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Deri said to back closing synagogues, but only if demonstrations canceled too

Interior minister reportedly warns ultra-Orthodox ready to ‘revolt’ over perceived unfairness of COVID-19 rules, as cabinet clashes on proposals to further tighten lockdown

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset building, on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset building, on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri reportedly warned Tuesday that the ultra-Orthodox community will not accept any further restrictions on prayer services under coronavirus lockdown measures while it sees the general public is still permitted to attend anti-government demonstrations and swim in the sea.

Deri told fellow ministers he understands the life-threatening nature of the virus situation and that he is prepared to take it upon himself to convince leading rabbis to issue edicts prohibiting prayer services inside synagogues, Hebrew media reported, but said that he would struggle to do so if demonstrations were permitted to continue.

During a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers charged with formulating policy to counter the virus outbreak, national coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu suggested that all indoor prayer services be banned. Deri warned in response that the ultra-Orthodox community is “ready to revolt” over the perceived asymmetry of lockdown restrictions.

The cabinet had gathered to consider further tightening coronavirus closure measures just five days after declaring a three-week lockdown that shuttered schools and many businesses.

Amid fears that the health care system will be overwhelmed by new serious cases in the coming days, Hebrew media reported that the new restrictions to be considered include further limiting attendance at workplaces; closing synagogues and placing new limitations on public prayers; and shutting all markets, including those selling “four species” plants for the Sukkot holiday.

The lockdown period covers the High Holidays, including Yom Kippur, a peak day for synagogue attendance.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men shop for ‘four species’ in Modi’in Illit, ahead of the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, on September 22, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

At the meeting Gamzu cited assessments that over 20,000 students aged 10 and over are continuing to study at unregistered ultra-Orthodox education institutes despite the closure of the national education system.

Deri rejected the numbers and complained that the lockdown is already doing a lot of damage to the ultra-Orthodox community, according to reports. He then went on the offensive against weekly anti-government demonstrations, attended by thousands, that have been held outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, as well as other locations around the country. So far, the right to demonstrate has been excluded from virus-related restrictions.

“Why is there no talk of the demonstrations and the beaches?” Deri said. “You are talking only about mikvahs [ritual baths], synagogues and the four species.”

Coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

He reportedly continued: “I cannot understand why prayers are a no, but demonstrations are a yes,” he said and noted that demonstrators are permitted to protest all over the country without limitations.

“I understand the problem, but it is not symmetrical,” Deri continued. “It is not an equal decree. It is a difficult message to explain, and I think it is problematic. A government that decides demonstrations can be held but prayers not is acting as a non-Jewish government.”

“I understand that demonstrations are a sacred value for many people, and I respect that, but prayer for me and for many others is a sacred value,” Deri said.

Gamzu responded to Deri, saying that the issue of demonstrations is not being ignored. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana urged limits on the demonstrations just as there are for other public gatherings and Netanyahu suggested there should be “a single rule for all gatherings,” Channel 12 news reported.

Their remarks were countered by Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn, who insisted that each type of gathering needs to be considered separately, reports said.

According to reports, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau told Netanyahu during a phone conversation Monday that religious Jews would not heed guidelines if authorities shut synagogues but allowed other activities to continue, apparently referring to protests.

Under the current restrictions, prayer services can be held indoors but numbers are limited depending on the size of the synagogue and local infections rates. The synagogues must accommodate four square meters per worshiper, with this rule overriding the others. Though beaches are closed, swimming is still permitted.

In general, citizens are only permitted to stray as far 1,000 meters from the homes, although there is an extensive list of exceptions.

The nearly-empty beach in Tel Aviv, on September 21, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The number of active virus cases in Israel stood at 51,338 Tuesday, according to Health Ministry figures. There were 668 seriously ill patients, a jump of over 130 in a week. Of them, 159 were on ventilators.

The death toll since the start of the pandemic was at 1,285.

Gamzu warned Sunday that virus numbers were reaching “emergency” levels, and ordered hospitals to add new virus wards.

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