Liberman: Ultra-Orthodox politicians ‘endangering public health’
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Liberman: Ultra-Orthodox politicians ‘endangering public health’

Yisrael Beytenu chair berates Haredi political leadership after both Netanyahu and Rivlin warn against blaming community for coronavirus outbreak

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference in Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman holds a press conference in Neve Ilan, near Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized “wild incitement” and President Reuven Rivlin warned of “fake accusations” against Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community amid the coronavirus outbreak, Yisrael Beytenu chair Avigdor Liberman slammed the Haredi political leadership, accusing it of “endangering the health of the public.”

Liberman, who has often clashed with the ultra-Orthodox over issues of religion and state, rebuked lawmakers and ministers from the United Torah Judaism and Shas parties for calling for limits to the restrictions on ultra-Orthodox towns or pushing to tighten limits on other towns, with lower rates of infection, so that the community wouldn’t be singled out.

Listing a number of “worrying” incidents in recent days — an ultra-Orthodox man diagnosed with the coronavirus who boarded a bus full of passengers, ultra-Orthodox youth throwing stones at a Magen David Adom team on the way to test people for coronavirus, and an ultra-Orthodox protester calling policemen “Nazis” — Liberman suggested that the political leadership was contributing to disobedience.

“It is important to remember that most of the ultra-Orthodox public listens to the instructions and follows them,” Liberman said. “But what should worry us is not the lawbreaking minority, but the ultra-Orthodox leadership.”

First citing UTJ MK Meir Porush’s opposition to enforcing a lockdown on the ultra-Orthodox town of Bnei Brak and MK Mosh Gafni’s reported conditioning of coalition negotiations on no further lockdowns, Liberman said Shas Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s announcement that there may be a nationwide lockdown on all cities “regardless of the number of patients” in them “goes against all logic and comes only to appease the ultra-Orthodox.”

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference on January 17, 2020. (Flash90)

“I say again, I have no claims against the ultra-Orthodox community, but the leaders who behave irresponsibly and endanger not only the health of the ultra-Orthodox public but the health of all citizens of the State of Israel,” Liberman declared.

Following Liberman’s post, Health Minister and UTJ chair released a statement urging Israelis to stop attributing the spread of the pandemic to members of his ultra-Orthodox community.

“The statements that Haredim are seemingly are infecting [the broader population] with the virus are false and dangerous,” Litzman said.

“The Haredi public is heeding the instructions and meticulously obeying the safety rules. In every community there is a small minority that does not observe the rules sufficiently and for this, enforcement by the authorities is required. But you cannot generalize and, heaven forbid, turn the coronavirus crisis into a clash between the communities in Israel,” he pleaded. “Residents of Bnei Brak and Haredi areas are not supposed to receive discriminatory and humiliating treatment.”

Referring to gates put up by the Ramat Gan municipality to separate it from adjacent Bnei Brak, which the state has ordered pulled down, Litzman added, “I call on the mayor of Ramat Gan to avoid steps that increase friction and contention between the communities.”

Ramat Gan municipal workers put up a fence to block pedestrians from neighboring Bnei Brak, April 6, 2020 (Screen grab/Ynet)

On Sunday, Netanyahu condemned “wild incitement” against Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community amid the coronavirus outbreak, in a statement apparently aimed, at least in part, at a prominent TV anchor who angered many over the weekend by saying the community didn’t accept the state or respect its authority.

Many in the ultra-Orthodox community initially dismissed social distancing regulations, which officials say has led to the high rate of infection in Haredi-majority cities and neighborhoods.

In a statement, Netanyahu said the Haredi public had “internalized” the danger of the virus and the Health Ministry restrictions meant to curb its spread. “The coronavirus epidemic doesn’t differentiate between ultra-Orthodox and secular, between Arabs and Jews. We don’t either. This war is all of ours,” he said.

While the statement did not name the source of the alleged incitement, it appeared to be aimed in part at Rina Matsliah, a Channel 12 news presenter who came under fire after she launched into a diatribe about the community on live TV Friday and appeared to accuse all Haredim of violating the health directives.

Channel 12’s Rina Matsliah interviews Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on February 28, 2020. (Screen capture: Channel 12)

Speaking during a news roundtable, Matsliah said the virus crisis marked an opportunity for the state to shift the way it deals with the ultra-Orthodox community, which she said has never accepted the state’s authority: “The Haredim need to learn, they need to accept the state, for better or worse… This relationship must change. It cannot continue that the ultra-Orthodox feel the state’s authority doesn’t apply to them.”

Speaking to the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Shlomo Amar on Sunday, Rivlin warned against blaming any specific community for the ongoing coronavirus crisis.

“Today, I want to speak out strongly against the voices I hear criticizing the ultra-Orthodox community: We are brothers and sisters and mutual responsibility is our guiding light. We must not make false accusations that one or another group is spreading the disease, and we must certainly not attack a whole community because of the bad deeds of individuals, which happens in every society,” Rivlin said, adding, “we must also not make generalizations about a whole community, the vast majority of which is carrying out the instructions of the Health Ministry in these difficult days leading up to Passover.”

The predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with its roughly 200,000 residents, has had one of Israel’s largest outbreaks of the coronavirus, with 1,323 confirmed cases as of Sunday morning — nearly as many as Jerusalem, which has the largest tally according to Health Ministry data from Sunday. Bnei Brak is one-fifth the size of the capital.

IDF troops deliver food to residents of the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, which is largely closed off from the rest of the country due to a coronavirus outbreak, on April 5, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Thousands more people in the city are thought to possibly have the disease but remain untested, either due to medical authorities’ inability to do so or out of individuals’ fears of being quarantined.

Bnei Brak has been declared a “restricted zone” and was closed off by police on Friday morning to stem the outbreak.

Ministers were set Monday to rule on enforcing a tighter closure over eight cities and 15 ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem to stem the coronavirus outbreak.

The disease has claimed the lives of at least 51 people in Israel as of Monday morning, with over 8,400 people confirmed to be carriers of the virus.

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