Israeli police talk to a driver at a checkpoint in Bnei Brak, a city near Tel Aviv with a largely ultra-Orthodox population, on March 31, 2020. Photo by Jack Guez / AFP

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities have found themselves at the epicenter of the country’s Covid-19 outbreak, with cases surging over 9,000 nationwide as of Tuesday.

The dire situation has cast a glare on Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a key ultra-Orthodox figure in Netanyahu’s cabinet, who had been resisting health restrictions on the community as recently as the past two weeks.

According to leaked cabinet meeting minutes from late March, the minister had tried to convince the government to keep synagogues open, despite the need for a general quarantine.

“As long as you have less than 10 people and keep more than 2 meters apart, I don’t see a need to change the instructions,” he argued.

The 72-year-old minister kept religious institutions such as places of learning open, even after the government put them on lockdown, a Health Ministry official told Asia Times on condition of anonymity.

Many Israelis were outraged by allegations that Litzman himself flagrantly and regularly violated the guidelines issued by his own ministry to participate in group prayers.

Witnesses reportedly saw him praying with a group, both at the residence of a member of his religious community and in a synagogue near his home.

Litzman is now in home isolation after testing positive for the virus, along with his wife.

Aside from placing members of his community at risk, Litzman’s actions forced key members of the government and heads of relevant bureaucratic arms into quarantine, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Individuals in quarantine are now running the Covid-19 response.

Lock down who?

The news of Litzman’s diagnosis has exacerbated tense relations between the ultra-Orthodox Haredis and Israel’s secular to moderately-religious majority.

The divide is also seen in the geographic distribution of Covid-19.

The ultra-Orthodox community has been infected at far greater rates than the general population. The two cities with the largest population of Haredi Jews, Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, are also the two hardest hit by the virus.

When Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party said a nationwide lockdown could be necessary, former Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman criticized the idea as “unreasonable and designed to placate the Haredi street.”

Liberman, whose Yisreal Beitenu party opposes military exemptions for the ultra-Orthodox, said only areas heavily hit by the virus should be placed under total lockdown. Other areas, he argued, should be allowed more lenient forms of “social distancing.”

The case of Bnei Brak is particularly striking, as it is not a particularly large city (with a population of less than 200,000), but its rate of per capita infection is almost eight times higher than Tel Aviv. Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims

One of the reasons for the outbreak Bnei Brak and in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem is the population density. The former is easily the most crowded city in the country, and by some estimates, one of the most crowded cities in the world.

The second reason is touchier and has political implications.

Many sects in the Haredi community espouse disdain for the State of Israel and the ideology on which it is based. This leads certain elements in society to ignore the directives of the mostly secular government.

This tendency in Haredi society has long centered on the unwillingness of most of its members to enlist in the army. However, it has also been expressed in assaults on members of the security services and police.

Recently, a video of an ultra-Orthodox boy purposefully coughing on Israeli police officers and calling them Nazis went viral.

Outbreak highlights divisions

Many secular Israelis resent these attitudes, not least because the political representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community are a constant fixture in Israeli governing coalitions.

Litzman is a product of the ultra-Orthodox Ger dynasty and head of the Agudat Yisrael party, a permanent fixture in Netanyahu’s government for years.

In recent years the ultra-Orthodox have created a strong alliance with Netanyahu, backing him and protecting him from political and legal challenges alike. In exchange, they have received more than their fair share of government funding for their communities.

The situation whereby Haredi communities are disproportionately rewarded from the state treasury without serving the more general community has engendered resentment among secular and national-religious Jews.

Several political parties have championed the cause of secular resistance to what they consider to be exaggerated ultra-Orthodox influence. These include two of the largest parties currently in the opposition, Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beitenu.

Litzman in limelight

This is not the first time Litzman has been suspected of putting the needs of his community ahead of the welfare of the public.

In August the police recommended that he stand trial for bribery and for aiding an alleged pedophile. The suspect is Ger sect member, charged with 74 counts of child sex abuse in Australia.

Litzman is suspected of pressuring employees in his office to falsify evidence to claim the suspect was psychologically unfit for extradition.

To critics, he has become a symbol of the willingness of the ultra-Orthodox community to avail itself of government resources, while disrespecting the larger society and its welfare.

“If Bibi does not fire Litzman from his post tonight, this government does not have the moral authority to manage the coronavirus crisis,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid in the wake of the allegations.

Despite all the criticism, Netanyahu has been unwilling to consider firing his unpopular health minister. The prime minister is currently negotiating the creation of a unity government with former rival Benny Gantz.

He is unlikely to be willing to alienate his loyal ultra-Orthodox partners and give Gantz leverage in negotiations. Blue and White demanded the health portfolio during negotiations, but were rebuffed by Netanyahu. A member of Blue and White admitted that they dropped the demand. They were granted the defense and justice ministries, which they valued more.

The health minister will most likely continue to lead the battle against Covid-19 in the coming months. If so, the morass of coalition politics has led to an absurd and harmful outcome. The task of maintaining public health will remain in the hands of an individual with scarce regard for its maintenance.

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