Haredim and Coronavirus: Policy Recommendations for Exit from Second Lockdown

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IDI experts present analysis of recent behavior of the ultra-Orthodox sector and present recommendations for an exit strategy from the lockdown, to be applied in the coming weeks and months.

Flash 90

Now that the holiday season is behind us, it is clear that the coronavirus dealt a particularly devastating blow to the ultra-Orthodox community, and to its relations with Israeli society and the state, as well. The high level of contagion within the community and the blatant refusal among many to comply with the law, have aroused bitter criticism of the ultra-Orthodox. At the same time, the community felt that the law was being enforced selectively, and without any sensitivity to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox. This in turn, has severely shaken the community's confidence in law enforcement agencies and in the legal system. The holidays are past us, but the pandemic will be with us for many more months. In this brief document, we review the recent behavior of the ultra-Orthodox sector and present recommendations for an exit strategy specifically applicable to the ultra-Orthodox community, from the lockdown, to be applied in the coming weeks and months.

1. Background: The Behavior of the Ultra-Orthodox Community in Wave #2 of COVID-19 

Towards the end of the summer, the incidence of COVID-19 began to rise, with a notable impact on ultra-Orthodox cities and towns, and those with a large ultra-Orthodox population. The Health Ministry, in cooperation with the coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, drew up the “traffic light plan,” whose crux was the implementation of a differential policy, distinguishing among “red,” “yellow,” “orange,” and “green” cities (red having the highest number of COVID positive residence and green the lowest). In practice, this meant imposing a total lockdown on most ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods (along with a number of Arab localities), which were “red.”

The fierce opposition to the plan by ultra-Orthodox politicians at the local and national levels succeeded in torpedoing its implementation; the incidence of COVID-19 skyrocketed throughout Israel.. In response, the Government declared a partial lockdown before Rosh Hashanah, and a total lockdown before Yom Kippur. In both stages, public assemblies – whether inside buildings or outdoors – were subject to strict limits or totally banned, and all educational institutions were closed down

The lockdown and accompanying restrictions had particularly severe implications for observant Jews in Israel, including the ultra-Orthodox. The worst of these was the fact that it made it impossible to conduct the prayers, family meals, and events associated with these holidays in normal times, to the point of their almost total cancellation, alongside the suspension of classes in all schools.

The ultra-Orthodox reaction can be analyzed along two axes: by the specific group within the ultra-Orthodox community, and by location on the modern-conservative continuum. The Mizrahi—Sephardic sector came out with a clear statement in favor of compliance with the Health Ministry directives and with Government decisions. Most Hasidic groups totally rejected the statutory restrictions and Health Ministry regulations and tried to hold events—conducting what was almost "business as usual" , within the restrictions of law enforcement and canceling the public character of some events (such as barring those who are not members of the Hasidic community from the Simhat Beit Hashoevah celebrations on the intermediate days of Sukkot). The non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox groups generally took an intermediate position. With regard to individuals, they were stricter than the Hasidim about wearing masks and holding prayer services in the open air; but the suspension of yeshiva studies was a red line for this group on which no compromise could be considered. 

Another axis on which we can examine the degree of ultra-Orthodox compliance with the law and regulations, is the conservative-modern continuum. The conservatives are less likely to comply, whereas the more modern groups tend to take them seriously. The utter disdain for and blatant rejection of the legal restrictions stood out in several Hasidic courts, the Edah Haredit, and the “Jerusalem faction.” some even saw them as an edict of forced heresy 

The ultra-Orthodox education system, from preschools through post-secondary yeshivot, was another arena of conflict between the pandemic regulations and ultra-Orthodox communal life. At the start of the month of Elul (late August), a plan was drafted for the system’s return to normal operation. Some yeshivot accepted the plan and even applied it conscientiously. Others refused to sign on, and in effect returned to studies with no means of defense against infection. Even when a general lockdown was imposed and the entire education system shut down, many institutions associated with these ultra-Orthodox communities continued their normal operation in flagrant violation of the regulations.

2. Morbidity among the Ultra-Orthodox in Wave#2 of COVID-19

Here we will look at three parameters related to the spread of COVID-19 in the ultra-Orthodox sector in September and October: (1) the number of confirmed cases; (2) the percentage of positive test results; and (3) the mortality rate.

According to an analysis of Health Ministry data performed by Prof. Eran Segal and others, the rate of confirmed cases among the ultra-Orthodox in October is five times greater than that among all other Jews, and seven times greater than that among Israeli Arabs. In other words, confirmed cases among the ultra-Orthodox account for 50% of all confirmed cases in the country, even though the ultra-Orthodox constitute only 12.5% of the population.

