Ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel that spurn coronavirus regulations and disobey law enforcement officials need to be brought to heel and hit with a variety of sanctions, a Jewish religious leader says.
Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush, an Israel-based nonprofit organization promoting religious freedom and equality across denominational lines.
According to him, the response of some Haredi Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which several communities continue to disregard health directives, represents one of the most critical threats to the rule of law in the country.
“It’s a battle for the integrity of the State of Israel,” Regev says.
“To the extent that the law enforcement authorities do not enforce the law in these renegade communities that religiously, ideologically and theologically reject the legitimacy of the law and its right to enforce itself, we are going to be undermining, eroding and destroying the democratic fabric that is already stretched to an unprecedented thinness.”
In addition to police clamping down, Regev also believes that the government needs to implement sanctions on those who flout the laws, by withholding state funding and other civil privileges - such as driver’s licenses, passports and more.
“So long as our government depends on the Haredi parties, the likelihood of such policies being pursued is nil,” he says.
“And so long as it is nil, we are basically cutting off the branch that the whole country rests on. Ultimately, the politicians will realize that this is a dead end.”
Regev’s statement comes after Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, recently called on his followers to keep up their religious routine unchanged, despite the pandemic.
“We are now in a difficult time and hope to soon return to better times,” Rokeach told thousands of adherents after the Simchat Torah holiday.
“Everyone is coming with their own opinions and advice, and every rabbi acts as though they have the Torah in their pocket.”
In his speech, the Belz leader also criticized Health Ministry regulations that have led to the closure of synagogues and yeshivas. The Belz sect is one of Israel’s largest ultra-Orthodox communities and also has followers in England, the United States, Canada, Belgium and Australia, among other places.
“There are many rabbis who seek to appease the authorities’ and the authorities, in turn, want to appease them,” Rokeach said. “This can’t work. We need to continue the Torah life as we always have and God will help ensure that no harm will come.”
The Belz leader’s statements came as the Health Ministry revealed that a disproportionate number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis have contracted the novel coronavirus.
In recently released figures, the ministry reported that 25% of tests conducted in Haredi areas came back positive, in contrast to the nationwide rate of 7.4%. Furthermore, Haredim make up roughly 11% of Israel’s total population but accounted for around 40% of all new cases in recent weeks.
Reports of ultra-Orthodox communities flouting restrictions have sharpened the religious divide in Israel since the beginning of the pandemic, with many accusing these populations of willfully spreading the virus.
Police dispersed a number of illegal gatherings and prayer services over the High Holy Days, some of which broke out into violent altercations with officers. For their part, Haredi Israelis have argued that they have been unfairly singled out by both the authorities and the media.
The three main branches of Haredi Judaism are Sephardi, Litvishe or Yeshivish, and Hasidic.
According to Regev, who is also a longtime leader of the Reform Judaism movement in Israel, the Sephardi and Litvishe streams have for the most part followed government health guidelines during the pandemic. The problem of flouting rules mainly lies within the Hasidic sects.
“I think that it has to do with a sense that giving in to extreme restrictions upsets the foundation of religious life as it is celebrated in the Hasidic dynasties to the point that the threat is greater than the fear that some lives may be lost,” he said.
“All three groups [of Haredi sects] share the same anti-Zionist, anti-democratic approach, and therefore the law is [seen as] a suggestion,” he says. “That is a tremendous challenge.”
In its “2020 Israel Religion and State Index” report released last month, Hiddush reported that 65% of Israeli Jews self-identify as secular, 10% as ultra-Orthodox, 11% as Zionist Orthodox, and the remaining 14% as traditional-religious.
According to the survey, the vast majority of secular Israelis (89%) support separation of religion and state, while only 13% of Haredim feel the same way.
Sixty-four percent of those polled opposed any inclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition.
Many Haredim, Regev says, believe that the pandemic foreshadows the coming of the Messiah, while others have argued that it is a form of divine retribution intended to punish those who have desecrated the Sabbath.
“Many, if not most, of the Haredi leaders of all three sectors are describing the coronavirus as being God’s agent,” Regev says. “They differ in pointing to why God decided to send COVID-19 on to humanity and Jewish communities.”
But not all agree with Regev, arguing that the majority of Haredis are in fact respecting the rules.
Yehuda Eisikovits is head of the CIC (Chareidi Information Center), an outreach organization that normally conducts tours and lectures geared toward the secular public. Eisikovits is a member of the Litvishe ultra-Orthodox community in the central Israeli city of Elad.
“The Haredi public is made up of different groups with differing opinions, behaviors and outlooks,” he says. “What unites them all is that they all want to conduct their lives based on Jewish law; this is the central axis point for all Haredim.
“With regards to the coronavirus our community is very careful with everything,” Eisikovits said. “I don’t leave my house without wearing a mask and I only pray outdoors. Everything I do is according to the guidelines and laws that the state and the Health Ministry decided on.”
Nevertheless, Eisikovits admits that there are certain groups − most notably Hasidim − who remain in denial regarding how serious a threat COVID-19 represents. Those espousing this view do not believe that the virus is particularly dangerous and therefore see no need to alter their religious lifestyle.
“This is why you see many in these communities not wearing masks or practicing social distancing,” he says.
Despite the reports of mass gatherings and prayers not only within Israel’s Haredi sector but also abroad in places like New York, Eisikovits says that the vast majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews do in fact try to be careful in order to avoid contracting the virus.
“It’s possible to lead a religious life under existing Health Ministry regulations,” he says. “But I really hope that we will move past this period as soon as possible.”
Article written by Maya Margit. Published with permission from The Media Line