BNEI BRAK, Israel—Israel’s attempt to suppress a roiling pandemic has collided with a hard-hit ultraorthodox community that has proven resistant to lockdowns and suspicious of the nation’s mass vaccination campaign.
On Sunday, thousands of ultraorthodox mourners attended two funerals of famous rabbis who died from the coronavirus. The mourners flouted bans on public gatherings of no more than 10 people on the same day that Israel’s cabinet extended a strict lockdown that includes barring all international flights. Thousands of men dressed in black wool hats and suits crowded together, many without masks, images of the event show. Fearing violence, police steered away from arrests while some top Israeli politicians seethed.
“This is how unequal enforcement looks,” said Benny Gantz, the defense minister and head of the Blue and White party. “Millions of families and children are locked in their homes and abide by the rules while thousands of haredim crowd the funeral, most of them even without masks,” he said, using the Hebrew word for ultraorthodox.
The funerals followed anti-lockdown protests in Bnei Brak and other ultraorthodox cities the week before, in which ultraorthodox men threw rocks at police, lighted dumpsters on fire and knocked down street signs and light poles.
Israel has so far had one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns, with more than one-third of the population having received one dose. While much of the population has lined up for vaccinations, the ultraorthodox community has been slower to get on board, with some doubting the safety of the vaccine and others suggesting the country’s citizens are being used to test its efficacy.
“This isn’t a vaccine. It’s an experiment,” said Izhar Mahpud, a 57-year-old resident from Bnei Brak, a large ultraorthodox-majority city just east of Tel Aviv that has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19 in the country. “I’m not ready to be a rat in a laboratory.”
Israel aims to vaccinate much of its population by March and get the economy going again, allowing the tiny nation beside the Mediterranean sea to serve as a global showcase for how to beat back the deadly virus. But the ultraorthodox community has undermined those lofty goals, largely by bucking lockdowns and shying away from vaccines.
Israel’s ultraorthodox community makes up about 12% of the population but accounts for nearly one-third of the country’s coronavirus infections. Israel currently has 68,331 active coronavirus cases, with new infections hovering at about 7,000 a day.
Officials are scrambling to get the latest surge under control. A British variant of the virus accounts for about 70% of current coronavirus infections. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month banned all international flights and lawmakers passed a bill Sunday doubling fines for lockdown violations.
Public-health officials say the ultraorthodox community is particularly vulnerable to the fast-moving virus. Their large families typically live in crowded apartments and shun electronic communication that helps get information out about the vaccines.
Data from Israel’s Health Ministry shows ultraorthodox people are getting vaccinated at a lower rate than other groups. Among those over 60, to whom the campaign has been open the longest, 85% of all Israelis have taken the vaccine, compared with 78% of Israel’s ultraorthodox population.
Ultraorthodox and Arab towns are lagging behind in overall immunity to the virus due to the lower vaccination rates, according to Eran Segal, a computational biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who presented his findings to Israel’s government on Sunday evening. “It’s going to slow down the decline of the pandemic,” said Mr. Segal.
Health officials say that infections in ultraorthodox communities have gone down in recent days, as some leading rabbis have endorsed vaccinations. There are also efforts under way to combat misinformation and get residents to take the vaccine.
In Bnei Brak, local officials have set up a war room in an oval-shaped, wood-paneled room on the top floor of city hall. With portraits of important religious figures lining the walls, young ultraorthodox members sit around a large circular table with large jugs of hand sanitizer and work the phones. They stare at spreadsheets with information about everyone who has or hasn’t been vaccinated.
Officials had called nearly 10,000 people who hadn’t been vaccinated—and spoken with nearly 7,000 of them. About 5,000 said they wanted a vaccine but hadn’t been able to get one yet. Another 1,500 or so didn’t want to be vaccinated. The city officials work to overcome any obstacles raised on the calls.
For those who don’t have a ride to a vaccination center, they arrange one. If would-be vaccine recipients can’t get in touch with their health-insurance providers, they also help. And if anyone they reach doesn’t want to take the vaccine, they note why.
Avi Blumenthal, who leads the Health Ministry’s outreach to the ultraorthodox community, said he and his staff are combing through lists of Israel’s ultraorthodox towns to find the rabbis who are against vaccination, and seeking answers. In one instance, an ultraorthodox community in Jerusalem had low vaccine rates that many attributed to its rabbi’s alleged antivaccine stance. But when health officials interviewed the rabbi, they learned he was actually pro-vaccine—someone had spread a rumor attributed to him that the vaccine is dangerous.
Yehuda Shaish, 63, who runs four ultraorthodox schools in Bnei Brak and nearby towns, said he waited until the rabbis blessed the vaccines. “After the rabbis authorized it, I went happily,” he said.
Even with rabbis’ blessings, many in the ultraorthodox community remain skeptical about vaccines. Yedidya Hasson, 28, who manages a network of WhatsApp groups with 30,000 people in which some members have questioned the wisdom of vaccines and coronavirus restrictions, says he won’t take the vaccine at least for now because he fears possible health risks.
“When it comes to vaccines,” he said, “I think that the media in Israel is hiding the truth.”
Some ultraorthodox leaders say that while community mistrust may help to explain resistance to vaccines and recent displays of civil disobedience, that distrust doesn’t justify violating rules that endanger public health. “You expect from religious men to be more moral,” said Rabbi Dov Halbertal, a prominent ultraorthodox lawyer and commentator. “But when it comes to the biggest test of saving lives, we are failing.”
Write to Felicia Schwartz at Felicia.Schwartz@wsj.com
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