A day of reckoning for ultra-Orthodox leaders?

The COVID mortality rate of ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 65+ is four times that of the general Jewish population. Will this staggering statistic to an internal self-reckoning among the Haredi community and its leaders? A special Shomrim analysis

The COVID mortality rate of ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 65+ is four times that of the general Jewish population. Will this staggering statistic to an internal self-reckoning among the Haredi community and its leaders? A special Shomrim analysis

The COVID mortality rate of ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 65+ is four times that of the general Jewish population. Will this staggering statistic to an internal self-reckoning among the Haredi community and its leaders? A special Shomrim analysis

Doron Avigad

Thousands attend a funeral in Jerusalem in the days of the third lockdown, January 2021. Photo: Reuters

March 4, 2021

Summary

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ince the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis a year ago, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has played a starring role in the local media’s coverage of the pandemic and its consequences. The high morbidity rate among ultra-Orthodox Jews, coupled with widespread violations of lockdown regulations, has led to public scrutiny and a great deal of outrage. For their part, leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have met fire with fire, charging that the coverage has been biased, that branding the ultra-Orthodox as spreaders of the disease is tantamount to antisemitism, and that the rules and regulations imposed fail to adequately consider their lifestyle and cultural habits. Ultra-Orthodox politicians, who called after the first lockdown for a profound self-reckoning among the community, fell silent or were silenced. With Israel’s fourth election in two years just a few weeks away, it’s hard to imagine any of them making similar comments today.

Throughout this period, one of the major questions that remain unanswered is: Did the widespread violations of the lockdowns exact a price also in terms of human lives, or did the ultra-Orthodox community miraculously manage to defy death? The answer is significant, of course, from a scientific perspective, but it is most interesting in terms of what it tells us about the internal ultra-Orthodox context itself. Were ultra-Orthodox leaders right to support the opening of educational institutions, staging of religious ceremonies and mass prayers – in violation of the lockdown restrictions – or should that community be demanding a profound self-reckoning from its rabbis and politicians?

A comprehensive review conducted by Shomrim yields an unequivocal answer. While a cursory glance at the figures may seem to indicate that the ultra-Orthodox mortality rate has been no different from the rate among the general population, a more in-depth analysis reveals a chilling picture: Elderly members of the ultra-Orthodox community have fallen victim to COVID-19 on a scale that far outstrips the rest of the population.

A comparison of the age groups in which the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths have been recorded – 65 and over – shows that the mortality rate among the ultra-Orthodox has been four times higher than the rate among the secular population. When translated into actual numbers, the figures are horrifying: According to Shomrim’s analysis, over the past year, one in every 73 ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 65 and over died as a result of COVID-19, or more than 1.3 percent of the age group as a whole. Among the Jewish population in general, the mortality rate was one in 373, or 0.27 percent of the age group as a whole. In the Arab sector, in which the regulations were also laxly heeded, the mortality rate in the age group in question stood at one in 113, or 0.88 percent of the age group in total.

The official figures from the Health Ministry are slightly lower but do not significantly alter the scale of the carnage, showing a 1.2 percent mortality rate among ultra-Orthodox individuals aged 65 and over.

A comparison of the age groups in which the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths have been recorded – 65 and over – shows that the mortality rate among the ultra-Orthodox has been four times higher than the rate among the secular population. When translated into actual numbers, the figures are horrifying: One in every 73 ultra-Orthodox Israelis aged 65 and over died as a result of COVID-19

Thousands attend a funeral in Jerusalem in the days of the third lockdown, January 2021. Photo: Reuters

A study of the issue conducted at the Weizmann Institute of Science by Prof. Eran Segal, one of Israel’s leading COVID-19 analysts, reveals similar findings. Segal analyzed a wider age group (and hence, perhaps, the differences in the findings), 60 and over, and found that one in every 100 ultra-Orthodox individuals in this age group died from COVID-19, compared with one in 350 among the Jewish sector in total, and one in 140 in the Arab sector.

The bare facts and figures

According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox sector at the end of 2020 totaled 1.175 million individuals, or 12.6 percent of the population. The natural growth rate of the ultra-Orthodox sector is significantly higher than that of the general population in Israel – 4.2 percent since 2009, as opposed to 1.9 percent among the population as a whole, and 1.4 percent among the total Jewish population. If these growth trends continue, the ultra-Orthodox population will double in size every 16 years, as opposed to every 37 or 50 years when it comes to the general population and the Jewish population respectively.

This distinct demographic picture has become a significant factor during the COVID-19 crisis; large ultra-Orthodox families crammed into densely-populated neighborhoods and crowded apartments, for example, have led to higher morbidity rates. But even more significant was the fact that the ultra-Orthodox sector is also the youngest sector in Israel, which translated into particularly low mortality rates, especially in the “new” ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that are home, naturally, to large numbers of young couples and very few elderly residents.

