Extremist Haredim in Beit Shemesh don yellow stars to protest synagogue ban

Some railing against government coronavirus guidelines closing synagogues and yeshivas liken their treatment by authorities to persecution of Jews under totalitarian regimes

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Illustrative: Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city of Beit Shemesh for violating coronavirus guidelines, April 16, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)
Illustrative: Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to ultra-Orthodox Jews in the city of Beit Shemesh for violating coronavirus guidelines, April 16, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Hundreds of extremist ultra-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh have held protests against the government’s coronavirus restrictions that have kept synagogues and yeshiva study halls closed, with some even donning yellow Stars of David.

Footage and  photos on social media of the protests held Monday showed several of the protesters wearing the badges reminiscent of Holocaust-era Jewish persecution. Others compared the Israeli government to the Soviet Union.

Video showed the large throng of protesters surrounding a vehicle that had attempted to cross through the path of the demonstration, denouncing the “campaign of religious persecution by the Bolshevik-Israeli government.”

The protest came on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

בית שמש עכשיו: חרדים קיצוניים בהפגנות אלימות נגד האיסורים של משרד הבריאות לגבי התקהלות בבתי כנסת. עשרות מפגינים עונדים…

Posted by ‎מחאת השבת‎ on Monday, April 20, 2020

Police descended in large numbers on the town’s Heftziba neighborhood where residents were blocking a main road and used riot-dispersal measures to break up the protests. Several of the demonstrators were detained as a result, according to Hebrew media reports.

This is not the first time since the start of the pandemic that radical Haredim have likened their treatment by Israeli authorities to the Nazi persecution of Jews. Footage from protests last month caught demonstrators wearing yellow stars and striped concentration camp uniforms in addition to calling police officers “Nazis.”

There have been several, sometimes violent, demonstrations among Haredi communities against the coronavirus restrictions that saw synagogues, schools and yeshivas closed and prayer quorums banned. There has also been widespread anger after strict closures were imposed on the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem neighborhoods, which were the worst affected by the virus.

Extremist ultra-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh protest the government’s coronavirus guidelines on April 20, 2020. (Screen capture/Israel Hayom)

Police have also been accused of using excessive force.

A clip of a police officer shoving a Haredi man to the ground in Mea Shearim Jerusalem began circulating in several prominent ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp groups Tuesday under the caption, “this is not Auschwitz, it is Mea Shearim.”

Police said they were investigating the incident.

Last week the government eased some restrictions.

Under the latest guidelines Jerusalem and Bnei Brak residents will now be under the same restrictions as the rest of the country, which keep them within 100 meters of their homes, with exceptions of purchasing food, supplies and going to work.

Outdoor prayers of up to 19 people are also allowed, with two meters between worshipers, wearing masks.

People are also allowed to go 500 meters beyond their own homes or workplaces for prayer. Men were also allowed to attend ritual baths under certain conditions.

However, synagogues and yeshivas, which were found to have been major sources of infection at the start of the crisis, are still closed.

As of Monday evening, Beit Shemesh — where over 50% of the roughly 120,000 residents are ultra-Orthodox — has had 319 confirmed coronavirus cases. Only Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Elad have more COVID-19 carriers. Beit Shemesh has seen a 14.7% rise in confirmed cases in the past three days and a 51.2% increase during the past week.

The issue seems to be causing splits within the Haredi leadership too, who have largely followed government restrictions.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who is arguably the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak with hundreds of thousands of followers, signed off on a letter Monday that was sent to the United Torah Judaism party-affiliated Yeted Ne’eman Haredi newspaper calling for yeshiva study halls to be re-opened, according to a Tuesday Channel 12 report.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on April 15, 2018. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

However, under the direction of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who heads the Ponevezh Yeshiva and also a prominent community leader in Bnei Brak, the paper chose not to publish the letter, the report said, calling the move an “unprecedented step” in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Last month, Kanievsky initially defied government calls to close yeshivas, only reversing his stance after two fateful weeks.

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