Health Minister Yuli Edelstein admitted that authorities were falling short in their mission to keep schools from operating in ultra-Orthodox areas, as Haredi schools and yeshivas opened illegally for a second day Monday, including in high-infection areas.
Schools in Jerusalem, Elad and other ultra-Orthodox areas belonging to the Talmud Torah system were open again Monday, according to Hebrew media reports. Though schools nationwide are officially shut due to virus restrictions, hundreds of Haredi elementary and high-school yeshivas — including in high infection areas — have opened in defiance of the law at the order of a senior rabbi, with many ultra-Orthodox officials justifying the move and police only sporadically enforcing the restrictions.
“Enforcement right now isn’t very good,” Edelstein told Army Radio when asked about the matter. “I hope that tomorrow there will already be more serious enforcement. I will do whatever I can to have enforcement stepped up. I don’t think we should use threats, but we need to use all the tools at our disposal to make it stop.
“If these education institutions get a fine tomorrow and also the next day, I think that after two or three days they’ll get the message and close,” he added. “I would like to remind people that this is a joint fight by all of us against the virus.”
Police have not said how many fines they have handed out for illegal school openings. Statistics posted on the police force’s website showed only a handful of fines for anything but mask-wearing, which constituted the lion’s share of tickets.
The health minister added that he was very aware that a single NIS 5,000 ($1,480) fine for a school that opens against the rules — the current rate — is inconsequential to large educational institutions, “and so I expect the police to continue issuing fines if the institutions do not close.”
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, who himself is infected with the coronavirus, called for adherence to social distancing measures and a limited number of pupils per classroom.
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.
Edelstein said Sunday that he had reached out to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit about withholding funds from schools that violate the restrictions.
Police have reportedly indicated that they will use a light touch to enforce rules against school openings in ultra-Orthodox areas amid fears of mass unrest and concern about the optics of having police remove kids from school. Government leaders have spoken out against the school openings, but are reported to be in talks with the ultra-Orthodox community to reach a compromise.
In some ultra-Orthodox areas, city officials have continued backing the yeshivas that have been opening illegally.
Gedalyahu Ben Shimon, the deputy mayor of Bnei Brak, which is included in the list of high-infection “red” areas, said Monday that his municipality would not enforce the law on education institutions that open.
“I don’t express my opinion on decisions by rabbis,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “The instructions are being flouted throughout the country. The ultra-Orthodox community has been pushed to the limit.
“I no longer believe the colors red, yellow, green,” he said, referring to a system under which each city, town or neighborhood is designated a color-coded category according to their infection levels.
MK Yitzhak Pindrus of the United Torah Judaism (UTJ) party told Army Radio: “I expect minimal understanding that this is a [legitimate] opinion. When a business owner from Jaffa shouts that he will open in defiance of the law, he is interviewed with much empathy. That’s not the case for us.”
But Deputy Interior Minister Yoav Ben-Tzur of the Shas party claimed the violations were only being committed on the margins of the Haredi community.
“The ultra-Orthodox community adheres to the rules,” he told Radio Tzafon. “We painfully closed the Talmud Torah and synagogues in accordance with rabbis’ decisions. The mainstream media always tries to take the margins and cast them as Haredi mainstream.”
Preschools, kindergarten, and daycares were allowed to reopen nationwide Sunday after a monthlong closure, but all other educational institutions must remain shuttered.
Many of the ultra-Orthodox schools that reopened on Sunday were in virus hotspots, which currently include 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.
On Sunday, UTJ lawmaker Moshe Gafni said he had “made clear” to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu his respect for Kanievsky’s demand that ultra-Orthodox children be allowed back at school, despite fears that the education system may be a major contributor to the spread of the virus.
“We do not believe an error will come from the greatest of his generation,” Gafni said in reference to Kanievsky. “We are examining the possibility of charting out an agreed-upon solution to reduce the number of children in classrooms and studies in large, roomy spaces… while keeping to Health Ministry guidelines.”
There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu, who on Saturday had pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools.
“The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said.
Kanievsky is a revered figure among the ultra-Orthodox, and his initial wavering on the seriousness of the virus has been blamed for mass noncompliance with virus regulations in the Haredi community. Frail and suffering from the coronavirus himself, the 92-year-old rabbi mostly issues opinions through aides who speak on his behalf.
Some of the institutions that have opened in violation of the rules belong to mainstream Haredi sects, not only the extremist factions that normally flout the instructions and clash with authorities.
On Sunday, Hasidic and Lithuanian kids and teenagers were seen going back to their yeshivas in Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and high-infection areas in Jerusalem. Channel 12 estimated that some 40,000 boys went to school in breach of the rules.
Institutions belonging to the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community remained closed, as did those belonging to some major Hasidic sects, such as Gur.
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.