Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel and the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Dr. Gilad Malach held a press briefing focused on the coronavirus’ effect on the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and what might be the long term implications for employment, use of technology and the attitude towards official state authorities in this often isolated community.

The current situation:

While the ultra-Orthodox make up 12% of Israel’s population, at least 40% of the coronavirus cases belong to this community.

Three main reasons for the high prevalence of the coronavirus among the Haredim are: 

1. The community’s spiritual leaders did not heed to warnings regarding the coronavirus threat. Especially when the instructions were connected to religious practices (studying and praying). They refused to comply, and believed that God will help them.

2. The state authorities: it took a few weeks until the ministries identified ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods as at-risk areas. This mistake is especially attributed to Minister of Health, MK Yaakov Litzman, while being a member of the community, did not act vigorously enough to convince ultra-Orthodox leadership to change their behavior.

3. The ultra-Orthodox way of life: Cities with a high concentration of ultra-orthodox residents are the most densely populated areas in Israel. In addition, the lifestyle of Haredi men includes many communal rituals and practices. In general, the ultra-Orthodox in Israel live in an enclave culture, both geographically, and also in terms of technologies such as internet and T.V. They did not t understand the situation, and they did not trust the authorities.

Policymakers’ dilemma:

These days, policymakers are frightened by two scenarios regarding the spread of the coronavirus: First, the spread of the virus within ultra-Orthodox towns, and second--the upcoming holidays - Passover (and then the Ramadan), when families traditionally meet. One option to address this issue is to isolate the main towns, in which the coronavirus had spread- ultra-Orthodox towns and ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods. This option is encountering significant political resistance - especially from within the community, and by the mayors of these cities. The second option is to impose a lockdown the entire country.

Looking towards the future:

The ultra-Orthodox are a conservative community, and the trust in spiritual leaders is a fundamental belief, very resistant to change. As a rule, in a democracy -- when a leader fails in handling a situation- he or she resigns, or is punished at the polls. . But the ultra-Orthodox community is more reminiscent of a monarchy—in that it doesn’t fire its leaders. .

Nevertheless, we are going to be seeing some changes within the community, some of them are as a direct result of the situation and the failures of its leadership:

1. Technology: Until the current crisis, only 50% of the community used the internet, some of them rarely, or only at work. Updated data, published today, indicate that in one month, internet use rose to 60% of the population. In addition, there was an increase of 200%-600% in new connections to the internet in March, as compared to February. Almost half of the consumers report that they now view news from mainstream sources and not just from ultra-Orthodox sites, and this may herald additional change.

2. Obedience to rabbis: I believe that the value of respecting and obeying rabbis will continue to be a central norm, but more among the ultra-Orthodox will decide for themselves when it comes to personal matters such as studying in colleges or universities, or use of the internet. There is also a possibility that the attitude to the State will change. This is a very sensitive issue, given that at the present time, while the community understands that the authorities are trying to treat them as well as possible, it nevertheless feels persecuted by the majority. The question is whether the trend of the future will be towards the community’s assuming greater responsibility as citizens and will share the burden with the majority –for example, in service in the IDF- or will new tensions arise. I believe that we will be seeing greater change in the first direction--towards a stronger connection between the ultra-Orthodox community and the general Israeli public. 

3. The Economy and the labor market:

More than 40% of the ultra-orthodox community lives below the poverty line. Israel’s economic crisis will constrain the state’s capacity to provide financial support to the community. The crisis in the U.S will drastically reduce philanthropic support to Yeshivot. Many men will have no choice but to go out to work, but will be entering the labor market as unskilled workers. In a situation of high rates of unemployment their chances of getting a job are not very good. The government will be forced to provide vocational training for ultra-Orthodox men, and prepare them for entry to the labor market. The current situation may also generate change in attitudes towards “secular” studies (math, English, etc.) which are part of the core curriculum in Israeli schools.

As we see, the extraordinary events we are experiencing, threaten the very foundations of the ultra-orthodox way of life. It’s too early to say what exactly will change—but it is safe to say, that much will.