Particularly angry was Ronni Gamzu, the combative former hospital administrator who was named the government’s “Corona Tsar” last month. Gamzu has argued with religious leaders about his efforts to target lockdown neighborhoods with high infection rates, block an annual pilgrimage to the grave of a revered Hasidic rabbi in Ukraine, and force virus tests on thousands of foreign students who recently came to attend religious events are schools or yeshivas.
Gamzu said last week that 80 percent of recent coronavirus cases have occurred in ultra-Orthodox areas. The government expects targeted restrictions to be put in place on Monday in 1
Tensions have shaken Israel’s coronavirus cabinet, the government agency that sets policy. On Friday, the day after Israel registered 3,141 new cases – the largest per capita per day increase in any country since the pandemic began – cabinet discussions over proposed lockdowns during the Jewish Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays continued over the course of this Month heated.
“You want a ban during the High Holidays because you don’t want people to pray,” the Minister for Housing, Yaakov Litzman, told Gamzu, according to Israeli media reports. “We won’t let that happen.”
Gamzu says his recommendations are data-driven, apply equally to all areas of Israeli society, and are intended to prevent the need for another nationwide lockdown. He has not hesitated to resort to those looking to avoid restrictions, including some business owners and school officials whom he has accused of hindering the country’s recovery.
“Stop the madness,” he said in an emotional appeal to the public on Thursday. “All of Israel is at war.”
In arguments similar to those of some church leaders in the United States, a senior ultra-Orthodox rabbi, Chaim Kanievsky, accused Gamzu of trying to discourage yeshiva scholars from studying religion even if secular Israelis were allowed to go to beaches and restaurants.
Hundreds of boarders, including many teenagers from the United States, have tested positive in the past few weeks, although most have no symptoms. The northern Israeli city of Karmiel reported last week that nearly half of the 400 students at a local yeshiva had tested positive.
However, Kanievsky advised schools not to test even if the students showed symptoms as it would disrupt their studies.
Gambu’s blunt reply – “Rabbi Kanievsky’s announcement endangers the ultra-Orthodox public” – sparked outrage when an ultra-Orthodox newspaper called for Gambu’s resignation because of his “despicable defiance of the authority of the Torah.”
Gamzu faced yet another backlash when he urged Ukrainian officials to deny ultra-Orthodox Israelis the annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage to the Ukrainian city of Uman. The celebrations, which were attended by a crowd of dancing men, had super-spreader potential, he warned. Officials in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, announced the ban this week, but not before Ukrainian media reported that locals in Uman had attacked Jewish travelers who had already arrived.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders were angry with Gamzu, and several Israeli officials accused him of “fueling” anti-Semitism, according to Netanyahu’s Likud Party MP Miki Zohar.
Gamzu declined to comment on this article.
The arguments between religious and secular camps are not new. Ultra-Orthodox Jews – or Haredim, as they are called in Hebrew – live in island communities and place more value on their religious practices than on civil obligations. For example, many do not celebrate patriotic holidays in Israel and most do not serve in the military, a near universal requirement for other Jewish Israelis.
Health experts say the ultra-Orthodox are particularly susceptible to the spread of infection because they typically have large families, live in crowded neighborhoods, and routinely gather in large numbers for services and funerals.
But religious leaders began complying after seeing Covid-19 deaths spiraling elsewhere, including Hasidic communities in the United States.
“They were shocked by the victims in New York among their own people and took it very seriously,” said Tamar El-Or, a professor of anthropology at Hebrew University who has studied Haredi culture.
Since the epidemic began, confirmed cases have topped 126,000 in a country of nearly 9 million people. According to health data, around 22 percent of infections were in ultra-Orthodox areas, compared to just 28 percent in Arab cities and neighborhoods. And the recent surge in infections that occurred after Israel eased its public health restrictions has hit the ultra-Orthodox even harder.
With the total death toll remaining relatively low – less than a thousand – and with hospitals so far able to cope with the volume of critically ill patients, many ultra-orthodox insist that they can continue doing what is important to them.
“There is disease, yes, but it’s not like we’re piling up bodies,” El-Or said of her demeanor. “It’s not that you want to go back to normal. It’s about where to draw the lines. “
Elimelech Lamdan, an ultra-Orthodox psychotherapist in the city of Givatayim, said his community was angry with the government dictates, largely because they view Gamzu as a secular Israeli who wants religious people to go away.
“In the eyes of many haredim, these rules are applied selectively. They’re a put-up job, ”said Lamdan, who found that he agreed with some but not all of the criticisms made against Gamzu. “Life should be ruled by the Torah and not by the consensus of the governing body.”