that in the mindset he grew up with, virus rules, if they require shutting down shtibelach or small synagogues, are seen as an affront against all that is most holy.

He said: “They educated us that Israel is at the center of the world, Jerusalem is at the center of Israel, [the Haredi stronghold of Mea Shearim] is at the center of Jerusalem, its shtibelach are at the center of all of this, and there, prayer must continue at all costs.”

Police officers clash with Haredi men during a protest against the enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, October 4, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

While he gives no credence to such views during a pandemic, he thinks that Israel’s government should have been smarter in approaching Haredim, understanding their mindset, and preempting disobedience.

Desecrating God’s name

Meshi-Zahav said that the state’s task was to be “smart, not right,” and better empathize with a point of view that inevitably posed a challenge to enforcing rules. “People went through Shoah and other hard experiences and upheld their faith, and there’s something in the soul that makes people want to keep religious life running whatever the challenges.

“What this causes is the worst kind of hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name], while on the other hand people need to understand the values of the community, and that it’s not acting out of disrespect to others.”

He said that the government should have communicated better with the Haredi community throughout, noting that during the first wave ZAKA sent cars and ambulances with loudspeakers, driven by volunteers, to announce the dangers of the virus, sometimes in Hebrew and sometimes in Yiddish (video below), because the government was failing to get the message out.

Meshi-Zahav also thinks the state could have worked to influence rabbis and rebbes in the early stage of the pandemic, before their opinions became set in stone, and considered creative solutions, like closed enclaves for admors who insisted on being surrounded by their followers.

“The government needed to sit with them and talk to them, and if the admor insisted they wanted [to aim for] herd immunity [among their followers], they should have said, ‘Okay let’s fund a solution to make this happen without harming others.’”

He takes a similar view regarding the traditional Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to Uman, in Ukraine, which the government tried to stop, sparking significant anger. Several thousand people tried to get there regardless, with infected people reportedly returning to Israel on several planes.

Hasidic Jewish pilgrims gather in front of Ukrainian border guards at the checkpoint Novaya Guta near Novaya Guta, Belarus, September 18, 2020 (AP Photo)

“There are people who believe if they don’t go to Uman their whole year is broken,” said Meshi-Zahav. “There were solutions. They could have not brought people back until everyone tested negative, but they didn’t think of this.”

A plea for understanding

He said that it had been a long path from his extremist past to his current role, which sees him pleading for understanding between communities, but he thinks that his story has something to say today.

“I came from a place where everything was black and white, and where everything negative was Zionist and it was the Zionists who were stopping the messiah from coming,” he said. But he rejected this upbringing, and reached the opinion that Orthodox religious tradition, which he still observes scrupulously, urges unity and understanding between Jewish people.

“Today, I’m worried about the hatred in our society,” he said. “The coronavirus will pass. We need to pray for how we get past the divisions, because without unity, we cannot manage in our society.”

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