As Israel's COVID-19 contagion rate hits new high

Minister Litzman vows not to allow lockdown over High Holidays

Head of Haredi UTJ party claims decision to tighten restrictions ‘part of arranged plan’ to close synagogues during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot

Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)
Then-health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman lambasted the coronavirus cabinet’s Thursday decision to impose lockdown measures on localities with high COVID-19 infection rates, most of which are predominantly ultra-Orthodox and Arab towns. The lockdowns are being imposed as Israel’s contagion rates hit new heights, with over 3,000 cases in 24 hours reported early Thursday.

“The decision to impose a lockdown at this stage is part of an arranged plan by certain elements to bring about a lockdown during the holidays and close synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot — which we won’t allow in any way” Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, said in a statement.

During Thursday’s ministerial meeting, members of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a limited forum of ministers whose portfolios are relevant to the pandemic, voted to impose lockdowns over 30 “red” cities that have high coronavirus infection rates. Litzman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri , chairperson of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, were opposed.

The Walla news site reported that during the coronavirus cabinet meeting itself, Litzman told coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu that he “was not prepared” to accept Gamzu being involved with a ministerial panel tasked with producing a proposal to allow some Hasidic pilgrims to visit Uman, Ukraine for the Rosh Hashanah holiday later this month.

Gamzu last month sent a letter to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky imploring him to ban the mass pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav due to concerns that it would lead to widespread coronavirus infections. The memo deeply angered Haredi lawmakers, who claimed Gamzu had no authority to make such requests on behalf of the Israeli government.

Ukraine last week announced it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infection numbers. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled that the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman itself during the Jewish new year.

Then-Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Prof. Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem, on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Apologize for [the letter] and then we’ll see how we get out of the complications that you caused,” Litzman told Gamzu, according to Walla. However, the report said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Gamzu’s defense, saying his position made him an important party to such a panel.

In addition, Channel 12 news reported that lawmakers from Litzman’s UTJ party penned a letter to Netanyahu in which they called on the premier to rein in Gamzu’s “attacks” against the Haredi public, without providing examples.

Ultra-Orthodox newspapers earlier Thursday condemned Gamzu and called for his ouster, after he denounced a prominent rabbi who told yeshiva students not to get tested for the coronavirus.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered among the most important leaders of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, expressed concern that the testing process would take students away from their studies and that positive results would require those who came in contact with the patient to quarantine, further disrupting yeshiva life.

His instructions came as hundreds of yeshiva students have been diagnosed with the virus since ultra-Orthodox institutions resumed studies on August 23.

Gamzu in response said that Kanievsky’s statements “endanger the ultra-Orthodox public.”

Yeshiva students study in separation capsules in Jerusalem, on September 2, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Members of the coronavirus cabinet decided that city lockdowns would take effect on Monday in order to provide time for the relevant authorities to prepare.

The restrictions under discussion for the 30 municipalities included banning entry and exit, keeping residents within 500 meters of their homes, stopping public transportation, and closing non-essential businesses and all schools save for daycare facilities and special education programs.

Though there is no official word yet on which cities will be locked down, the 30 cities and towns currently designated as “red” are: Nazareth, Bnei Brak, Tiberias, Abu Snan, Umm al-Fahm, Elad, Aabalin, Buqata, Beit Jann, Jaljulya, Jatt, Daliyat al-Karmel, Zemer, Taibe, Tira, Kasra-Samia, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Kafr Bara, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Qassem, Lakiya, Sheikh Danun, Maale Iron, Ein Mahil, Assafiya, Arara, Fureidis, Qalansawe, Rechasim, and Kfar Aza.

Many of the towns have population that are majority ultra-Orthodox or Arab, two segments of the population that have been hit hard by the virus.

Unnamed officials in Bnei Brak were livid over being included on the list of “red” cities slated to be shuttered, telling Channel 12 that such closures will only increase the likelihood that more residents will be infected, as they’ll be closed off in their homes where many family members live in small quarters.

While a nationwide lockdown during the High Holiday period beginning September 18 was supposed to be discussed during Thursday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, according to reports, a decision on the matter is only expected to be made in a week or so.

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