As of October 10th, the rate of positive coronavirus tests among the ultra-Orthodox exceeded 20%, as compared with about 7% among all other Jews and among Arabs. The lockdown led to a drastic decline in the percentage of positive results among Arabs. Among non–ultra-Orthodox Jews, the rate stabilized and then began to fall. By contrast, among the ultra-Orthodox sector, the rate of positive results rose during the first two weeks of the lockdown (Yom Kippur and Sukkot) and did not show a decline until the past week.

The death rate per thousand population in the ultra-Orthodox sector is roughly half that of other Jews and of the country as a whole. However, given the fact that those aged 65 and over account for only 3% of the ultra-Orthodox population as opposed to 15% of all Jews, mortality among the ultra-Orthodox is in effect – 2.5 times greater than among non–ultra-Orthodox Jews.

3. The Underlying Causes of the High Rates of COVID-19 among the Ultra-Orthodox 

The rampant flaunting of the law and regulations by the ultra-Orthodox stems chiefly from their distrust of the authorities, the low level of enforcement by the police, priorities that elevate religious tradition and community life above public health considerations, and the living conditions of the ultra-Orthodox.

A. Lack of Trust in the Authorities and Experts

1. Attitudes towards the Health Ministry and the Pandemic Regulations

Large portions of the ultra-Orthodox community and their leadership have come to the conclusion that the risk posed by the virus is not as severe as claimed by the experts and professionals. This stems from their skepticism about the authorities but also from their dismissal of scientific and medical knowledge. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel is among the youngest communities in the world, has intensified this feeling, especially among the younger generation, that “It won't happen to me," and encouraged them to ignore the rules.

2. Attitudes towards the Israel Police

The general Israeli public is certain that enforcement of the regulations is much less stringent among the ultra-Orthodox than in other population groups. However, among the ultra-Orthodox, the feeling is precisely the opposite. The print and electronic ultra-Orthodox media have emphasized all along that enforcement against the ultra-Orthodox has been selective, at their expense. For example, banner headline appeared about incidents in which the police used violence against the ultra-Orthodox, while on the beaches and during the demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s official residence on Balfour Street in Jerusalem, the regulations were being violated, with no intervention by the police. However, analysis of data since the start of the present lockdown indicates that the percentage of citations issued by the police for public prayers in and around Jerusalem, in contravention of the guidelines, is far lower that issued for other violations of the lockdown.

3. Attitudes towards Government and Knesset Decisions 

Like Israelis in general, in recent months the ultra-Orthodox have witnessed the politicization of the management of the pandemic. Pressure groups, including ultra-Orthodox leadership, have been able to influence decisions in many areas. As a result, when decisions were taken that ran contrary to ultra-Orthodox sentiment, the community was skeptical that the these decisions were indeed aimed at preventing contagion, and suspected that they were in fact motivated by political interests of one sort or another.

B. Failure of the Police to Enforce the Law

The blatant noncompliance with the lockdown and pandemic regulations by specific groups within the ultra-Orthodox sector, was notoriously met with an almost total lack of police enforcement of the regulations. Whereas the police came down hard on other sectors, including in political protests that deviated from the regulations, enforcement against the ultra-Orthodox has been spotty, and focused on the streets, rather than on crowded public events in closed spaces, despite the fact that the chances for spreading the virus are much greater in the latter case. Despite their knowledge that thousands were attending services crowded into one synagogue and other mass gatherings, the police took no steps to prevent or bring them to a halt.. According to several published reports, the police even gave tacit advance approval to some of these events, on condition that they not be photographed, so as to avoid embarrassment to the police.

C. Willingness to Sacrifice Human Lives in Order to Continue Routine Religious Activities

Even though they understood the peril posed by the pandemic, many rabbis and Hasidic leaders preferred to continue routine religious activities on the holidays, even at the risk of human lives. On the scale of values guiding their communities, adherence to the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle—certainly on holidays, with public prayers and rabbis' large-scale receptions of their followers—outweigh every other consideration. The same applies to Torah study.

D. Responsibility for the Outside World

Even though most ultra-Orthodox leaders understand that the battle against the coronavirus must be waged by the entire Israeli public, they have focused on their responsibility to their followers’ religious way of life. As a result, they have been willing to forgo any responsibility for other Israelis and, indirectly, to pay a heavy price in morbidity and mortality associated with that decision.

E. Living Conditions of the Ultra-Orthodox

Most of the ultra-Orthodox live in extremely crowded conditions. The average number of persons per room among ultra-Orthodox families is almost twice that among other Jewish families (1.41 and 0.79 persons per room, respectively). In addition, the penetration of technology into the ultra-Orthodox sector lags far behind that among other Israeli Jews. It is much more difficult for a family that has no computer or internet connection to comply with the pandemic restrictions. Even those families that are connected to the internet, only rarely have a device for every child. And so, the implications of the lockdown of the education system, are particularly severe. 

