Did Israel’s Security State Fail the COVID Test?

Netanyahu’s focus on maintaining ultra-Orthodox support as the pandemic raged didn’t help him win, but it has left deep scars.

israel covid haredim protests
Israeli security forces arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a protest against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb cases of COVID-19, in Jerusalem on Feb. 9. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images

JERUSALEM—In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, Israeli officials did what they usually do in times of crisis: They defined the situation as a security issue.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly referred to efforts to contain the virus as a “war against an invisible enemy.” Adopting familiar protocols, vast resources were centrally mobilized. The Institute for National Security Studies held a war game simulating a cabinet session about the coronavirus crisis. The Shin Bet, Israel domestic security agency, was granted far-reaching powers—including digital tapping—to track potential virus-spreaders. The Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, obtained protective gear and medical devices from abroad. At several mainstream newspapers, including the liberal Haaretz, military correspondents were reassigned to cover the pandemic.

Used to existential crises, such as wars and terrorist attacks, and well-accustomed to the securitization of nonmilitary issues, the Israeli public initially assented readily. Israel is a highly communal society, in which social responsibility is inculcated as a primary value. A sense of basic social solidarity was quickly fostered through the media and public institutions. Israelis referred to obeying social distancing and quarantine instructions as “getting under the stretcher,” an expression taken from the army, which literally refers to soldiers’ responsibility to help to evacuate their wounded comrades during combat.

Israelis referred to obeying social distancing and quarantine instructions as “getting under the stretcher,” an expression taken from the army, which refers to soldiers’ responsibility to help to evacuate their wounded comrades. 

Yedidia Stern, the president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, observed that “Israelis have known how to function together out of a basic social solidarity that overcame deep disagreements and to accept the concentration and resources and even limitations on personal liberties that are required during a threatening crisis.” The COVID-19 crisis, however, “claimed more victims than the casualties in any of Israel’s wars, but did not activate the Israeli unity instinct. Rather, it deepened and sharpened the divides in Israeli society”—especially between insular ultra-Orthodox communities and secular Israelis.

There are numerous cultural and, especially, political reasons for this failure.

David Ben-Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, laid the foundations for the current relationship between the state and the ultra-Orthodox community, which currently makes up nearly 13 percent of Israel’s population. Motivated partly by concern that so many religious Jews had been killed in the Holocaust and partly by political expediency—he needed the ultra-Orthodox votes—Ben-Gurion acceded to ultra-Orthodox demands for autonomy over their community matters, including a state-funded but independent school system, which, to this day, concentrates on religious studies and does not teach basic core subjects such as math, science, and English.

With a high birthrate due to religious mandates against birth control and a lack of secular education that relegates them to poorly paying jobs, the ultra-Orthodox have developed into an impoverished, insular community, with little contact with the outside, secular world and dependent on their rabbis for guidance on decisions affecting every aspect of their personal and communal lives.

According to data from the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, the ultra-Orthodox have an average of seven to eight children per family and are among the poorest in Israel. As a result, according to ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Dov Halbertal, former head of the office of the chief rabbinate, “It is particularly difficult for the ultra-Orthodox community to socially distance.”

According to data provided by the  health ministry in mid-February, the percentage of positive tests among the ultra-Orthodox was more than double the national rate.

Not surprisingly, they have been the group most affected by the pandemic. According to data provided by the  health ministry in mid-February, the percentage of positive tests among the ultra-Orthodox was more than double the national rate, and the elderly ultra-Orthodox were dying at three times the rate of secular elderly. At the same time, according to the, Ministry of Education over 50 percent of students infected with the virus were ultra-Orthodox, although they make up only 20 percent of school-age children. According to Israel’s health officials, the community was disproportionately taxing Israel’s already-overburdened health system.

