Professor Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Ministry and director of Ichilov hospital in Tel Aviv, at one time considered by the government for the position of coronavirus project manager, launched what haredi website Kikar Hashabbat called an “unprecedented attack” against the conduct of members of the haredi community. Barbash was responding to news that several elementary boys’ schools resumed studies on Sunday, in contravention of government regulations but heeding the ruling of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the leading rabbis of the haredi world.
Barbash was interviewed by Kan Reshet Bet and first addressed the government’s decision to allow preschool and kindergarten classes (up to the age of six) to resume, as part of the first stage of emergence from full lockdown. “This was a political decision, not a professional one,” Barbash insisted. “I decry the fact that the experts the government consults are taking into account considerations other than the purely professional, such as this idea that allowing preschool classes to resume will prevent [calls for] older age groups to resume learning.
“My view is that the task of the professional echelon is to say what is true based on expert opinion,” he continued, “without taking anything else into consideration. The political echelon has the right to make any decision it wishes, but if professionals begin to incorporate political considerations into their expert opinions, think about what message that sends to those not within the haredi sector who see this, and how it impacts on the confidence the general public has in the country’s experts.”
Barbash added that, “From my vantage point, I can see the emergence from lockdown being ruined, due to all kinds of reasons. I think that this problem of the haredi community is truly a difficult problem to deal with. Look at what’s happening in New York – they have the same problems as we do, but there, due to political considerations, they feel that they have the strength to take action against the haredi sector and place sanctions on them. Here [in Israel] it’s not like that, and the result is that the haredi sector knows that it has a stranglehold on the political echelon, and they allow themselves to behave however they like.”
If such is truly the case, what does Barbash propose should be done? He outlined in broad strokes his “vision” for dealing with the haredim: “First of all, those of us who have no connection with the haredi sector – who don’t live in Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit, or Beitar Ilit [all haredi-majority cities] – need to continue to behave in the best way possible, following the guidelines faithfully. At the end of the day, we’re doing so in order to protect ourselves. We must not look at them and say that we can also take the liberty of doing what we want. That would be a disaster for all of us."
“Secondly, I think we simply have to erect a barrier around [those] cities. Let’s cut them off – no problem – let them do what they want [within their cities] and we’ll only let ambulances out to take them to hospital – and it’s obvious that it will reach that situation – and maybe that’s the right way of dealing with them.
“Cut them off,” he insisted. “Lock them inside their cities. Give them their basic supplies, and simply isolate them. Don’t let them out to go to work – or for any other reason. City mayors have the right to say that they don’t allow preschool assistants from ‘red’ areas to come to work. I see that local authorities are already doing this – the government can’t do it, but the local authorities can.
“What haredim do has an impact on everyone else in the State of Israel,” he added. “In general, this virus has one principle: if it’s anywhere, it’s everywhere. It’s impossible to restrict it to just one place. If it’s in Bnei Brak then it will be in [neighboring] Ramat Gan and in other places too. We can slow it down, by people outside [haredi cities] adjusting their behavior, but in the end, there are consequences. At the end of the day, [how haredim behave] is going to ruin the results of the lockdown.”
When it was pointed out to him that contagion rates are dropping everywhere, including in haredi cities and neighborhoods, Barbash said that he was pleasantly surprised at the data, but added, “I don’t really know what’s going on in the haredi sector anymore. Maybe a part of their rebellion is in [refusing to do] testing – and if that’s the case, we have no idea what’s really going on there. We see what’s going on in Tel Hashomer [hospital], and in other places that take those kinds of patients. From what I hear, there continues to be more contagion among haredim than among others.”