The head of the ZAKA voluntary emergency organization, which has been helping implement restrictions in ultra-Orthodox communities in order to halt the spread of the coronavirus, said Sunday that there is vast confusion among Israel’s Haredim about the pandemic, and a growing sense of disappointment among the community that their leadership has failed them.
“Not only have they not internalized [the severity of the virus], the Haredi community is in shock. Complete shock and confusion,” said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the chairman and founder of ZAKA and a former member of the extreme fringe of the ultra-Orthodox world.
While “there are a few small communities that aren’t obeying,” around “95 percent of Haredim are obeying and the rabbis said to observe the rules,” Meshi-Zahav said in an interview with Army Radio.
“But it’s too late,” he warned, citing the high infection rate in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Authorities moved Sunday to tighten a closure on the virus-stricken city of Bnei Brak, cutting off access between the city and the rest of the country and stepping up efforts to provide aid to residents and remove those carrying the potentially deadly pathogen.
At the same time, officials are reportedly considering similar measures for other cities that have seen major outbreaks of the disease, many of them with large ultra-Orthodox populations.
On Saturday, ZAKA volunteers visited the homes of over 60 confirmed coronavirus cases in ultra-Orthodox communities across the county after they did not answer phone calls from the Health Ministry to let them know that they have the virus, even though the community rabbis ruled that phones should be answered on Shabbat.
Meshi-Zahav said that many in the community feel they have been let down by their leadership, who failed to present clear messages about social distancing early on.
“People are starting to see that it affects them. It affects their close circle. There is someone affected in nearly every house,” he said. “But there is still huge confusion and people are starting to understand that the leadership is not working, not professional, not operational and not able to deal with this.”
The Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak is seen as a major epicenter of the virus, with almost as many confirmed cases as Jerusalem (which has the largest tally according to Health Ministry data released last week), despite being one-fifth the size of the capital.
Thousands more people in the city are thought to possibly have the disease but remain untested.
Ministers are slated to discuss the possibility of declaring other cities with large outbreaks restricted zones, with an emphasis on locales with large ultra-Orthodox populations.
Among those cities were several with predominantly ultra-Orthodox populations, such as Elad and the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit, as well as several Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Tiberias, Ashkelon and the city of Modiin were also being considered.
United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush said earlier Sunday that locking down Bnei Brak and, potentially, other virus-stricken ultra-Orthodox areas, and sending the IDF into those areas, was misguided.
“The imposition of a closure on ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods is an injustice. The army doesn’t have the skills to enter a city with a population it does not know — people will refuse to allow them to evacuate them,” he said, referring to plans for soldiers to evacuate thousands of elderly and vulnerable residents.
Porush, a member of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s United Torah Judaism party, also said the Israel Defense Forces’ involvement in the distribution of essentials to residents of the locked down city was unnecessary.
“Do you think that they did not distribute food here before the corona? The ultra-Orthodox are laughing at the idea that soldiers need to distribute food to the elderly in the city,” he said.
Many ultra-Orthodox Israelis initially dismissed social distancing regulations, which officials say has led to the high rate of infection within their communities.
Speaking to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Moshe Amar on Sunday, President Reuven Rivlin warned against blaming any specific community for the ongoing coronavirus crisis.
“Today, I want to speak out strongly against the voices I hear criticizing the ultra-Orthodox community: We are brothers and sisters and mutual responsibility is our guiding light. We must not make false accusations that one or another group is spreading the disease, and we must certainly not attack a whole community because of the bad deeds of individuals, which happens in every society,” Rivlin said, adding, “we must also not make generalizations about a whole community, the vast majority of which is carrying out the instructions of the Health Ministry in these difficult days leading up to Passover.”
The whole country has been under partial lockdown since last month, with people only allowed to venture more than 100 meters from their home for work or essential needs. Police last week began fining people who did not comply.
On Sunday morning night, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus rose above 8,000, including at least 47 fatalities.