Disclaimer: due to the highly sensitive nature of the topic, all my sources and references to orthodox Jewish communities and the Corona virus are mainstream Jewish and Israeli news outlets.
The Israeli press has reported extensively for the last two days that within the Jewish ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, the Corona virus has spread like wildfire.
“Israel’s ultra-Orthodox endanger the public” was the headline of yesterday’s Jerusalem Post opinion piece. The article points to the ultra orthodox community as a menace both to the general society and itself. “Some of Israel’s most religious communities, religious leaders, and even the health minister himself r efuse to take the threat of coronavirus seriously enough in their own observant communities. The ultra-Orthodox disdain for secular society in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic endangers both their own communities and the general public.”
The Jerusalem Post reports that “Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, actively called for yeshivot to stay open, in direct opposition to the Health Ministry’s directives. One of the members of Kanievsky’s inner circle told the press that ‘Rabbi Kanievsky says canceling Torah study is more dangerous than corona.’”
Times of Israel reported on a “marked jump in new coronavirus cases Wednesday in Israeli cities with large ultra-Orthodox populations, amid growing concerns over a major outbreak of COVID-19 in the community.”
Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb with fewer than 200,000 residents, most of them orthodox, has the second most confirmed cases of any Israeli city, though it is the ninth largest in the country by population.
The authorities now accept that it is the orthodox community that spreads the virus in the Jewish State. “Among the other cities in Israel to record a large increase of new coronavirus cases were Modiin Illit, Beit Shemesh, Elad and Beitar Illit, all of which are majority ultra-Orthodox or have sizable Haredi populations.”
Officials are looking at ways to reduce the outbreak in Bnei Brak, where “one in three residents tested for the coronavirus have been found to carry it (33%). The high percentage of positive tests reported Tuesday by the Health Ministry compares to 6% in Tel Aviv and 10% in Jerusalem.”
“Police on Tuesday set up checkpoints around Bnei Brak and were checking IDs of anyone trying to enter, as the government moved toward placing a cordon around the city.”
Bnei Brak’s mayor warned Tuesday evening against making his city into “a ghetto.” Here one may notice that it isn’t the so-called Goyim who ‘push the Jews into the ghetto.’ Instead it is the Israeli government that imposes the on the orthodox community in its attempt to protect the rest of society.
It is clear that in the Jewish State, neither the government nor the media shy away from this problematic topic, and there is good reason to believe that the attitude of the orthodox toward public health is not confined to Israel. A few days ago we learned from Haaretz that more than half of the members of a group of 114 Chabad followers tested positive for the coronavirus and were placed in quarantine after returning from the United States last week. The Israeli paper reports that “The Hasidim, all Israeli citizens, had been studying at a yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, which the American authorities fear has been the site of a major outbreak of the virus. Immediately after they landed in Israel, they were separated from other passengers, their passports were confiscated and they were placed on buses that took them to Jerusalem.”
If 50% of the students who returned from the Brooklyn Chabad centre were infected with Corona, there is good reason to assume that the Corona virus is at least as common in the Brooklyn orthodox community as it is in Israeli orthodox enclaves.
The Israeli settler news outlet, Arutz 7, reported yesterday that the situation in the Jewish area, Crown Heights, is indeed grave. “There are no words to describe the feeling of the community; it’s devastating, it’s depressing, and we pray every day that it’s going to be over… In almost every house I’ve spoken to, there’s at least one person who tested positive for coronavirus. We know we were one of the first communities to be hit, so we hope to be the first ones to get over it.”
Kiryas Joel, an orthodox town outside of New York City, is suffocated with Corona cases. Its leaders urge Dr. Vladimir Zelenko (who has since become a household name in America for his allegedly successful treatment of the Corona virus) to stop posting videos online about the outbreak or else leave Kiryas Joel and the Hasidic community out of them. Dr Zelenko estimated that 90% of Kiryas Joel habitants had COVID-19 after 9 of his first 14 tests came back positive.
However, some orthodox Rabbis are not worried about Covid 19. In a peculiar video, so outrageous that it seems like a parody of SNL, an orthodox Israeli Rabbi urges his followers not to worry about the Corona virus as “the benevolent father looks after his children…the Corona is for the Goyim not for the people of Israel.”