And herein, too, lays the difficulty in analyzing the mortality rate in the ultra-Orthodox sector. It’s safe to assume that in a predominantly and distinctly ultra-Orthodox city like Bnei Brak, most of the fatalities were ultra-Orthodox individuals. In the “new” ultra-Orthodox cities such as Elad or Modi’in Illit, with their young populations, mortality rates were very low or even zero – for example, 23,000 infected individuals and “only” 18 deaths in Modi’in Illit. But how does one gauge mixed cities with significant ultra-Orthodox populations like Safed, Netivot, Ashdod, Netanya, Petah Tikva and, of course, Jerusalem?  The latter, by the way, is particularly significant, with no fewer than 729 of Israel’s 5,113 fatalities (correct as of February 7) recorded in the city.

To analyze these numbers, Shomrim examined the mortality rates in Jerusalem’s various neighborhoods based on data provided by Eldad Sitbon (Little Moiz on Twitter), who has been monitoring the issue and publishing figures since the outbreak of the pandemic. It should be stressed, however, that due to the lack of data on the breakdown of the population groups in the neighborhoods themselves, the capital’s mixed neighborhoods (like in other cities) were counted as completely secular; the calculation according to neighborhoods, therefore, brings the ultra-Orthodox mortality rate down somewhat. Based on this calculation, (and up until February 2, as aforementioned), 255 ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem residents died from COVID-19. Fatalities in Bnei Brak numbered 192, and a further 167 ultra-Orthodox individuals died in all of Israel’s remaining cities (according to Sitbon’s figures, which are based on data released by the Health Ministry). According to these figures, the number of ultra-Orthodox individuals who have died from COVID-19 totals 614.

The 65+ age group in the ultra-Orthodox sector is very small, numbering just 39,000 individuals, as opposed to around 1.1 million in the rest of the population. This small group paid the full and heavy price of the COVID-19 morbidity rates in the ultra-Orthodox sector

A Demonstration in Jerusalem Mea Shearim, October 2020. Photo: Reuters

This figure, which represents about 12 percent of all deaths in Israel, is similar to the total percentage of the ultra-Orthodox in the general population; but as stated, it is far cry from the reality on the ground itself. The vast majority of COVID-19 deaths – 87 percent – have been recorded in the 65+ age group. If the age threshold is lowered to 60, the number of deaths jumps to more than 93 percent. And here, precisely, lays the catch surrounding the number of ultra-Orthodox fatalities: The 65+ age group in the ultra-Orthodox sector is very small, numbering just 39,000 individuals, as opposed to around 1.1 million in the rest of the population. This small group paid the full and heavy price of the COVID-19 morbidity rates in the ultra-Orthodox sector.

Shomrim approached the Health Ministry and asked for the data in its possession. According to the ministry’s figures, 550 ultra-Orthodox individuals have succumbed to COVID-19 – 64 fewer than the number obtained by Shomrim. Based on this figure, about 1.2 percent of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens aged 65 and over died over the past year from COVID-19 – a slightly lower percentage that does little, if anything at all, to alter the picture.

“Our leaders have lost the plot”

The huge number of fatalities among the 65+ age group in a community that usually shows a great deal of respect for its elderly raises many questions, with the first of them being: Are the ultra-Orthodox in general, and their leadership in particular, aware of the magnitude of the carnage, and could some of them, and the youth in particular, be unaware of the consequences of the pandemic?

“Sadly, they just don’t get it,” says Dudi Zilberschlag, a veteran ultra-Orthodox publicist and activist. “For years, I’ve considered myself as someone with a good reading of the ultra-Orthodox map, but this time around, I genuinely can’t figure out the reason for the lack of fear of COVID-19. The pandemic has led to a crack in many ultra-Orthodox values, and this may be one of the values that have been sacrificed on the altar.”

Zilberschlag stresses that most members of the ultra-Orthodox sector adhere to the regulations and guidelines, “even more so than the secular population,” but offers an additional explanation for the ongoing and widespread violations. “Everyone in the country has an ideal,” he says. “The protesters on Balfour Street, for example, are willing to lay down their lives to oust whoever they wish to oust, for the sake of democracy. For the national religious, it’s the settlement of children in terror-stricken areas, and they are willing to lay down their lives for the sake of the Land of Israel. For the ultra-Orthodox public, the ideal is education. For the secular, with all due respect, education doesn’t come first. But the ultra-Orthodox have never shut down their education system; they’re willing to go out and study even when there’s no money to pay salaries. They’re willing to sacrifice a lot for the sake of education.”

Their lives, too, as victims of COVID-19?

“Yes, most definitely. Laying one’s life down for the sake of education is anchored in history. The ultra-Orthodox ethos is steeped in tales of this kind, from the Spanish Inquisition to Soviet Russia. There are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of studying the Torah. I see it among our young children too, and I’m a grandfather to 50 grandchildren.”

Yehuda Meshi Zahav: “Everyone remembers that the rabbis failed during the first wave. They failed to grasp the magnitude of the danger, not even Rabbi Kanievsky. It took a while before they understood and internalized things."

