Meeting with PM over coronavirus enforcement, Haredi MKs demand ‘end to abuse’

Netanyahu promises to take steps to address concerns over alleged discriminatory enforcement and police brutality against the ultra-Orthodox

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and ultra-Orthodox MKs to discuss the government's coronavirus response, on July 13, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and ultra-Orthodox MKs to discuss the government's coronavirus response, on July 13, 2020. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers on Monday demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu work to stop what they say is biased and selective enforcement of public health regulations that unfairly targets their community.

MKs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties met Netanyahu alongside Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana following days of complaints and even threats by some lawmakers that they could bolt the coalition.

“Discrimination is being enforced against the ultra-Orthodox community,” Shas head and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said at the meeting, according to a statement his office released on Monday afternoon. “I call on the prime minister and the public security minister to work for equal enforcement.

“A closure carried out without any aid package does not achieve its goal and harms the entire public,” he said, referring to the recent closures of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri at the party’s election-night headquarters, March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

On Friday, lockdowns went into effect in selected neighborhoods in five cities, including Haredi enclaves in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The government also previously sealed off the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Ashdod.

During the height of the first wave, the cities of Beit Shemesh, Elad and Modiin Illit each had more active cases than Tel Aviv, the country’s second-largest population center. In April, the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak was put under a closure order, as were several predominantly Hasidic neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh.

Deri said that before applying a lockdown, authorities need to asses what sort of aid is required and how to evacuate patients to coronavirus hotels.

“If you can’t evacuate the patients it makes no sense to establish a closure,” he said.

“It is difficult to convince the public to adhere to the guidelines when no closure criteria are published,” added Shas MK Moshe Abutbul, the former mayor of Beit Shemesh.

Ultra-Orthodox anger has spilled out into the streets. On Sunday, at least two people were arrested in Jerusalem as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews set trash cans on fire and knocked down barriers to protest the closures.

This came a day after 10 people were arrested as ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clashed with police. Hundreds of protesters blocked the intersection of Yirmiyahu and Shamgar streets, and threw stones, eggs and other objects at officers who were responding to the situation, the Israel Police said in a statement. Some of the protesters tore down police barricades that had been set up to enforce the lockdowns, the statement said.

In a statement after Monday’s meeting, UTJ said that “imposing a closure on ultra-Orthodox population concentrations is a fleeing from responsibility. This is a behavior that harms the public and is not effective in combating the coronavirus. Our demand is for action to be transparent and egalitarian, and to remove sectarian closures.”

Illustrative: Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

The current approach, the party said, was “unjustified, disproportionate, tainted with selective discrimination and undermines public trust in the system.”

According to UTJ, Edelstein replied that his ministry would “work to fix this.”

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that prior to future closures, consultations would be held with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community and, if possible, command centers would be opened in the affected communities themselves.

“I asked to meet here to hear from you and so that we can address your distress; I know it is real and it touches our hearts,” Netanyahu said. “We want to help, no one wants to be harassed… and I am open to listening.”

The MKs also complained of brutality against members of the ultra-Orthodox community by police enforcing virus restrictions.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police in Jerusalem over localized lockdowns of their neighborhoods due to the spread of the coronavirus, July 11, 2020. (Israel Police)

Last Sunday, police announced a plan to step up enforcement of social distancing guidelines meant to curb the spread of coronavirus, with thousands of officers drafted into a special task force to carry out inspections.

Since then, ultra-Orthodox news sites and social media accounts have shared videos of law enforcement officers using what many see as disproportionate force against ultra-Orthodox Israelis for failing to comply with mask regulations.

“There is great anger over the arrogant enforcement that discriminates against the ultra-Orthodox,” said MK Michael Michaeli.

“While in Beitar, a woman receives a NIS 2,000 fine for not wearing a mask, in Tel Aviv masks are distributed. Our public feels persecuted,” he said.

“The ultra-Orthodox public has become a punching bag,” Deputy Welfare Minister Meshulam Nahari said, addressing Netanyahu and Ohana. “You must intervene and put an end to the abuse.”

Chairman of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee Yaakov Margi in the Knesset on February 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ohana, who has previously said that he was aware of problems with enforcement and would take steps to fix them, told the MKs that he would “work to rectify this as soon as possible,” Deri’s office said in a statement.

UTJ’s statement said that Netanyahu condemned the violence and said that “police officers who acted illegally will be brought to account.”

The statement also quoted Ohana saying that he had “ordered immediate action against any manifestation of violence and we will not allow discriminatory enforcement against the ultra-Orthodox population.”

On Friday, MK Yisrael Eichler of UTJ called on the two Haredi parties to temporarily leave the government to protest what he called “selective” targeting of religious neighborhoods for coronavirus lockdowns. His call came days after UTJ MK Moshe Gafni threatened to withdraw his party from the coalition if the government decides to close down yeshivas. Shortly after, the cabinet announced a new raft of restrictions on bars, synagogues and other venues which excluded yeshivas.

MK Rabbi Yisrael Eichler (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Member of Knesset Rabbi Yisrael Eichler (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speaking at Monday’s meeting, UTJ MK Uri Maklev said that while the ultra-Orthodox public has long stood by Netanyahu, it has a “long memory” and was now “waiting for your action and intervention, for deeds and not for speech,” Maariv reported.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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