Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary schools with tens of thousands of students opened Sunday morning in open defiance of government restrictions.
The education institutions for boys in grades 1-8, most of which are located in designated “red” zones with high rates of infection, reopened in a widescale rebellion against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, with some Bnei Brak residents expressing fury towards the premier and saying they’ll join widespread protests calling on him to resign.
Several politicians, including two government ministers, called for any institution that flouted the rules to lose its public funding.
Israel on Sunday began easing a month-long closure that has managed to curb runaway infection rates, but 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.
While kindergartens and preschools reopened throughout the country in all cities and communities on Sunday, schools were ordered to remain closed for the time being.
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, had previously ordered boys’ schools in the Haredi Talmud Torah system to reopen Sunday, despite rules prohibiting schools from first grade and up from operating. Kanievsky, who is himself infected with the coronavirus, called for adherence to social distancing measures and a limited number of pupils per classroom, according to the Ynet news site.
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.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday night pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools.
“The Torah sanctifies life, and [doing] this endangers life,” he said.
The top official charged with leading Israel’s response to the coronavirus warned Saturday evening against becoming complacent and also urged ultra-Orthodox communities not to open schools. Speaking in a televised address, Ronni Gamzu issued a specific warning to the Haredi community.
“Opening the education system in violation of the regulations is dangerous and against the law,” he said.
However, that plea didn’t help. The institutions that 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.
Kids and teenagers, boys and girls, Hasidic and Lithuanian all 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.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 18, 2020
Institutions belonging to the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community remained closed, as did those belonging to some major Hasidic sects such as Gur.
Police officers were seen outside some institutions that reopened, but in some cases did not appear to take any action.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 18, 2020
The Israel Police said three principals of education institutions in Modiin Illit and Beitar Illit that opened in violation of the rules had been issued a NIS 5,000 ($1,480) fine each, and that two more principals were summoned to the police station to receive fines.
The statement said cops had ordered the principals to close down their schools and send the students back home, adding that talks were also being held with the mayors and chief rabbis of those towns.
Police said officers had rescued a crew of journalists who were surrounded while filming the open schools, with dozens of young people cursing them and throwing rocks and eggs at their car.
A reporter for Channel 12 news published footage from the incident in Beitar Illit, accusing police of telling him his media coverage was a provocation and ordering him to leave.
— Carmel Libman כרמל ליבמן (@libman_carmel) October 18, 2020
Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, from Netanyahu’s Likud party, said the government should weigh defunding yeshivas that systematically violate the health rules.
“There is no doubt that the violations in the ultra-Orthodox community are very concerning and could cost them and us dearly,” he told the Kan public broadcaster Sunday morning. “Cities with rising infections will be locked down. A month ago there were 12 ultra-Orthodox cities classified as ‘red’ while now there are just four. The majority is adhering to the rules.”
Science Minister Izhar Shay of the Blue and White party told Kan that “an education institution that breaks the law should not be funded.”
Opposition Leader Yair Lapid also said funding should be removed from Haredi schools that violated the guidelines.
Many ultra-Orthodox leaders and residents continue to believe their community is being unfairly targeted by Netanyahu’s government, even as some Haredi cities and towns are removed from the list of high-infection areas. Positive tests among the ultra-Orthodox are substantially higher than their share of the population (12 percent).
Some residents of Bnei Brak contacted the Black Flag movement, which leads the weekly anti-Netanyahu protests, and asked to join the demonstrations, according to the Ynet news site. Hundreds of such flags have been sent to the city, and activist groups are being opened, the report said.
“It is time for the ultra-Orthodox community to oust Netanyahu from the leadership because we protected him for years and he is targeting us,” said resident Shlomo Klein. “All the lockdowns are always on the ultra-Orthodox, all the definitions of ‘red’ and ‘green’ cities are directed against the Haredim.
“It has nothing to do with infection data, because this is the third time and we have crowded buildings where 50 people live together and that needs special treatment, but Netanyahu is busy giving media statements instead of dealing with the problem,” he added. “The easiest thing is to blame everything on the ultra-Orthodox and we are simply fed up.”
In the first stage of easing the lockdown, ministers agreed from Sunday to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); allow restaurants to provide takeout food; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow visits to beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.
Ministers voted Friday to keep several virus hotspots, all ultra-Orthodox majority areas, under lockdown at least until Wednesday but allowed the reopening of daycares, preschools and kindergartens in those communities.