We don’t yet know for sure whether Health Minister Yaakov Litzman flouted his own ministry’s guidelines by participating in group prayer in recent days, after a ban on such gatherings had been instituted to prevent the spread of coronavirus contagion. Witnesses claimed to have seen him ignoring the regulations issued by his own ministry, and speculated that this is how he caught the virus; he denies it.
What we do know is that the leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, who has served for almost all of the past decade as Israel’s health minister (or deputy health minister with no minister above him), was strikingly reluctant to acknowledge and internalize the threat posed by the pandemic. He resisted the stringent limitations on public movement his ministry’s senior officials sought to impose — stalling regulations that might otherwise have come into effect early last month just before Purim, and pleading in vain with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just 10 days ago to allow synagogues to stay open for at least small groups of worshipers standing two meters apart.
Still more reprehensible, however, is the manifest failure of the healthcare hierarchy he has headed for so long to effectively communicate to his own ultra-Orthodox sector of the Israeli demographic the imperative to take the virus seriously.
Twenty years ago, the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak changed the name of much of its central boulevard from (Theodor) Herzl Street to Rabbi (Elazar) Schach Street — in what might be seen as a symbolic transfer of allegiance from the pioneer of Zionism to a venerated spiritual leader of Lithuanian ultra-Orthodoxy.
The shift highlighted the ongoing separation of the ultra-Orthodox community from mainstream Israel — underlined by the deepening of a norm whereby most of Israel’s young ultra-Orthodox males, rather than performing military or national service and then entering the work force, become full-time Torah scholars. This norm, it should be noted, stands at odds with centuries of Orthodox tradition, which stresses the general obligation to provide for one’s family, while only the best and brightest scholars are funded to study full-time.
Most of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews live in communities largely separate from the secular and modern-Orthodox mainstream, and largely incommunicado — with no televisions, limited computer access and cellphones modified to keep secular impurity at bay. They heed their rabbis rather than the national political leadership.
Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism, along with the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party Shas, exist precisely to ensure that the interests of this community are protected. And indeed the skill with which these two parties have used their coalition bargaining power and leverage to champion those interests — notably by fighting off demands that the ultra-Orthodox share the burden of national service — has been a bitter source of tension in Israel for decades.
With the rise of the coronavirus pandemic, the urgent need was for Litzman, his healthcare hierarchy and his fellow ultra-Orthodox politicians to ensure that their electorate was made as aware of the danger as the rest of Israel’s more plugged-in society, the better to protect against infection by swiftly heeding the guidelines on social distancing. United Torah Judaism’s campaign slogan in recent elections was “At the moment of truth.” At this moment of truth, manifestly, tragically, they failed.
Bnei Brak is under a lockdown, having become an epicenter of the virus, with 1,000 of the 7,000 confirmed infections in Israel. (According to one health fund chief Thursday, 38% of its almost 200,000 residents may be infected.) Other largely ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods are emerging with many of the highest rates of contagion nationwide.
It is easy to scapegoat elderly ultra-Orthodox sages and yeshiva heads for failing to swiftly order full cooperation with the “stay home” entreaties issued on a near-nightly basis by Netanyahu in recent weeks. The scene, three weeks ago, in which the grandson of the current Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox spiritual leader Chaim Kanievsky asks the rabbi whether school and yeshiva study should halt while the virus is being battled, and Kanievsky, 92, mutters “heaven forbid,” ostensibly justifies considerable anger and frustration.
Much of the rest of Israel, largely honoring the restrictions on social movement, and just possibly managing to be thwarting or at least reducing the spread of infection, today finds itself potentially facing a pandemic nightmare ostensibly because 10 percent of the populace listens to octogenarian and nonagenarian Torah scholars rather than national leaders and their expert healthcare advisers. (Kanievsky changed his stance on Sunday, insisting on no group prayer or study.)
But the principal failure lies with the ultra-Orthodox politicians whose raison d’être should have come to the fore in these last few dreadful weeks. This was their hour to justify their very existence — to prove that working with the Zionist government is essential to the well-being of their community. This was their time of opportunity, and of obligation — to reach out to their own electorate and explain that, no, the instruction to close synagogues and shut down schools and yeshivas was not part of some fiendish new secular Zionist plot aimed at the destruction of Torah study, that must be defied for the sake of the divine. It was rather a life and death requirement to protect against a virus that spreads like wildfire and, the statistics suggest, may kill 20% of the most elderly and vulnerable.
The ultra-Orthodox community has, as of this week, largely, finally, come to understand the gravity of the hour. But as aggrieved spokesmen from within it have been stressing in recent days, the Israeli government failed for weeks to effectively highlight the peril through channels the community would access, understand and respect. Specifically, these spokesmen have said, the outreach should have focused on community rabbis and leaders, savvy people perfectly capable of recognizing the menace, explaining it and ensuring that the necessary precautions were rapidly taken.
A chorus of opposition politicians have been demanding that Netanyahu fire Litzman for apparently scorning and flouting his ministry’s directives. An unnamed senior government minister was quoted Thursday accusing Litzman of showing “contempt” for the rules, and of putting the lives of his various leadership colleagues at risk. Since Litzman tested positive late on Wednesday night, the prime minister has had to go back into quarantine, along with almost all the senior officials who have been leading Israel’s desperate battle against the virus.
But while we don’t actually know for sure that Litzman personally broke any of the restrictions, we do know that he failed his community. More than anyone in Israel, all those years of experience in the health minister’s chair should have meant he could rapidly understand the atypically devastating threat posed by COVID-19. And he had only come into politics in the first place to look out for his ultra-Orthodox community.
Instead, we are watching a tragedy unfold — in which vulnerable members of the ultra-Orthodox community now find themselves at partially avoidable life-threatening risk, and the rest of the country is in consequent heightened danger too.
And all because of a two-way failure to communicate, in which the politicians with the greatest ability to bridge the gulf failed to internalize that this was their moment. Because, to Israel’s abiding shame and now life-taking cost, Herzl Street became Schach Street, and nobody has managed to bridge the worlds between them.