The pandemic is revealing Israel’s festering sore

There is a growing perception that the Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is not on board with anti-pandemic measures.

Israeli police try to control a crowd of mourners during the funeral of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, the latest in a string of clashes between security forces and ultra-Orthodox Jews violating a national coronavirus lockdown order, in the port city of Ashdod, Israel on October 5, 2020 [AP/Tsafrir Abayov]

Many Israeli politicians, chief among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, describe the campaign against the coronavirus as a “war”, a time when the Israeli-Jewish ethos dictates solidarity, setting aside internal divisions and getting in line behind the combatants. This has been the quintessential experience in all of Israel’s many wars – except against the coronavirus.

Not only has it not generated unity, it is pitting the Jewish Zionist majority, which looks to the state as the ultimate source of authority, against the ultra-Orthodox minority, which looks to clerics to interpret the authority of a higher power.

Nothing reflects this chasm better than a phone call several days ago in which veteran Knesset member Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party told Netanyahu in no uncertain terms that he and his constituents plan to respect the edict of their supreme spiritual leader, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, and send their children and youths back to school even as the health ministry ordered the continued closure of schools for fear of a spike in COVID-19 infections.

In a statement he issued, Gafni added that he was certain the “greatest [rabbinical authority] of his generation” would not lead his flock astray. Kanievski, 92, has contracted the virus himself and his muttered rulings instructing continued study and prayer despite the epidemic are blamed by some for the outbreak of the disease in ultra-Orthodox towns and neighbourhoods.

Rabbi Yissachar Dov Rokeach, spiritual leader of a Hassidic community of some 10,000, has gone even further, condemning the rabbis who instructed believers to follow official state instruction, saying these “rabbis want to curry favour with authorities”. Rokeach himself contracted COVID-19 in August, days after holding a wedding for his grandson with thousands in attendance, in violation of strict instructions on limiting public gatherings.

Thus, while most Israeli children are stuck at home taking classes on Zoom, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox children and youths, their teachers and parents headed back to schools starting October 19, free to spread the virus undisturbed. Television footage of children happily skipping into yeshivas (religious schools) has infuriated many. According to the health ministry, 34 percent of those infected with COVID-19 are members of the ultra-Orthodox community, which accounts for 12 percent of the population.

Why, then, has the government that bans the reopening of schools, stores, malls and restaurants and imposes harsh fines on violators, failed to enforce the law against the ultra-Orthodox leaders who preach in favour of such violations?

The answer lies in Israel’s Byzantine politics which makes the parties representing the ultra-Orthodox community essential to garnering the needed Knesset majority to form a government coalition. Political leaders mobilise ultra-Orthodox votes by courting rabbinical leaders and their political representatives, pledging handouts and favourable legislation, ignoring the fact that some of these rabbis do not recognise the values of democracy and equality. In ultra-Orthodox communities, women are banned from standing for election, religious law supersedes state law, civil marriage and same-sex marriage are taboo, and public transportation stops on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays.

The epidemic has challenged these strange rules of the game, which most Israelis have come to accept as inevitable. Residents of the suburban Tel Aviv town of Ramat Gan, which adheres to the law of the state, for example, are growing increasingly concerned about the large outbreak in the adjacent ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak, which does not. They have gone as far as asking their mayor to build a “separation wall” along the municipal borders between the two communities.

By now, Israelis are fatalistically expecting a third lockdown down the road, assuming that the sharp decline in the number of COVID-19 cases achieved by the second lockdown in recent days will not last.

A study conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute indicates that a large majority of Arab Israelis (69 percent) and a majority among the non-ultra-Orthodox Jewish public (53 percent) believe most ultra-Orthodox violated the lockdown. On the other hand, only one percent of those who define themselves as ultra-Orthodox think that most of their community violated lockdown regulations. These perceptions feed further tensions in Israeli society.

In fact, the coronavirus epidemic has exposed a festering sore threatening Israeli Jewish society more than any other conflict, including the Arab-Israeli one. Prospects of bridging the divide between those who espouse the sovereignty of the Lord and those who believe in the sovereignty of the people is akin to the prospects of blending oil and water.

Instead of silencing the deafening alarms and accepting this distorted reality, Israelis must learn a lesson from the coronavirus crisis and realise that a democratic state cannot exist without equality before the law. Israel has proven it knows how to defeat external enemies, but as the Prophet Isaiah warned, “your destroyers and those who made you waste shall go forth from you”.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.