Israel set to allow outdoor prayer quorums amid mounting ultra-Orthodox anger

Protests erupt over alleged discrimination, because political demonstrations are being allowed while outdoor prayer services remain illegal under coronavirus regulations

An ultra-Orthodox Jew prays next to his house as synagogues are closed following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak,  April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
An ultra-Orthodox Jew prays next to his house as synagogues are closed following the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

The government is likely to allow the resumption of outdoor prayer quorums from next week, amid mounting anger and charges of discrimination from ultra-Orthodox groups, Channel 12 reported Friday.

The likely shift comes amid reports that senior ultra-Orthodox officials are fuming over the police’s decision to allow a left-wing protest of some 2,000 people in Tel Aviv against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday evening, while law enforcement continues to firmly prevent any and all group prayer as stipulated by the government’s coronavirus guidelines.

Since Thursday’s anti-Netanyahu rally, senior Haredi rabbis have begun pressing government officials to allow prayer to be held in limited fashion, Channel 13 reported, adding that the rabbis have announced they plan on holding their protest rallies twice a day in Bnei Brak during which they also intend to pray.

Israel ordered the closure of synagogues as part of its measures against the virus and later barred gatherings in public spaces, including for prayers or weddings.

Channel 12 said the outdoor prayers would be allowed in groups of up to 10 people as long as the worshipers maintain a safe distance between each other. Jewish law holds that prayer services should be held with a minyan, a quorum of 10 men.

The government has also limited funerals to 20 participants and required they be held in open areas, while circumcision ceremonies have been capped at 10 people.

Political protests have been allowed as long as participants stay two meters apart.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling on him to quit, at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on April 16, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox communities see this as hypocrisy, and together with the fact that some of the harshest lockdowns have targeted their communities, allege bias against them.

Officials defend the moves, noting that synagogues have been a leading source of infection and ultra-Orthodox areas have had the highest infection rates in the country.

The ministerial committee formulating Israel’s response to the coronavirus outbreak on Thursday approved a decision to relax lockdown restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, while extending closure rules in mostly Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem until April 19.

The anger overflowed when riots erupted Thursday night in the hardline ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, with protesters hurling objects at police forces, who responded by throwing stun grenades, one of which injured a nine-year-old girl passing by.

Approximately 100 people demonstrated against the ban on communal prayers and restrictions on mikveh ritual baths.

The protest hadn’t been coordinated with authorities and did not adhere to Health Ministry guidelines on social distancing.

When police forces arrived to disperse the crowd, some demonstrators hurled rocks, metal rods, eggs and other objects at the cops.

Violence also erupted inside one of the local synagogues after the police officers entered it.

CCTV footage from a local street showed cops throwing the stun grenade that hit the nine-year-old girl who hadn’t been taking part in the riot, and exploded right next to a stroller with a baby in it. The girl’s parents reportedly plan on filing a complaint after Shabbat with the Police Internal Investigations Department.

The girl, Zissel Margaliot, told the Ynet news site that she was injured near her eye and had felt her head was “on fire.” She said she had run, panicking, looking for people who would help her.

Zissel Margaliot, who was injured by a police stun grenade during a riot in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim, April 17, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

Margaliot’s parents said they had taken Zissel to a private medical clinic rather than a hospital, fearing a coronavirus infection.

“They gave her ointments. She had pain and couldn’t sleep all night, she’s in shock,” said her father, Dov, who said she had been buying food for Shabbat.

Senior police officer Ofer Shomer told the Kan public broadcaster that the grenade hadn’t been thrown to where the girl was standing and claimed the officers had used “reasonable” force.

Police said in a statement that 12 people were arrested and that officers “did not notice the presence of the mother and child in the eye of the storm,” while dispersing the rioters.

Three officers were injured during the riots, police said, with one requiring hospital treatment.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, reacted by condemning the attacks on police as “contrary to the law and to Halacha,” but also spoke out against police.

“We must prevent wild police behavior, excessive use of force and throwing stun grenades in densely populated neighborhoods full of small children,” he said, adding such actions “endanger human lives, create hate and contribute to the erosion of public order.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

A lawmaker for Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, also condemned the incident.

“A heavy hand should be employed when dealing with rioters who use violence in general and toward security forces in particular,” said MK Michael Malchieli.

“But to see hideous videos like this where a stun grenade is thrust in the face of a small girl is unacceptable in any constellation,” he added. “Extra caution is needed in densely populated areas.”

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