Bizarrely enough, the Rabbi may be proved to be ‘factually correct.’ To date, the corona fatality rate in Israel is noticeably low, probably the lowest around. At the time of writing this piece, 6211 Israelis have been diagnosed with Corona but only 31 Israelis have died while being infected by the virus. This is a fatality rate of less than 0.005. In Italy, in comparison, there has been a fatality rate of 0.1, 20 times greater than in Israel. In the USA the fatality ratio is about 0.024, 5 times higher than the Jewish State. In Britain it is 0.08, about 16 times more than Israel. Even South Korea, considered the most successful model in fighting the Coronavirus, has around a 0.014 fatality rate, about three times more than Israel.
The Israeli success in dealing with Corona could have a few explanations. It is probably true that Israel was more effective than others in dealing with Corona. It adopted the most restrictive measures very early on and before most other countries. It is possible that Israeli doctors are more gifted than others. And it is true that Israel runs a relatively high number of Corona tests. This fact alone reduces the statistics of fatality rates significantly. But it may also be possible that the Rabbi had a point, Corona, as it appears statistically, at least, is more lethal for the Goyim and somehow less deadly for the people of Israel.
This may require more scientific elaboration. I have kept this troubling thought to myself for a few days, but now the time is ripe for me to share it.
Increasingly more and more scholars believe that the fact that there were relatively few deaths from Spanish Flu in China in 1918 as compared to other regions around the world suggests that the 1918 pandemic actually originated in China. The lower fatality rate in China from the Spanish Flu raises the possibility that Chinese already possessed immunity to the virus by the time the world suffered its outbreak.
Using this logic, an argument can be made that the fact that China was a prime victim of the Corona virus actually shows that Covid-19 is anything but a ‘Chinese Virus’ as President Trump refers to it. It is certainly not an Iranian virus either. It is clearly not an Italian disease. If there is any merit in the idea that a low fatality rate identifies a possible viral originator, then Israel would be a suspect.
In fact, Israel went through a respiratory health crisis in late 2019. On January 6th, Haaretz’s headline read, “Dozens Hospitalized in Serious Condition Amid Swine Flu Outbreak in Israel.” The Israeli paper reported that “The number of visits to clinics and hospitals due to flu symptoms and pneumonia, which is a common complication, is about 18 per 1,000 people, compared to 7 per 1,000 in the same period last year.” The increase is mainly in those under age 2 and over age 65. In January, the Israeli health system struggled to cope.
In an article three weeks ago I wondered whether it is possible that Israel was hit with the Corona menace at the same time China was, or maybe even before. I asked whether it is possible that Corona didn’t start in China, perhaps it was just diagnosed there.
If it isn’t God who saves the Jews from Corona, as the obscure rabbi proclaims in the video above, it may well be that Israelis have already developed a herd immunity to the disease due to the fact that the Israelis had been subject to its menace before most people.
One thing is clear to the Israelis, their leaders and their media. The orthodox community’s complete dismissal of modern medical advice and its negligence in social distancing and modern hygiene are a health catastrophe in the making. The Israeli government has already suggested that it will use the most severe measures against its orthodox community and will involve police forces and even the army. The Israel media is openly speaking about this clear health hazard.
A glance through the news reveals that the American press is shying away from this problem. They may report about the crisis in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem but refrain from warning New Yorkers of the situation at the Chabad Centre next door or in Crown Heights down the road. In reality, it is the Israeli and Jewish press that report on the Corona crisis in Crown Heights, Kiryas Joel and Chabad’s yeshivas. I also doubt whether anyone in America would dare consider imposing a cordon on any of the Corona infested neighbourhoods as Israeli health minister Yaakov Litzman suggested in Bnei Brak just before he himself was diagnosed as a corona patient and was sent to isolation.
In a mode that is unusual for me as a critic of Israel, its policy and ethos, I suggest that at the moment looking at Israel and learning from its attitude to the virus and its infested orthodox communities could be educational, enlightening and even an existential must.