Hasidim clash with police in quarantined Beit Shemesh neighborhood

Tensions rise as police and IDF close off ultra-Orthodox enclave at the center of a coronavirus outbreak

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox men during a raid in a neighborhood of Beit Shemesh on April 28, 2020 (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)
Police officers clash with ultra-Orthodox men during a raid in a neighborhood of Beit Shemesh on April 28, 2020 (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

A large crowd of Hasidim clashed with police in Beit Shemesh on Tuesday, three days into a government-mandated closure of two of the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

Dozens of black-clad men screamed “Nazis” as law enforcement officers attempted to shut down Ateret Yehoshua Talmud Torah, an Orthodox elementary school in the Hasidic enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, which had remained open in violation of Health Ministry directives intended to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, data released by the Health Ministry showed that Beit Shemesh, with its population of just over 120,000, was one of three cities with significant ultra-Orthodox populations that had more active coronavirus cases than Tel Aviv, the country’s second-largest population center.

In fact, according to the ministry, cases there had spiked by around 50 percent in a week. Media reports linked this increase to the hard core of ultra-Orthodox extremists in the city, many of whom reject the government’s authority and refuse to practice social distancing.

According to the Health Ministry, the number of verified coronavirus cases discovered in Beit Shemesh had increased to 436 as of Sunday.

In response, the government approved closures of the Kirya Haredit and Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhoods. The lockdowns, which went into effect at 6 a.m. Sunday and are set to last until Friday, effectively sealed off the neighborhoods in a manner similar to restrictions previously placed on the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where a ban on movement was imposed to prevent the spread of the pandemic.

Tuesday’s confrontation followed clashes on Monday afternoon, apparently sparked by the arrest of a member of the insular community.

In one video of that incident, posted to YouTube by local photojournalist Yaakov Lederman, crowds of children could be seen screaming “Nazi” and hurling objects at uniformed policemen.

Other residents, however, have welcomed the police and soldiers.

In an interview with The Times of Israel on Monday, Stuart Schnee, an American resident of the city, said he went to Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet on an errand and encountered a Hasidic man introducing his children to the troops.

“I wouldn’t believe if I hadn’t seen it,” he said. “A Hasidic father walked up to a soldier with his little boys and pointed to the soldier and said, ‘See, this gun won’t hurt anybody,’ and then said in Yiddish, ‘Say thanks.’ And all three little boys looked at the soldier and said thanks. The soldier smiled behind his mask.”

In one video circulating on local WhatsApp groups, a group of Hasidim could be seen setting up a barbecue for soldiers manning one of the checkpoints cutting off their neighborhood from the rest of the city.

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