In Israel, no place seems to have been struck harder by the pandemic than Bnei Brak, a city of 200,000 that teems with religious fundamentalists. It’s one of the poorest communities in the country. Bnei Brak is also the 10th most densely populated city in the world, but that’s only one reason why the coronavirus managed to race through the population.
Another one is that the Haredi residents, being in thrall to fundamentalist doctrines that reject modernity, are under-informed with regard to science and world events. Also, the city’s religious authorities initially decreed that spiritual customs and rituals should proceed as normal. When the rabbis eventually reversed course thanks to incontrovertible infection stats and continued pleas from public-health experts, it was already too late for thousands.
According to a BBC report from late last week, up to 40 percent of the Bnei Brak populace could be infected.
Bnei Brak has the dubious distinction of being Israel’s “Corona Capital” amidst the COVID-19 epidemic. The Israeli police and army now limit entry and exit at the city’s perimeter, and patrol its streets to enforce order…
The city’s tardy and irresponsible responses to the current COVID-19 plague have tragically [resulted in] the current predicament.
It didn’t have to be so. The government had urgently recommended social-distancing measures. But conservative rabbis judged their yeshivas and synagogues vital to the city’s spiritual survival. They saw the official pleas to postpone gatherings of more than a handful of people as somewhere between too great an inconvenience and an existential threat.
Wariness of the outside world is a both a way of life and a source of pride for the city. When global events unfold and you willfully keep yourself in the dark, there normally won’t be grave consequences — but there’s nothing normal about a pandemic. Sometimes having up-to-date information, and coolly extrapolating from it, means the difference between life and death.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the acknowledged leader of certain insular groups, promptly ordered his followers to disregard those rules. After much pressure in the face of rising morbidity and mortality, Rabbi Kanievsky diametrically reversed his pronouncement and directed his followers to comply with the social-distancing rules; in the interim, there were numerous large gatherings and a disproportionate rise of COVID-19 infections (and deaths) in Bnei Brak.
The rabbi’s constituency… has taboos against Internet access, televisions, radios, and newspapers other than those approved by their rabbinical leadership. Bnei Brak and other insular communities accordingly did not see the news reports, let alone the graphic images, of people dying in China and Italy, and even now remain confused as they sort out the poor decisions of their once-trusted leaders.
Kenneth H. Ryesky of the Algemeiner is seriously upset with Kanievsky and would welcome a few words of contrition. Under the headline “Rabbis Who Shunned Corona Orders Must Be Held Accountable,” he writes
Though a sincere acknowledgment of responsibility and apology from Rabbi Kanievsky (he himself, and not one of his ministering angels) would not undo the infections and deaths rooted in the blunder of his initial directive to ignore the emergency social distancing restrictions, it certainly would go quite far towards halting something even more contagious and lethal than the COVID-19 virus: The undercurrent of distrust, divisiveness, and animosity that currently lurks among the Israeli populace.
In a very real and ironic way, Bnei Brak is now more insular than ever before. Since last Thursday, the city has been virtually walled off by Israeli soldiers, some of whom risk life and limb to bring food and medication to at-risk residents, especially the elderly.
More irony: fate may just excuse the irresponsible tardiness of the religious leaders. So high is the rate of infection in Bnei Brak that some medical experts think the city may be the first to develop herd immunity.
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