Despite this, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 93, one of the most important ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the world, repeatedly ordered his followers to continue to carry on their lives as normal and to keep their yeshivas (religious schools) open. Yitzhak Weiss, an unofficial representative of the Eda Haredit, an umbrella organization of strict ultra-Orthodox communities, told the Jerusalem Post in March 2020, as all of Israel was under strict lockdown, “Our tradition says the Torah protects and saves us from calamities, and to close the schools of Torah learning children would do more harm.” And while some rabbis, such as Halbertal, did call for observance of the regulations, citing the special significance of Jewish commandments to preserve life, they were a minority.

Following the instructions of the rabbis rather than the rules of the office that he headed, then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who is ultra-Orthodox, prayed in a minyan (a quorum of at least 10 Jewish men according to Orthodox tradition) even after both he and his wife had tested positive for the coronavirus in early April 2020.

Israel did deploy soldiers from elite combat reconnaissance units in mostly ultra-Orthodox cities, after residents of these cities refused to comply with social distancing and self-quarantining regulations. The soldiers, mostly dressed in fatigues and unarmed, were welcomed as they distributed food and medicine, and assisted with the evacuation of people with virus symptoms.

However, the community continued to follow their leaders rather than the government and its officials, organizing large-scale public events like weddings and funerals while the rest of the country was in a heavily enforced lockdown.

Israeli security models offered no solutions to this internal threat, as they are predicated on the assumption of social solidarity and a well-defined external enemy. “The working assumption with Jews is that they’re friendly unless proven otherwise, while Arabs are hostile unless proven otherwise,” Menachem Landow, a former Shin Bet official, told Reuters in 2008.

In January, religious demonstrators threw stones and pelted security forces who tried to break up a mass gathering with eggs, dirty diapers, and garbage.

Interactions with security forces, however, became increasingly hostile. In January, religious demonstrators in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, outside Tel Aviv, threw stones and pelted security forces who tried to break up a mass gathering with eggs, dirty diapers, and garbage. In Jerusalem in late January, ultra-Orthodox young men poured cement over the tracks of the light rail and attacked the press corps covering the event. At the height of the lockdown, more than 10,000 men participated in funerals for venerated rabbis (both of whom died of COVID-19) as the police stood by at a distance.

In contrast, in response to the spike in coronavirus cases in ultra-Orthodox Jewish areas of New York, state and city authorities imposed localized restrictions, handed out fines, and detained several protesters.

In late February, during the festive Purim holiday that often involves a great deal of religiously sanctioned drinking, police officers who came to Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood, to take down effigies of officials hanging from electric wires were attacked with stones. One man was killed when the driver of a minivan, who had driven into the neighborhood by mistake, ran him over, apparently in an attempt to avoid the angry crowds.

But the security establishment, Landow told Reuters, has been largely unwilling or unable to acknowledge the broad breakdown of Jewish nationalist solidarity.

In several instances, the police used water cannons and stun grenades to break up large gatherings in ultra-Orthodox communities and at least once they even fired into the air when the crowds turned threatening. More frequently, however, they have refrained from entering ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to enforce the regulations, although they have been seen fining secular joggers on beaches and dispersing “suspicious gatherings” of 10 people in national parks.

Yohanan Plesner, head of the Israel Democracy Institute, tells Foreign Policy, “The police are an easy target for the public’s anger, but they are caught in the middle—it’s Netanyahu who is letting the ultra-Orthodox get away with this behavior.”

The police have denied that they have received any instructions to treat the ultra-Orthodox community any differently than other communities. However, Haaretz reported that the Israeli police reached an agreement with yeshiva heads in Bnei Brak that they would refrain from enforcing coronavirus regulations as long as the students were discreet and did not attack police.

A military model that thinks in terms of “enemies and victories” was bound to fail, said Tali Farkash, an ultra-Orthodox journalist: “Because officials could only focus on force, when Netanyahu refused to use force for his own political reasons, they didn’t have other solutions. Furthermore, security teams are usually made up almost exclusively of men with military experience, and did not include the representatives of a wide range different groups and experiences, including the ultra-Orthodox, who could have come up with better solutions.”

