JERUSALEM—As Israel eases its second nationwide lockdown, a revolt among ultra-Orthodox Jews against public health guidelines is complicating efforts to control the coronavirus outbreak.
Across Israel, schools and most businesses are closed. People are required to wear masks in public, and outdoor gatherings over 20 people are banned. Police and city inspectors patrol the streets, handing out fines to rule breakers. Signs on highway banners and city billboards remind people to wear masks and social distance.
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But on a bright autumn morning in Jerusalem’s ultraorthodox stronghold of Mea Shearim, no police patrolled the narrow alleyways closed off behind stone walls. Thousands of children crowded into schools, and men, young and old, returned to their religious seminaries known as yeshivas, where they study all day. The only common sign in the neighborhood that mentions coronavirus is an advertisement for free ginger to boost the immune system.
“After eight months of not doing what we’re told to do by my government, we’re still alive and healthy, so there’s no reason to close the Torah institutes,” said one ultraorthodox man in his 20s who was chatting outside a yeshiva.
A deep distrust of the government and a desire to preserve a way of life is fueling a broad—but not uniform—backlash against government efforts to impose public health guidelines on the ultraorthodox community. Many members of the community also suspect the virus isn’t so dangerous as to disrupt the rhythms of their insular and conservative communities, in which many men study religion all day rather than work and gather thrice daily for collective prayers.
“When the number of deaths isn’t as large as has been purported, the community prefers slight physical damage rather than a massive spiritual blow,” says Rabbi Pinchas Zaltzman, a religious judge in the ultraorthodox city of Bnei Brak.
The ultraorthodox community hasn’t been immune from the virus that causes Covid-19. While the ultraorthodox make up around 12.5% of the population, they have accounted for up to 65% of infections nationwide in the first wave in the spring and more than 40% in the current second wave, according to a study based on the Ministry of Health data by Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science based in central Israel. At the same time, the death rate per 1,000 individuals in the ultraorthodox sector is about half the rest of the country, largely because government figures show it is a much younger population.
After four weeks of a second nationwide lockdown, Israel was able to reduce the infection rate from more than 8,000 new cases a day to under 1,500. Now Israeli health officials fear the ultraorthodox decision to prematurely open the schools and religious seminaries could lead to yet another lockdown.