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Op-ed

Ultra-Orthodox COVID extremists betray Judaism’s emphasis on sanctity of life

How to understand the sometimes violent defiance of life-preserving lockdown rules by a substantial minority of the Haredi community, and what Israel should do about it

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

An ultra-Orthodox man faces off with police officers during enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, in Jerusalem, January 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yonatan Sindel/Flash90: An ultra-Orthodox man faces off with police officers during enforcement of coronavirus emergency regulations, in Jerusalem, January 26, 2021.

It is almost impossible to comprehend how certain young ultra-Orthodox men brought up in a community whose core value is the study of Judaism, a faith so centered upon the sanctity of life, have emerged as the most prominent, and most violent, opposition in Israel to restrictions designed solely to help minimize the loss of life from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Almost impossible, except that Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, an ultra-Orthodox man who heads the ZAKA emergency rescue service, has provided us with at least part of the explanation.

Meshi-Zahav has lost both his parents to the virus in the past ten days, and thus he saw his own community’s deadly denial of COVID’s dangers unfold before his own eyes.

His personal tragedy — emblematic of the wider community’s fatal blindness, with its far-reaching repercussions for us all — began when his mother decided to hold a Hanukkah party in December in their Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim. He implored her not to. He pleaded with other members of his family. His wise, informed voice, bolstered by his credibility as somebody who deals with death on a daily basis, proved ineffectual.

“I said it’s dangerous, don’t do it,” he told The Times of Israel last week. But who was he to contradict the rabbis to whom his family show fealty, when they were setting so different a tone?

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav with his mother Sarah in an undated picture. (Courtesy Mendy Hachtman)

As he put it in his interview with ToI’s Nathan Jeffay, “the leaders are living on a different planet.” In his parents’ community, “there was an atmosphere that we’ve reached the end of coronavirus — this was the feeling at Hanukkah,” he said.

The party went ahead. Meshi-Zahav’s mother contracted COVID. She passed away early last week. “There are leaders of the community who have blood on their hands,” Meshi-Zahav said, “and it’s the blood of my mother and of many others.” A few days later, his father succumbed to COVID too.

The glorious, centuries-old tradition of the best and brightest constantly reinvigorating the study of holy Jewish texts, funded by a grateful Jewish people, has been transformed, expanded, distorted, into a norm, betraying the centuries-old rabbinical obligation to work and provide for one’s family

The blame doesn’t stop with ill-informed, benighted rabbis, however. And nor does the obligation to halt this reality-defying, death-inviting insanity.

The ultra-Orthodox community has become semi-autonomous in Israel, and its state-subsidized, full-time male Torah-studying component has grown vast. The glorious, centuries-old tradition of the best and brightest constantly reinvigorating the study of holy Jewish texts, funded by a grateful Jewish people, has been transformed, expanded, distorted, into a norm, betraying the centuries-old rabbinical obligation to work and provide for one’s family.

This distortion has been facilitated by a State of Israel that largely exempts ultra-Orthodox males from military service; a state that uses its workforce’s taxes to provide the financial benefits that enable their families to scrape by in the absence of a male breadwinner; a state that, incidentally, some components of the ultra-Orthodox community reject or abhor.

United Torah Judaism leaders Yaakov Litzman (R) and Moshe Gafni. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Moreover, the community is represented in parliament by politicians who, although they work in Israel’s diverse, first-world environment, have mostly proved themselves over the past year not just incapable but fundamentally unwilling to enlighten their electorate regarding the dangers of the pandemic.

A large proportion of the ultra-Orthodox community, it must be stressed, has dutifully followed the COVID-19 restrictions, closing schools, canceling mass events, wearings masks, maintaining social distancing

They have instead sided with the blinkered rabbinical leaders, against their community’s and Israel’s life-preserving interests.

A large proportion of the ultra-Orthodox community, it must be stressed, has dutifully followed the COVID-19 restrictions, closing schools, canceling mass events, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing. But a significant minority has done the reverse. And as contagion rates have stayed obstinately high in recent weeks despite the ongoing nationwide lockdown orders, an estimated 40 percent of new COVID-19 cases are coming from within the ultra-Orthodox community, which makes up about 12% of the Israeli population, while its vaccination rates in Israel’s world-leading inoculation drive are reportedly far below the national average.

The conduct of the ultra-Orthodox lockdown-defiers contradicts Judaism’s central principles, which place the value of life above almost all else. One is required to give up one’s life in certain very exceptional circumstances; one is not required to continue group Torah study or hold mass weddings in the midst of a pandemic.

Things reached a nadir this week with violent protests by ultra-Orthodox extremists against belated police efforts to close down some of the numerous ultra-Orthodox schools and yeshivot operating in breach of the national lockdown.

Those protests included attacks on buses in Bnei Brak and on the light rail in Jerusalem — incidents that could easily have led to loss of life.

A bus set alight by a mob in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Israel Police)

Manifestly there is an abiding failure to communicate between the Israeli government and healthcare authorities and a substantial part of this large, semi-autonomous community. Manifestly, too, there has been a failure of political will by a government and a prime minister that depend on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties to ensure the same firm implementation of the COVID restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox sector as elsewhere.

But manifestly, too, part of the long-term solution, as so often, lies in education. The semi-autonomy of the Israeli ultra-Orthodox extends to the school system, where generations have been denied a basic education in core subjects, including English, math and science.

It is a bitter irony that many leaders of a community ostensibly dedicated to the education of its youth have insistently deprived them of the broad education essential for young people to grow into useful and fulfilled members of any functional society

This is not the case throughout the entire ultra-Orthodox community, just as it is not the case that the entire ultra-Orthodox community has defied the lockdown regulations. But neither phenomenon is marginal.

It is a bitter irony that many leaders of a community ostensibly dedicated to the education of its youth have insistently denied them the broad education routinely required elsewhere, deprived them of the broad education essential for young people to grow into useful and fulfilled members of any functional society.

Judaism has remained relevant, and Jews have proved groundbreakers in most every walk of life, thanks to the inspiration of a faith that prizes education, a code for life that encourages creative inquiry.

I have long argued that Israel’s leadership must require some kind of national service from the ultra-Orthodox community. It need not be in the IDF; it can certainly be within the community itself. Similarly, the Israeli government must require that schools in the ultra-Orthodox sector teach a core curriculum — to equip its community, simply put, for reality.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson Yaakov Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Much as it may wish to eschew what it sees as the toxins of modernity, the ultra-Orthodox community cannot shut itself off from the world entirely, as COVID fatally proves, and it cannot be allowed to go on attempting to do so, as the failed response to COVID has underlined. I stress again; we are talking not about all in the community, but neither about an insignificant minority.

Some ultra-Orthodox leaders may act as though they are living on a different planet, as Meshi-Zahav charged. But the fact is that they share this country, and it is a tragic betrayal of the Judaism they claim to cherish that, as that twice-bereaved member of the community so desperately lamented, some ultra-Orthodox rabbis today have blood on their hands. So, too, do those who have facilitated their willful, fatal ignorance.

** An earlier version of 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.

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