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, chairman of the ZAKA emergency response organization

In January this year, Yehuda Meshi Zahav, chairman of the ZAKA emergency response organization, lost three of his immediate family members – his brother and mother died after contracting the virus, and his father passed away during the shiva, the week-long mourning period, for his mother. Against the backdrop of his personal loss, his criticism, a rarity in the ultra-Orthodox sector, is adamant. “There’s hardly a home in the ultra-Orthodox sector in which someone hasn’t died,” he says. “I stand on my parents’ balcony and see death notices on every building, and the names on the boards change every two hours. When my father died, we posted notices, but there were different names there by the following morning already. There’s a sense that our leadership has lost the plot.

“I’ve heard friends from my past life, ultra-Orthodox extremists, talking amongst themselves. One said: ‘Who’s going to decide for us what we must do? The Coronavirus cabinet? Who’s on the panel, a bunch of Zionists? They’re not going to decide for us.’ They also ask themselves: How come we, the ultra-Orthodox, haven’t had thousands of deaths? And I say to them: Fools, be happy that there haven’t been. Besides, isn’t even a few hundred, or even one, unnecessary?”

Quite a large portion of the secular population thinks that the ultra-Orthodox believe that God is protecting them.

“No, that’s ridiculous. After all, if something happens to someone in our community, they run to the best doctors and professors, to Rabbi Firer, they leave no stone unturned. Everyone here knows that the Torah is a doctrine of life, and you have chosen life. The preservation of life trumps any other religious rule; people go to the ends of the earth to save a life. Yes, new voices are being heard now, one’s we’ve never heard before, and they’re delusional. Suddenly people are saying it’s better for 50 people to die than to undermine the spirituality of 20 yeshiva students.”

So what do you think has actually happened to the ultra-Orthodox sector?

“Everyone remembers that the rabbis failed during the first wave. They failed to grasp the magnitude of the danger, not even Rabbi Kanievsky. It took a while before they understood and internalized things. Then it became too much for them to handle, and they realized they were losing their followers, who were no longer in their frameworks, so they decided to adopt the herd-immunity approach and begin talking about the Swedish model.

Dudi Zilberschlag: “For years, I’ve considered myself as someone with a good reading of the ultra-Orthodox map, but this time around, I genuinely can’t figure out the reason for the lack of fear of COVID-19. The pandemic has led to a crack in many ultra-Orthodox values, and this may be one of the values that have been sacrificed on the altar.”

Dudi Zilberschlag, a veteran ultra-Orthodox publicist and activist

“Today, it’s split into two: One group comprises the extremists in Jerusalem, the Neturei Karta, who, from their perspective, want to widen the gaps between Israeli and ultra-Orthodox. The worse things get, the more we see police officers beating ultra-Orthodox children, the better it serves them. What do the notices in their neighborhoods say? ‘Corona is a Zionist disease.’ On the other hand, there’s a faction within the ultra-Orthodox mainstream that purports to be fighting for values, but it’s nothing more than a war of egos, over the question of who will lead the camp.”

Zilberschlag talks about the two mass funerals that took place in the ultra-Orthodox sector of late, in blatant violation of the lockdown regulations – the one for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, and the second for Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, the head of the Kamenitz Yeshiva. Both funerals, he says, can teach us something about the conduct of the ultra-Orthodox in the face of the dangers of the pandemic.

“For 50-60 years, people studied with Rabbi Soloveitchik, who promoted an approach of zero-trust in the Zionist state, and they were willing to put their lives at risk to bid farewell to him,” Zilberschlag says. “In contrast, Rabbi Scheiner from the Kamenitz Yeshiva literally pleaded, at his ripe old age, for adherence to the regulations. And lo and behold, thousands turned up for his funeral too. It sounds totally abnormal for his students to ignore his request like that. How can you explain that? Well, you can’t. Nevertheless, it must be said that the Ger Hasidic sector has been sticking to the Corona regulations like crazy, and isn’t deviating from the instructions in the slightest.”

Meshi-Zahav doesn’t pull his punches yet again. “Several people died at those funerals,” he says. “We don’t know who yet, or when they will die, but it’s bound to happen. And I hear various ultra-Orthodox politicians, mayors and city councilors, giving interviews to the media and going on about the demonstrations on Balfour Street, and people at the beach, and things happening in Umm al-Fahm. What do you care about what’s going on there? If someone jumps off the roof, are you going to jump too? Go save your cities; stop philosophizing and arguing. I just don’t get it.”

Meshi-Zahav, who’s tied to the fight against COVID-19 in his capacity as head of ZAKA, believes that the number of ultra-Orthodox who died as a result of the pandemic is a lot higher than those presented here. He estimates that the ultra-Orthodox make up almost two-thirds of the COVID-19 fatalities in Jerusalem.

So how do you explain the data in Jerusalem?

“A combination of a few things: Take the talk in the beginning about herd immunity, take the tendency to oppose everything the Zionist government advocates, take all the fake news surrounding the vaccines and disease, take the violent clashes with the police – and you end up with one big festival, only a festival of death in this case. The problem is that there’s no leader in Israel these days, and not just among us, but the public in general. History will be the judge of our leaders because a leader is supposed to prove himself in times like these more than any other. The ultra-Orthodox political leaders also seem to be paralyzed; they’ve all gone mute. I understand them because each of them says to himself: I’m not going to be the one who faces up to the extremists.”