Opinions & observations: Amid COVID-19 spike in ultra-Orthodox areas, history may explain reluctance to restrictions
A spike in coronavirus cases in several Orthodox Jewish areas of New York has prompted state and city authorities to impose new localized restrictions aimed at halting the spread.
On Oct. 5, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that nearly 100 public schools and 200 private schools in 20 ZIP codes – many of which have a large ultra-Orthodox population and have seen increased rates of positive test results of COVID-19 – would end in-person classes “temporarily.”
The move has sparked animosity among some Orthodox Jews, who claim that they are being unfairly singled out. It comes amid warnings from New York Mayor Bill de Blasio of further action to prevent the spread and follows earlier instances, including the breaking up of a funeral for an Orthodox Jewish rabbi by police in Brooklyn on April 28.
Similar tensions have played out in Israel, where recent plans to implement a system to identify coronavirus hot spots met resistance from some ultra-Orthodox leaders, who suggested it was unfair to place restrictions on their communities while many secular Israelis have been gathering regularly to demonstrate against the government. Rather than loosen restrictions on the ultra-Orthodox community, the government tightened restrictions on demonstrations, resulting in additional tension between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis.
Most prominent rabbis around the world have supported government regulations intended to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means closing places of study and worship. But some observant Jewish communities in the United States and Israel have been reluctant to adopt social distancing.
Outsiders are often outraged when religious communities defy policies meant to protect the general public.
As an anthropologist who studies religion, politics, identity and conflict in Israel and Palestine, my research helps explain why some strictly observant Jewish communities disobey public health guidelines – and it’s more complicated than simply flouting the rules.
Who are Haredi Jews?
As such, many do not share the same information sources that others take for granted. In accordance with the rulings of their rabbis, internet access, television broadcasts and certain cellphone functions are generally limited in strictly observant Jewish communities.
Some Haredi leaders maintained that gathering to pray and study remained paramount. Studying the Hebrew scriptures, or Torah, is a commandment and a duty in Judaism. Haredi men generally gather to pray three times daily. Students at yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries, may spend 18 hours a day studying together.
More than a way of life, prayer and study are believed to be the means for protecting life itself. According to Jewish sages, “One who engages in Torah study also protects the entire world.” Indeed, “without Torah the world falls.”
The importance of engaging with the Torah explains why one prominent rabbi in Israel insisted in March that “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.”
Ultimately, the Israeli government intervened to enforce its coronavirus restrictions. On March 22, police were sent into Me’a She’arim, a Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, to end public gatherings, close synagogues and shutter schools.
While such responses might seem extreme to outsiders, they become clearer when considering Jewish history and the memories provoked by police intervention.
Anthropological research demonstrates that people give meaning to their experiences in different ways. Our perception, imagination and actions are deeply embedded in the whole of our experiences. The past – whether individually experienced or collectively nourished by the community – gives meaning to the present.
Henri Bergson, a French philosopher, used the term “duration” to explain how the past shifts to show itself in ways that appeal to current experiences in different ways for different people.
In times of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, this sense of duration becomes more acute.
For some, hospital tents erected in public places evoke World War I. A Holocaust survivor recently told me the stay-at-home order brought back memories of her childhood years of confinement hiding from the Nazis. One New Orleans resident found that the “flood” of coronavirus deaths recalled Hurricane Katrina.
Duration as personal memory is central to an individual’s sense of self, but it arises in collective memories, too.
Collective memory, including the stories we all tell ourselves and our children about our past, gives meaning and purpose to our collective selves. These stories recount struggles and triumphs and help define our moral community.
Duration interacts with collective memory, and is key to the formation of group identity.
History of Persecution
The historical persecution of Jews around the world is central to both secular and strictly observant Jews. However, how that memory works in contemporary circumstances is not predetermined. My research demonstrates that different aspects of the past inform collective meaning and actions differently.
Unlike most Israelis – who see Jewish history as a justification for the state of Israel and understand the Israeli army and police as existing to protect them – some Israeli Haredim distrust the government and its functionaries.
In fact, Haredi Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel’s population, are foundationally opposed to Zionism, the political ideology of Jewish nationalism that led to the establishment of Israel in 1948.
While Haredi Jews believe that God promised the land of Israel to the Jewish people, they are also certain that promise cannot be fulfilled by human intervention in God’s work, such as the establishment of a nation state. They have previously clashed with the Israeli government and law enforcement over compulsory military service and other policies.
Suspicion of Police
So when armed men in uniform entered their neighborhoods to close down synagogues and yeshivas, members of the Haredi community drew on their collective memories of soldiers and police wreaking havoc and destruction on Jewish communities in czarist Russia and later in Western Europe. Rather than feeling protected by the state, they were fearful and suspicious.
Suspicion of the police is common in other communities historically mistreated by law enforcement. The collective memories of both Black Americans and the Roma of Europe, for example, associate police with violence and danger.
When facing a crisis like the coronavirus, many people rely primarily on science, technology and governments for protection. And the Haredim do not reject science or medicine.
But for them, living the Torah life through daily study and prayer is the primary means by which all human life is maintained and preserved. When the political order interferes with their work, the consequences could be more disastrous than a pandemic. It could mean the end of Jewish life, if not humanity itself.
Joyce Dalsheim is associate professor of global studies at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte.
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