Discussion – Key Debates, Viewpoints & Interviews
Life, health, death – The "Bare Death": Biopolitics and Religiopolitics of Jewish Covid-19 Victims
Noa Vana, Ph.D. candidate, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Tel Aviv University, and Research affiliate, the Minerva Center for interdisciplinary studies of End of Life, Tel Aviv University
Yana Feldman-Zaika, Ph.D, Ashkelon Academic College
Human rights are fragile against the mighty totalitarian power of Western, democratic, law-abiding countries . Refugees, the sans papier, the very old, the autistic, the chronic-pain patient, and the Muselmann are examples provided by Agamben  and others – e.g. ,  – for people who are both forcibly excluded and included in the political order; caught in the sovereign ban. They are mute bearers of "bare life"; recognised by the sovereign only as biological beings. They are stripped of any sign of social and cultural life, and their bodies are denied of human rights, devoid of value under modern biopolitical order.
A prolific (and polemic) discourse emerged regarding Agamben's influential theory. However, while authors thoroughly analyse living bodies as bearers of "bare life", they tend to disregard the exposed bodies of corpses. Here we focus on the corpses of Jewish Covid-19 victims who were subjected to the biopolitical power of the "state of exception" enacted in Israel during the Coronavirus pandemic.
The religiopolitical legal regime in Israel, unlike most Western countries, does not recognize a full separation of "church and state"; thus, infusing a delicate balance between Jewish-religious values, and humanistic and profane liberal rights . Nevertheless, notable Jewish rituals such as Brit Milah (male circumcision), weddings, and mortuary rites give prominence to the Jewish Halacha.
Though there are different variations in Jewish funerary practices, several "traditional" elements of the ceremony are expected. For example, first, the body should be buried immediately, or as close to the time of death as possible. Second, the corpse should undergo Taharah (purification of the body and its preparation for burial). Third, a Minyan (a minimum of ten males) of the grieving family and friends should participate in the prayers and escort the body to the gravesite .
Based on a digital ethnography of online newspapers in Israel, we analysed the mortuary rites of Jewish people who fell victim to Covid-19, and we found key variations in the state's policy regarding their burial.
We found that patients who were admitted to hospitals with symptoms associated with the Coronavirus outbreak were tested for the virus. If they died before a conclusive result regarding their status as positive or negative for the virus was obtained, the hospitals withheld releasing their bodies for burial for several days until the test results came back. This policy, which was enacted by hospitals without explicit authorization from health officials, constituted a crucial violation of the dignity of the dead according to Jewish Halacha that prohibits a delay of the burial (culminating in burials even on Saturdays at midnight). The biopolitical order subjected the corpses of Jewish Covid-19 victims to a regime of categorization, organization, and counting of casualties; operating in conflict with the religiopolitical legal regime in Israel that adheres to Jewish Halacha; and thus exposing the bare bodies of these victims to the state of exception, denying them basic human rights – i.e. to be buried with dignity.
Moreover, the Ministry of Health published official guidelines that outlined the necessary precautions that should be taken when caring for the corpses of Covid-19 victims. These guidelines were updated several times, mostly due to substantial public criticism. The first document, published on March 17th, explicitly stated that the bodies would be identified solely by medical practitioners. The shrouded bodies of Covid-19 victims were to be covered hermetically by sealed bags at the hospital, without any religious mortuary practices and prayers. Then the bodies were wrapped with a traditional prayer shawl, and the families were not allowed to touch or even see the corpses without the cover.
An amendment to this document was published on March 27th, and it reflected the conflict between the biopolitical regime and the religiopolitical one, allowing supremacy to the latter. In other words, the volunteers of Chevra Kadisha were instructed to wear full protective gear, vacate the corpses to one of four Jewish cemeteries that had a particular space designed for the purification of Covid-19 victims, and henceforth perform the mortuary rites as usual – they purified the bodies, shrouded them, and transported them to their final resting place.
Finally, the biopolitical order subjects us to a regime of physical distance under Covid-19 – i.e. official orders required that people stand at least two meters apart. Thus, they annihilated the ability of mourners to take physical comfort (a hug or a kiss) from one another at their time of need. Furthermore, only a maximum of twenty people were allowed to accompany the corpses to their final resting place during the Levaya; resulting in families that were torn apart when deciding who will be allowed to participate (spouses, children, grandchildren, etc.) and accompany the body during the Levaya, a final act of respect for the dead in Judaism. Hence, in the delicate balance between the biopolitical regime and the religiopolitical one, the Levaya arrangements accorded supremacy to the biopolitical order.
By employing the "winking" metaphor , we can conclude that the Ministry of Health is "winking" at the Orthodox religious authorities, by allowing them to expand the Jewish-religious hegemony to the mortuary rites domain under a "state of exception" (for example, allowing the purification of the corpses despite the imminent threat they pose to others). The Orthodox religious authorities "wink back" by supporting the Ministry of Health's decisions, and verifying that they are obeyed by the public (for instance, during the Levaya).
Moreover, the bare corpses of Jewish Covid-19 victims bear these "winking" practices, caught under the sovereign ban. These biological beings are forcibly banned from the social and cultural realm, exposed to the sovereign arbitrariness. However, at the same time, these corpses are included under the political order, outlining its boundaries. Agamben claimed that today “we are all virtually homines sacri” , living under a permanent "state of exception". Covid-19 will probably ensure his prediction for the next several years.
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