4. Policy Recommendations 

To ensure a safe exit from the lockdown and prevent a new rise in morbidity among the ultra-Orthodox, there must be a clear exit strategy in place. This strategy should be based on three principles: recognition of the community's lifestyle and its social and religious needs; enforcement focusing on public gatherings and events that pose a high health risk; and cooperation with community leadership and local authorities, in formulating and marketing the policy. Such an approach could restore trust in the Israeli authorities on the one hand, and lead to greater compliance with the restrictions essential for lowering the rate of contagion in the ultra-Orthodox sector, on the other . The ideas proposed below are intended to help policymakers and the ultra-Orthodox sector maintain routine community life to the extent possible, while lowering the spread of contagion in concentrations of the ultra-Orthodox population.

A. Increasing Trust

1. Establishing an "ultra-Orthodox coronavirus cabinet" to work in tandem with the Government coronavirus cabinet, the coronavirus czar, and the Health Ministry. Its membership will be comprised of the leadership of ultra-Orthodox local authorities and others who are well-versed in the sector’s needs (religious, medical, economic, and welfare).

2. Transferring responsibility for reducing morbidity among the ultra-Orthodox to the sector’s own authority figures: mayors and community leaders, who are very close to the ultra-Orthodox "man on the street" and can mediate and translate messages in both directions, between the community and the authorities and professional medical agencies. They will be able to identify and provide a rapid or even immediate response to the vital needs of ultra-Orthodox localities with a more nuanced differentiation among specific groups in the ultra-Orthodox sector, than can be implemented by the central government. Because the main component of the exit strategy is a partial lockdown that would remain in effect for “red cities,” it will be necessary to devise the economic support and social services they will receive, including by addressing their myriad religious and social needs during the partial lockdown. 

3. Strengthening the interfaces, working relations, and public-education units that work with ultra-Orthodox communities, based on the personnel of the IDF Home Front Command (community relations officers) assigned to ultra-Orthodox population centers. Over the past six months, these men and women have accumulated vast experience and understanding of how to convey information and provide logistic assistance to ultra-Orthodox localities. It is strongly recommended that an attempt be made to draw on these units and learn lessons from past and current successes, including with regard to ensuring strict compliance with the plan for studies in the yeshivot.

B. Focus of Enforcement

4. The Israel Police should concentrate on enforcement of regulations primarily in organized violations of the lockdown in the ultra-Orthodox sector. Instead of issuing citations to pedestrians for not wearing a mask, most of its efforts should be directed to shutting down educational institutions and breaking up large public events that pose a grave threat of spreading the virus. Most of the ultra-Orthodox will understand and cooperate with the clear logic of this policy, (if only because they have no choice), and will not see it as a disproportionate persecution of the sector, in contrast with the current perception of enforcement.

5. Cutting back the subsidies to institutions that violated the law. Because of the grave situation and mass lawlessness among entire ultra-Orthodox communities and institutions, regulations should be enacted requiring the State to suspend or drastically reduce the allocations to ultra-Orthodox communities and institutions flagrantly violating public health regulations.. These economic sanctions must be imposed on all major educational institutions in the ultra-Orthodox sector—elementary schools for boys (Talmudei Torah), Yeshivot and Kollels at all levels, seminaries for young women, study halls for adult men, and more—that have systematically and continually violated of the government's rules aimed at preventing the spread of the pandemic. At the same time, hand, budgets should be allocated to enable compliance with the regulations. 

C. Informing the Public Discourse

6. A comprehensive and culturally -sensitive public education campaign: In light of the relatively low mortality rate in the sector (because of its age profile), many of the ultra-Orthodox are unaware of the dangers and challenges that the pandemic poses on both the individual and public levels. Consequently, the nature and level of understanding of the gravity of the pandemic must be investigated among the ultra-Orthodox, including their various streams and communities, and determine how this vital knowledge can be conveyed to them in terms they will understand. Doing so means using ultra-Orthodox “go-betweens" ” such as ultra-Orthodox medical personnel and EMTs (as has been done recently by Keren Kemach), as well as information campaigns based on the concepts and rules of conduct that are an integral part of the religious way of life.

Taken together, these means could take the edge off the troubling and highly undesirable friction between the sectors of the Israeli population in these difficult times, restore the severely damaged trust between the ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis, and above all—curb the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus throughout Israel and in ultra-Orthodox communities in particular.