Instead, she said, since security models require an enemy, the ultra-Orthodox have increasingly been defined as a hostile element in Israeli society, and she points to incidents in which ultra-Orthodox individuals have been accosted and even physically threatened. “I’ve heard secular people say the ultra-Orthodox are spreading diseases—these are statements that remind me of anti-Semitic accusations against Jews dating back to the time of the Black Death,” Farkash said.

There is a more fundamental social tension between secular and religious communities. Indeed, not playing by the government’s rules is part of the ultra-Orthodox ethos, according to sociologist Shlomo Fischer, a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a consultant to Shaharit, an Israeli think tank promoting social cohesion. “Separatism has become a core marker of ultra-Orthodox self-identity,” he said.

“Haredi leaders need to defy secular Israeli society, including government-mandated regulations,” Fischer added, referring to the ultra-Orthodox by their Hebrew name, “in order to enforce Haredi separatism and to reinforce Haredi communal autonomy.”

The wider public, Fischer said, also accepted this ultra-Orthodox “state within a state” because, “perhaps unconsciously, many felt that the ultra-Orthodox were preserving traditional Judaism after the Holocaust, as if they were somehow ‘truer’ Jews. The public also admired the ultra-Orthodox willingness to sacrifice so much for the sake of heaven and the Torah.”

Many politicians have continued to accept this autonomy, which includes exemption from compulsory military service, because the ultra-Orthodox are frequently the kingmakers in Israeli coalition negotiations. Although they have formed political parties and participate in the Knesset, ultra-Orthodox representatives have traditionally concentrated almost solely on their own core issues, including stipends for men who study in yeshivas, affordable housing, and maintaining the autonomy of their educational systems, siding with whichever political bloc will offer them the greatest concessions to their demands.

Netanyahu depends on ultra-Orthodox parties to form a stable coalition that could bring him a reprieve from his ongoing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

This has been true throughout almost all of Israel’s governments, but it has been particularly so during the four election campaigns that have taken place over the past two years—culminating most recently in this week’s indecisive election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been serving consecutive terms as prime minister since 2009 and ran again this time around, depends on the ultra-Orthodox parties to form the stable coalition that could bring him a reprieve from his ongoing trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, and possibly to pass legislation that could keep him out of jail if he is found guilty. Preliminary results suggest that even with the 16 seats the ultra-Orthodox parties won, it will not be enough to give Netanyahu and his allies a 61-seat majority.

Halbertal, the former head of the office of the chief rabbinate, said that Netanyahu is exploiting ultra-Orthodox concerns for his political needs. “Netanyahu made a tacit bargain with the ultra-Orthodox population: ‘You can do whatever you want during the pandemic … as long as you support me,’” he said. “Netanyahu doesn’t mind if people die for his own benefit.”

In an existential struggle, such as a pandemic, the Jewish People Policy Institute’s Stern argued, the government response should be “blind, that is, it should treat each and every individual or community that threatens the public safety exactly the same way.”

“Health officials recommended instituting regulations according to the levels of morbidity and mortality in each location, so that the rest of the country could resume its opening of educational, commercial, and leisure-time facilities,” he said. “But the ultra-Orthodox objected to this, and Netanyahu gave in.”

In response, animosity against the ultra-Orthodox has increased within Israeli society. A survey taken in late January 2021 indicated that over 60 percent of Israelis, including 52 percent of the right-wingers who make up Netanyahu’s core constituency, do not want ultra-Orthodox parties to serve in the next coalition.

And as the results of the late-March elections reveal, even this capitulation did not bring Netanyahu the victory he had expected, and it left, instead, lasting societal scars and grief for secular and religious Israelis alike.

Eetta Prince-Gibson is the Israel editor for Moment magazine, the former editor in chief of the Jerusalem Report, and a regular contributor to Haaretz, +61J, and other international publications.