British Jews and the Coronavirus

AT JEWISH DINNER PARTIES in north west London, the topics of discussion not so long ago were Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism and the inanities of Netanyahu’s latest manoeuvre to remain in power – topics all swept away, including the dinner parties themselves, by social distancing and self-isolation. Instead of tea and biscuits at 4, it is the daily government press conference announcing the number of deaths at 5 which has become mandatory.

While Jews account for less than half a percent of the population in the UK, the daily figures suggest a disproportionate death rate from all sectors – possibly three to four times as high.
Last Friday, April 17, the Board of Deputies of British Jews released the figure of 256 Jews who had died from coronavirus, based on burials, and calculated from all sectors.

Hospital deaths increased on that day to 14,576. While this is not an absolute like-for-like comparison, it does suggest a Jewish death rate of nearly two per cent. This seems to be a constant over the last month as more figures have been released. If this is not the case, then the overall death rate released by public bodies would be far higher than publicly indicated.

The experts suggest that the grim reaper carries off the aged, the sick and disproportionately men, while the picture regarding ethnic minorities remains uncertain and blurred. So why Jews?

Anglo-Jewry is an aging community. They are probably more mobile and travel more. Moreover, Jews tend to be urban creatures – and London is ahead of other major cities and regions in suffering from the virus. There is a more intense sense of community – a Jewish congregation in a religious sense takes on an imagery of crowds in a more general sense of gathering. This was certainly true during Purim – only 30 days before Pesach – when Jews listened collectively to hear Megillat Esther.

In Israel, the Haredim have been badly affected in locations such as Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, probably because:
– the news of the pandemic did not pierce their lifelong self-isolation from the outside world quickly enough
– they did not put their trust in the secular authorities
– their reticent leaders acted too slowly
– they were happy not to take official advice too seriously

Even Yaacov Litzman, a Gur Chassid, who heads Israel’s Ministry of Health on behalf of the Haredi Agudat Yisrael party, failed to follow his own ministry’s advice. He and his wife tested positive for the coronavirus two weeks ago.

But perhaps the overriding factor is that at least ten men form a minyan to pray three times a day and that this forms an overarching central pillar in the structure of their day. All these factors are probably reflected to some degree in Haredi communities around the world, including those in London.

Several Haredi luminaries in the Jewish community have fallen victim to coronavirus and died. At the end of last month, a letter from 20 Jewish doctors was circulated, warning about the virus, in the Haredi heartland of Stamford Hill in East London. Speaker vans toured the streets to broadcast the news, but not everyone heard or understood since police were later called to break up gatherings.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews has been acting as a coordinator within the community to deal with every issue. Individual synagogues have been working very hard for their congregants to make sure no one is left behind, but unfortunately death notices, emailed to members, have become a regular occurrence. Synagogues issue Zoom notices for forthcoming funerals.

Young Jews have volunteered in great numbers. While all this operates in the capital and other urban areas, the Board has also appointed a Regional Coronavirus Advice-Capacity-Help (Co-Ach) to assist regional communities and to coordinate with London. Co-ach, of course, means ‘strength’ in Hebrew. Led by the Board of Deputies and by many others, there is a real sense of a communal “we shall overcome” determination.

When the research is finally carried out, will Haredi Jews be found to be proportionately more affected than their less devout brethren?

There has been a tendency for many Jews to look back in history in order to make sense of the present. Oliver Cromwell’s English Republic allowed the Jews to return to London in 1656 after their expulsion by Edward I in 1290. Within a few years, they had established a synagogue in Creechurch Lane and subsequently employed a rabbi in London in 1664 during the tolerant reign of Charles II.

The following year, the Great Plague broke out, taking the lives of thousands. The newly employed rabbi, Jacob Sasportas – the first rabbi of England during the Restoration – quickly abandoned his flock and headed for Hamburg. While the plague took its toll of the embryonic community, the rest remained in London and emerged to build one of the major communities of the Jewish world.

Just over one hundred years ago, during the last year of World War I, the British authorities suppressed any mention of the influenza pandemic in the British press for fear that it would undermine morale – just when the tide of war was turning. It is estimated that some 228,000 died of ‘Spanish flu’ in the UK.

Then, as today, many Jewish organisations cancelled meetings. The Federation of Synagogues reported “a large number of unpaid funerals” – the well-to-do were in all likelihood funding the poor, the sick and the dead.

Lieutenant Samuel Alexander, the son of an Anglo-Jewish communal activist, enlisted as a private in the Queen Victoria Rifles on August 5, 1914, the day after war was declared. He fought at Ypres and the Somme and returned home on leave at the very end of the conflict – when he fell ill with influenza and passed away.

‘Spanish Flu’ was no respecter of age – so perhaps it was slightly different from today’s coronavirus, but it made no distinction between classes. Sir Mark Sykes was one of the authors of the secret Sykes–Picot agreement of 1916 in which Britain and France planned to divide up the spoils of the defeated Ottoman Empire between the British and the French. Despite the promises made to them, both Zionist Jews and Arab nationalists knew little of such deliberations until much later.

Sykes died in his hotel room in February 1919 during the Paris Peace negotiations. Nahum Sokolov who was also in Paris, representing the Zionist movement, said “he fell as a hero at our side”. Sykes was not yet 40.

There is a certain comfort in looking at the Jewish past. Not surprisingly then, the Jewish experience therefore plays a role in imagining our future. As Churchill succinctly put it: “the empires of the future are the empires of the mind.”

Plus p61j 21 April 2020

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