JERUSALEM—As Israel eases its second nationwide lockdown, a revolt among ultra-Orthodox Jews against public health guidelines is complicating efforts to control the coronavirus outbreak.
Across Israel, schools and most businesses are closed. People are required to wear masks in public, and outdoor gatherings over 20 people are banned. Police and city inspectors patrol the streets, handing out fines to rule breakers. Signs on highway banners and city billboards remind people to wear masks and social distance.
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But on a bright autumn morning in Jerusalem’s ultraorthodox stronghold of Mea Shearim, no police patrolled the narrow alleyways closed off behind stone walls. Thousands of children crowded into schools, and men, young and old, returned to their religious seminaries known as yeshivas, where they study all day. The only common sign in the neighborhood that mentions coronavirus is an advertisement for free ginger to boost the immune system.
“After eight months of not doing what we’re told to do by my government, we’re still alive and healthy, so there’s no reason to close the Torah institutes,” said one ultraorthodox man in his 20s who was chatting outside a yeshiva.
A deep distrust of the government and a desire to preserve a way of life is fueling a broad—but not uniform—backlash against government efforts to impose public health guidelines on the ultraorthodox community. Many members of the community also suspect the virus isn’t so dangerous as to disrupt the rhythms of their insular and conservative communities, in which many men study religion all day rather than work and gather thrice daily for collective prayers.
“When the number of deaths isn’t as large as has been purported, the community prefers slight physical damage rather than a massive spiritual blow,” says Rabbi Pinchas Zaltzman, a religious judge in the ultraorthodox city of Bnei Brak.
The ultraorthodox community hasn’t been immune from the virus that causes Covid-19. While the ultraorthodox make up around 12.5% of the population, they have accounted for up to 65% of infections nationwide in the first wave in the spring and more than 40% in the current second wave, according to a study based on the Ministry of Health data by Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science based in central Israel. At the same time, the death rate per 1,000 individuals in the ultraorthodox sector is about half the rest of the country, largely because government figures show it is a much younger population.
After four weeks of a second nationwide lockdown, Israel was able to reduce the infection rate from more than 8,000 new cases a day to under 1,500. Now Israeli health officials fear the ultraorthodox decision to prematurely open the schools and religious seminaries could lead to yet another lockdown.
“If the yeshivas will open up again, we are likely to see another outbreak,” Mr. Segal said.
The two lockdowns in the course of seven months have crushed Israel’s economy, with the Bank of Israel estimating each week of the current lockdown costing the state two billion dollars. The lockdowns have also left nearly a million Israelis jobless, according to the Israeli Employment Service.
Israel isn’t alone in grappling with how to persuade ultraorthodox communities to conform to public health guidelines. Major ultraorthodox populations in New York and London have also bucked local health regulations, driving up tensions with city authorities.
But the pervasive economic pain in Israel, coupled with high infection rates among the ultraorthodox, has deepened a national rift.
“Up until the Covid crisis, the majority of Israelis had some anger with the ultraorthodox, but they had a feeling that if there was a crisis, we’ll unite,” said Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Jerusalem-based think tank Israel Democracy Institute. “This crisis demonstrates that even in severe crises, when we’re dependent on each other, we can’t join the forces.”
In the thick of the public debate is Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. His critics accuse him of allowing the ultraorthodox to flout coronavirus regulations because he can’t afford to lose their political support as he heads to trial on corruption charges. Mr. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.
Mr. Netanyahu says his policies stem from consultations with health experts, and he has publicly pleaded with the ultraorthodox to abide by regulations.
“The decisions that we made about the lockdown, about the slow and gradual exit, were not simple decisions, but they were responsible,” Mr. Netanyahu said Sunday at a cabinet meeting.
Mr. Netanyahu has been able to rely on support from the ultraorthodox community because his governments have helped finance the yeshivas, and have preserved a status quo that exempts young men studying at them from serving in the military, which is compulsory for other Israeli citizens.
This week, preschools, child day care and businesses that don’t receive customers were allowed to open, and a rule limiting citizens to within one kilometer of their homes was lifted.
But when it comes to the coronavirus restrictions that are still in place, the ultraorthodox community has been at odds with government policies. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a 92-year-old spiritual leader who is himself sick with coronavirus, ignored government pleas to keep schools shut and ordered ultraorthodox educational institutions open starting this week.
For those who fall ill from Covid-19, the ultraorthodox have set up what amounts to a parallel health-care system. A collective of ultraorthodox charities fund a small group of doctors who have treated thousands of coronavirus patients at home. Volunteers claim the initiative has provided better care than in hospitals, though some health care officials have said the initiative endangers those who need urgent care.
“When a ultraorthodox citizen gets into the hospital, he’s treated like a second-class citizen,” said Mr. Zaltzman, the religious judge in Bnei Brak. “When treated at home, they get kosher food they need and family support around them.”
Some ultraorthodox have taken a middle-ground approach. While defying the government by opening up, some schools and yeshivas are following certain health regulations, such as mask wearing and social distancing.
In the dining area of the renowned Mir yeshiva of Jerusalem, masked men sat more than 6 feet apart. In the large study halls, nylon sheets a few feet high separate each row to prevent the virus from spreading between the small study groups.
Even with these precautions, some have stayed away. Gamli Silverman, 23, a father of one in Jerusalem, said he stopped going to the Mir yeshiva months ago out of fear for his safety. When he asked his friends why they were still attending, they said they were uncomfortable but felt they had no choice.
“The only explanation there could be is that there is a strong social pressure,” Mr. Silverman said. “It’s unbelievable how strong it is.”
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