Evening news broadcasts in Israel on Thursday were dominated by the absurd situation in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and possibly his entire senior staff had been exposed to the coronavirus by none other than their very own Minister of Health.
What’s worse is that evidence suggests Health Minister Yaakov Litzman became infected with COVID-19 by breaking his own social distancing and isolation guidelines.
“The health minister simply does not understand the magnitude of the crisis, is endangering all of us and ultimately harming decision-making,” one angry unnamed cabinet minister told Channel 12 News.
Litzman and his wife tested positive for the disease on Wednesday. According to witnesses, the Minister of Health was spotted just two days earlier in a crowded Jerusalem synagogue.
“My father prays every day at the ‘Beit Israel’ synagogue in the Ezrat Torah neighborhood and told me that on Monday he prayed there together with Litzman,” said one man cited by Channel 12.
Statistics published last week revealed that at least 29 percent of all coronavirus cases in Israel were contracted in local synagogues. Up until the last few days, a large portion of the ultra-Orthodox community were refusing to abide by the Ministry of Health guidelines. Litzman himself repeatedly argued in the early days of the crisis that synagogues should remain open, even as he banned all other gatherings of over 10 people.
Now that he, like so many other previously defiant ultra-Orthodox Jews, is confirmed infected, government ministers are complaining that the Ministry of Health is not being nearly forthcoming enough with details regarding Litzman’s case.
“They’re hiding his epidemiological investigation from us,” the ministers were reported to say.
Growing social rift
There is a growing feeling in Israel that it is the fault of the non-compliant ultra-Orthodox community that the coronavirus has spread as much as it has in the Jewish state.
The densely-populated ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Barak is believed by experts to have a 38 percent infection rate, though only a fraction of those have yet been tested. On Thursday evening, the government approved a total lockdown on Bnei Barak, banning all traffic into or out of the town where many of Israel’s top rabbis reside.
In Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, where the infection rate is also believed to be much higher than the official numbers suggest, medical personnel sent to conduct tests have been attacked with stones.
This seeming lack of cooperation in a national effort to save lives has further infuriated the secular majority. Many Israelis already looked with disdain at the ultra-Orthodox for the refusal of most of their number to submit to the mandatory military service performed by all other Jewish citizens.
The corona crisis is likely to widen the secular-religious rift in Israel, possibly irreparably, and that will have heavy implications for the political process, given that Netanyahu relies on the ultra-Orthodox parties to maintain his coalition’s parliamentary majority.