Thursday 12 March: then that the COVID epidemic – 19 is gaining ground in Israel, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu resolves to take the virus head on. It decrees the closure of public gathering places, farm schools and universities and imposes restrictions on social distancing targeting inter alia synagogues.
Three days later, an influential ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Kanievsky, called on members of his community to challenge these injunctions. Yeshivas, or religious schools, must remain open despite the epidemic.
“Giving up studying the Torah is more dangerous for the Jews than catching the coronavirus,” says the spiritual leader of Bnei Brak, one of the largest ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel.
The rabbi changed his mind two weeks later, saying that at the time of issuing this spiritual advice, he was not aware of the seriousness of the situation. But the damage was done.
Bnei Brak is today one of the main centers of spread of the coronavirus, which has claimed many victims.
Located about ten kilometers from Tel Aviv, this city is home to a population of 200 00 0 inhabitants piled on top of each other, and cut off from modern means of communication such as television, newspapers and the internet.
Information reaches them through the mouths of their rabbis. And when they tell them to go to the synagogue to pray, well, they go there.
It did not take long for the scourge of COVID – 19 falls on Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox communities.
The “haredim” (those who fear God) make up approximately 10% of the Israeli population. But represent 50% of the thousand confirmed infection cases up to 'now.
A study suggests that more than a third of the inhabitants of Bnei Brak may have been infected with the coronavirus.
As early as mid-March, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel quickly reacted by enjoining the believers not to go to the synagogue any more. But ultra-Orthodox political and religious leaders persisted in preaching collective prayer for two too long weeks.
It must be said that the example came from above: the Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox, broke the restrictions imposed by his own ministry! And consequently contracted COVID – 19, this which forced several Israeli leaders, including the Prime Minister, to quarantine themselves.
“By their silence, the ultraorthodox elites have betrayed and endangered their own community,” writes analyst Anshel Pfeffer in the daily newspaper Haaretz .
According to him, these elites cannot plead ignorance. “These personalities were fully aware of the gravity of the crisis and did not relay the message to the authoritative rabbis. “
Tensions are growing
Bnei Brak is not an enclave cut off from the rest of the country. It is part of the urban fabric of Greater Tel Aviv. As the number of infections increased, so did her neighbors. So much so that voices have begun to rise in the nearby town of Ramat Gan, calling for the construction of a protective wall at the edge of Bnei Brak. Unheard of between two Jewish communities in Israel!
These voices have been partially heard. In the face of resistance from the ultra-Orthodox, the Israeli authorities ended up isolating Bnei Brak by a fence and deploying a thousand soldiers there, both to prevent people from leaving and to ensure that the directives of social distancing were followed.
Relations between the secular majority of Israelis and their ultra-Orthodox compatriots are already tense. Demographically, the latter are weighing more and more and their religious requirements have an impact on the majority. Especially since ultra-religious parties are part of the government coalition …
These tensions have been exacerbated since the start of the epidemic. “The anger that the Haredim face in Israeli society is palpable and it is also understandable,” wrote journalist Igal Avidan in Times of Israel .
Because according to him, the contempt of the religious leaders of these communities for the medical directives of the authorities “undermined the collective efforts to counter the spread of the virus”.
The balance sheet is heavy: the 10 April, Israel counted 10 00 0 cases of infection and a hundred deaths. The sheer scale of the wave forced the government to impose a curfew on the occasion of the Jewish Passover holiday.
This crisis could also widen another divide, between the members of the various ultra-Orthodox communities and these leaders who led them to challenge anti-COVID policies.
A specialist in ultra-religious movements, Benny Brown, quoted in the Times of Israel , goes so far as to say that the weakness of ultra-Orthodox leadership, as well as the poverty which, in the wake of the crisis, will force several Haredim to go to work outside their community, could be the trigger for a profound transformation.
Ultimately, he argues, it could be the crack that will lead some of these communities to change.