“Do you know why God created mosquitos?” – This question was the answer of an ultra-Orthodox mother of seven daughters and seven sons to my question about what she has to say about the Covid-19 pandemic. “To show man his limits through a tiny, weak creature”, she answers her own question. “It’s the same with the corona virus, which is invisible to our eyes.”
There is a lot of talk at the moment about the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are called “Charedim” in Hebrew. The whole country is in the third lockdown. No more than five people may gather indoors, and no more than ten outdoors. Nevertheless, Israeli police once again had to disperse hundreds of ultra-Orthodox wedding guests in front of the bride and groom.
Special arrangements for the ultra-Orthodox?
There is public criticism that the police are much busier in secular society and hand out many more fines among non-religious people than in ultra-Orthodox society. At the same time, it is the ultra-Orthodox who circumvent and transgress Corona regulations much more.
For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, police went to great lengths to track a lone surfer on the sea off Tel Aviv. At the same time, 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading authorities in the ultra-Orthodox world, had instructed his students not to get tested for Corona.
When the Corona commissioner for ultra-Orthodox Jews, retired Major General Ronny Ruma, was asked if this leniency was for political reasons, he answered yes without hesitation. Especially now, when elections are once again on the horizon, political considerations would play a major role.
Military and intelligence against the virus
Why does a retired major general become a Corona commissioner? – That’s how it is in Israel. At the express request of Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his ministry is to work more closely with the Ministry of Health on this issue. Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon is assisted by Brigadier General Rafi Milo as an advisor to combat the pandemic in East Jerusalem.
From the beginning, Israel’s internal intelligence agency “Shabak” has been involved in so-called epidemiological investigations. Cell phones can be used to track where people, infected with Corona, have been and what other people they may have come into contact with. These people were then notified and sent into quarantine as a precaution.
Violated privacy and public chaos
Two problems arose with this procedure. First, a legal problem, because such emergency measures had not been voted on in the Knesset, and thus there was an invasion of privacy. It was only through a court case brought by the Association for the Protection of Civil Rights that the conditions for such emergency measures were then defined.
The second problem was of a practical nature. Because the process caused many errors, affected individuals complained to the Ministry of Health about the false alarm. As a result, the lines there were overloaded and a big mess was created.
So, in addition to the Ministry of Health and medical professionals, the invisible virus in Israel is also being fought by retired generals and the Shabak. All flights to and from Israel were radically reduced. Only Israeli citizens or people with a special permit are allowed to enter the country.
Politicians must apologize
Then, at the time of the Passover, of all things, came the first, very severe lockdown. Passover is usually a big family celebration. Now only grocery shopping and the very most necessary errands were allowed. Otherwise, no one was allowed to move more than 100 meters from his place of residence. Even jogging was no longer allowed. Playgrounds, sports fields and beaches were closed and excursions into nature were prohibited.
No one was allowed to visit their family during the festival. Grandparents were separated from their grandchildren. Only parents living in divorce were allowed to hand over their joint children to each other.
After the festival, it was then revealed in the media which politicians imposed heavy burdens on the population, but were themselves unwilling to abide by their own regulations. President Reuven Rivlin, for example, being a widower himself, had to apologize publicly for celebrating the holiday with his daughter’s family.
Family celebrations in lockdown
The next lockdown during the great festivals, New Year, the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Tabernacles, was therefore already somewhat more graciously designed. People were allowed to move in the fresh air within 500 meters from the place of residence. Jogging and sports activities of individuals were allowed without restrictions. Within the permitted radius, children could spend time in the park or on a playground.
Since Israel’s Jewish population does not celebrate Christmas, the third lockdown began just before New Year’s Eve. Indeed, secular Israelis like to celebrate the end of the so-called “civil year” with parties and “the Russians” have imported “Novy God” to Israel, some kind of communist Christmas substitute. These kinds of gatherings were to be avoided, especially as the number of newly infected people increased again around the turn of the year.
New virus mutations in Israel
Since air traffic had been resumed in the meantime, many Israelis had fled abroad before the lockdowns, only to bring back new mutations of the virus from there, among other things. Due to this situation, Israel decided to immediately quarantine all entrants in so-called Corona hostels. An exception was made only with people over 70, pregnant women, children and people with a medical certificate. These measures then led in part to violent confrontations.
For Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews, it is essential to gather for communal prayer and Scripture reading. Fewer than ten men cannot conduct a valid worship service together. The option of Christian congregations to gather via the Internet and worship together is not available to Orthodox Jews, as it is not permitted to operate electrical devices on Shabbat.
Inventiveness to assemble as requested
That is why Orthodox people “gathered” within shouting distance on their balconies and terraces. Alternative synagogues were set up in front of private homes. In the synagogues themselves, prayers were said and sung at the prescribed intervals. Prayer desks were separated from each other by plastic sheets, creating individual prayer cells, but connected within shouting and sight. Similarly, religious education continued at Orthodox schools and seminaries.
Undeniably, the authority of rabbis in Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox circles exceeds the government’s authority to issue directives. Therefore, government officials must coordinate with rabbis to guide “their flocks” in a particular direction.
And the Ultras are not completely inflexible either. Thus, during the third lockdown, Rabbi Kanievsky agreed to close Orthodox schools for a time. The 93-year-old was himself afflicted with Covid-19, but has since recovered with the help of his own people’s care. Many ultra-Orthodox do not have access to the Internet. New regulations must be announced by loudspeaker in their residential areas.
Orthodox for vaccinations
Currently, leading rabbis appear to be in favor of vaccination against Covid-19. Along with the prime minister, the minister of health and the chief of staff, former chief rabbi and Holocaust survivor Israel Meir Lau was one of the first to be vaccinated.
Rabbi Lau let it be known: “With G-d’s help, after months of a raging Corona virus, we have a vaccine that can help contain it. Anyone who can be vaccinated on a doctor’s orders should do so. Covid-19 is a detectable hazard that is greater than potential side effects… We pray and hope that the Lord will stop this pandemic and we can return to normal life soon.”
Longing for normality
By the beginning of the second half of January, more than two million Israelis had been vaccinated. Why? Israelis are generally courageous and not afraid of innovation. On the contrary, many innovations worldwide come precisely from Israel. Then one or the other listens to his rabbi. And many are simply fed up with the lockdowns and restrictions. Hopes are high for a return to a normal life.
Israel is a special country. Each list of Corona restrictions always includes how many people may gather indoors for prayer and how many may gather outdoors. Until a few days ago, the weather also played along. That is why the singing of praying Jews accompanied us on holidays throughout the pandemic.