A leading member of the Communist Party of Israel, Joint List MK Ofer Cassif (Hadash) has denounced the growing number of attacks voiced in recent days against Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) population, which has been hit hardest by the coronavirus, partially due to a small minority in the sector’s refusal to comply with the Health Ministry guidelines. “The guidelines must be followed. The hatred for the ultra-Orthodox must be denounced and extracted from within us, like all racism,” said Cassif.
The Haredi city of Bnei Brak, now under a complete lockdown having become the epicenter of the COVID-19 virus in Israel, is home to at least 1,000 of the more than 8,000 confirmed infections in the country. Ran Saar, CEO of Maccabi, one of Israel’s leading Health Maintenance Organizations which provides medical coverage to half of the city’s residents, told a special Knesset committee on Thursday, April 2, that as many as 75,000 residents (38%) of Bnei Brak may actually have been exposed to the virus due to the large families and crowded living conditions endemic to the city; this in addition to the initial reluctance of many to heed instructions not to leave their homes except for obtaining food and medicine, and for fear of being sent into isolation before the upcoming Passover holiday, beginning on Wednesday evening, April 8. Other largely ultra-Orthodox towns and neighborhoods are also emerging has having many of the highest rates of contagion nationwide.
No to Racism, Yes to Responsible Ministerial Leadership
Regardless of this principled position against anti-Haredi racism, Hadash has demanded the resignation of Israel’s Ministry of Health, Yaacov Litzman, leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Litzman, who has served as health minister (or deputy health minister with no minister above him) for almost the entire past decade, has been consistently and conspicuously reluctant to acknowledge and internalize the threat posed by the pandemic. He resisted the stringent limitations on public movement his ministry’s senior officials sought to impose — delaying the implementation of regulations that might otherwise have come into effect early last month just before the festival of Purim (March 10-11), and pleading as recently as 10 days ago to allow synagogues to stay open for at least small groups of worshipers standing two meters apart. Last week, Litzman himself and his wife were found to be infected with the virus. Litzman’s daily meetings with heads of his ministry and other key figures tasked with fighting the spread of the virus, prior to his testing positive, led to several of the latter having to enter 2-week self-isolation following confirmation of his illness.
Far-right Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to express opposition to replacing Litzman despite recent allegations that the latter blatantly violated his own offices coronavirus guidelines. Kan public broadcasting has reported that the reason Netanyahu has resisted Litzman’s ouster is coalition-based even though the PM understands that another politician who would replace Litzman could better lead the current campaign against the pandemic as well as a rehabilitation of the public healthcare system after the crisis. However, such reforms could very likely “blow up” in the faces of both Netanyahu and Litzman, Kan reports, pointing out that they could include appointing committees tasked with probing faults in the office led by the two of them over the past decade, and highlighting how the ministry has long been neglected because of the Netanyahu’s neo-liberal policies.