Column for Jewish News April 24 2020
Like most Jewish News readers, I suspect, there is almost no limit to my admiration for Israeli ingenuity and “can-do-ism”. Apart from the many Israeli scientists currently engaged in a global race to find a vaccine against coronavirus, there is the ingenious development reported last week of new “contactless” pavement testing booths.
They appear to consist of two very long rubber gloves and a sealed booth in which a medic stands, before taking a swab from the patient. They reminded me forcibly of a primitive TV gameshow long ago, in which an object was placed inside a black bag and the blindfolded contestant had to identify it by touch. Same principle, really.
But, hey, far be it from me to diss this creative project, whose design the Israelis have generously offered to share with other countries battling the pandemic.
Others in Israel, however… sigh. They have their own methods for dealing with Covid-19, and suffice it to say such methods seem to me to be aimed at the credulous and those whom education has passed entirely by.
This is the news – reported by Israel’s Channel 12 TV station last week – that a strictly Orthodox charity, which operates under the aegis of the 92-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – has been soliciting funds from donors in exchange for a “promise” of immunity from the virus, for themselves and their families.
The charity, Kupat Ha’ir, has been asking for a minimum donation of around £650. The money is supposedly going to families affected by the virus in the mainly strictly-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a mission that would be fine if that were all that was involved.
But reports say that once funds are transferred, the donor will receive an amulet and an assurance from Rabbi Kanievsky that “he will not get sick and that there will not be anyone sick in his home”.
To date, Kupat Ha’ir has raised around £61,554 from this campaign alone.
Amulets and almost certainly meaningless blessings would not matter if Rabbi Kanievsky were not so influential in his own community, but he is. He has thousands of followers and, last month, he made headlines in Israel when he insisted that yeshivas and schools should remain open, because, he said, “cancelling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus”.
The immediate result of Rabbi Kanievsky’s ruling is that his disciples flouted government strictures for a whole terrible two weeks, during which time the virus, not unexpectedly, was able to infect thousands of people in the strictly-Orthodox community before he finally rescinded his decision.
Now, we may say, the rabbi is 92, he might not have realised the implications of what he was saying, but he has a whole court of advisers surrounding him who must, surely to goodness, have understood what was destined to happen. That is not just ignorance, that is wilful blindness.
And, sad to report, it’s not just Rabbi Kanievsky’s entourage that has bought in to this amulets and keepsakes nonsense. During the latest round of Israeli elections (no, me neither), members of the Shas Party were handing out anti-virus charms at polling stations and were duly fined £1,690 for their pains by Israel’s Central Elections Committee.
Me, I’d have fined them a great deal more. Prayer can’t hurt, but telling people to place their trust in lucky charms is tantamount to wicked duplicitousness.