Interior Minister Aryeh Deri reportedly told ultra-Orthodox leaders that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana agreed last week that the community’s schools would be able to reopen despite the ongoing lockdown, and that police enforcement against them would be kept to a minimum.
Citing several unnamed sources in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community, Haaretz reported Tuesday that a framework had been drawn up under which the Talmud Torah schools, which roughly cover ages 5-13 in the Haredi system, would be permitted to restart while keeping to strict Health Ministry guidelines including separations between classes, virus tests for all staff, and face masks for all students.
Although Netanyahu, Ohana and the Health Ministry initially backed the plan, they later dropped it, with sources saying Deri had explained that was due to objections from the Blue and White party, and also in anticipation of legal challenges if the rest of the country’s schools were ordered to remain shut, the report said.
Yet Netanyahu and Ohana were said to have given their nod for the schools to open anyway — without formal approval — as long as they kept to the framework, and that police enforcement would be limited. The prime minister later also dropped that idea, the report said.
Netanyahu, Deri and Ohana all called the report a “lie.”
Since the beginning of the week, schools and yeshivas in the ultra-Orthodox community have opened illegally even as most of the education system in the rest of the country remains under lockdown to curb the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Across the country only preschools, kindergartens and daycare centers have been given permission to open following a month-long lockdown that brought down rampant virus infection numbers but also shuttered much of the economy and paralyzed many aspects of life for many people.
Officials have expressed fears that pressure to swiftly reopen schools and businesses will lead to a repeat of the chaotic emergence from its first lockdown in May, widely blamed for paving the way for the spike in new COVID-19 cases in August and September.
Talks on the framework for opening the Haredi schools were reportedly held last Monday in Bnei Brak at a meeting between Haredi leaders, senior Health Ministry officials, and those responsible for the campaign against the virus outbreak in the Haredi community.
Also present was MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party and Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein. They were joined by Deri joined along with deputy director of the Health Ministry Itamar Grotto, head of the IDF Home Front Command Maj. Gen. Ori Gordin, and Roni Numa, who is leading efforts to stem the virus in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Going into the meeting, it was clear to the Haredi leadership that their schools would open the following Sunday, sources told the paper. A primary concern was that tens of thousands of pupils were left without any framework and with nothing to do all day. Whereas the rest of the country’s students have largely been able to continue their studies online during the lockdown, internet use in the Haredi community is publicly shunned and the option is not viable.
“It was clear that there were two options — going to war and applying heavy enforcement or managing to agree on a framework,” a source said.
Sources said that at one point Deri managed to gain almost across-the-board agreement from Haredi leaders to keep the Talmud Torah schools shut until they were able to open with government agreement under the framework hammered out with Netanyahu and Ohana. However, as soon as it became clear the government wouldn’t go ahead due to the expected political fallout, Deri told leaders that he had agreed with Netanyahu the schools would open without permission, but enforcement would be minimal, the report said.
By the following morning Deri reportedly updated the leaders that Netanyahu had also backed out of that arrangement.
On Saturday, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, instructed schools to reopen in defiance of government decisions, leading hundreds of schools to illicitly open their doors.
Kanievsky, 92, who himself is infected with the coronavirus, called for adherence to social distancing measures and a limited number of pupils per classroom.
Netanyahu on Saturday night pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools. “The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said.
In response to the Haaretz report, a statement on behalf of Deri said “the claim that Minister Deri acted for a framework to open the Talmud Torah in ultra-Orthodox communities without enforcement, if they do it covertly, is a lie. All of the talks on a framework for the opening of the Talmud Torahs were with Health Ministry representatives and according to their instruction, a framework that was never implemented.”
The Prime Minister’s Office merely said the report was an “outright lie.”
A statement on behalf of Ohana, who is from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said, “It is a lie, it never happened. Minister Ohana has acted all the time with police for effective enforcement of the coronavirus laws among the entire population in an equal manner.”
Although enforcement in Haredi areas was at a minimum on Sunday, on Monday dozens of fines were issued and some school principals were summoned for questioning.
In an attempt to smooth tensions with the Haredi community, Netanyahu has asked to organize a visit to Bnei Brak, while Defense Minister Benny Gantz has ordered a check into the possibility of the Talmud Torahs operating in the open air.
At the same time, there are efforts to put together a declaration by senior Haredi rabbis calling on their community to adhere to social distancing during studies, the report said.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox schools that reopened on Sunday were in virus hotspots, including Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf. Some of those areas have been cordoned off to limit entry and exit. Preschools in those locations were also permitted to reopen along with the rest of the country, drawing criticism from some.
The opening of schools is seen as a massive danger, with many of the ultra-Orthodox areas having high infection rates and indoor spaces understood to be major virus incubators. Schools in the rest of the country have remained shut for that reason.
Many ultra-Orthodox leaders and residents continue to believe their community is being unfairly targeted by Netanyahu’s government.
Shares of tests coming back positive among the ultra-Orthodox have been substantially higher than among the general population.