Netanyahu slams ‘wild incitement’ against ultra-Orthodox amid pandemic

PM’s denunciation comes at height of furious social media campaign against Channel 12 and its reporter Rina Matzliah, who said community does not respect state’s authority

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past an electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks past an electoral billboard bearing a portrait of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Jerusalem, on April 1, 2019. (Thomas Coex/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday 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 Matzliah, a Channel 12 news presenter who has come 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 Matzliah interviews Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on February 28, 2020. (Screen capture: Channel 12)

Speaking during a news roundtable, Matzliah 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 the better or for the worse… This relationship must change. It cannot continue that the ultra-Orthodox feel the state’s authority doesn’t apply to them.”

When fellow anchors Dana Weiss and Danny Kushmaro interrupted her to say that she could not tar a whole community, she shot back: “I’ll say what I want. And I say that most of the Haredim are controlled by rabbis who are controlled by wheeler-dealers… And to anyone who might say this is hate [speech] toward the ultra-Orthodox — no. This is love and care for the state.”

Kushmaro then said: “We should still note that the ultra-Orthodox are 15-20 percent of the Israeli population; we can’t say that all of them behave the same way; let’s not make that kind of generalization.”

Matzliah’s remarks enraged many in the ultra-Orthodox community and in the general public, resulting in a public campaign urging her to apologize and some calls to Channel 12 to fire her.

A social media campaign against the network and the journalist resulted in many saying they had uninstalled its news app and in the app’s rating crashing due to a flurry of negative reviews.

In response to the widespread criticism, Channel 12 presenter Oded Ben Ami on Sunday delivered an on-air clarification that Matzliah’s comments reflected her views alone, adding that the network allowed for diverse opinions among its team of analysts and presenters.

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)

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 1,214 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.

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.

The disease has claimed the lives of at least 49 people in Israel as of Sunday evening, with over 8,000 people confirmed to be carriers of the virus.

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

A senior Health Ministry official on Saturday called for additional areas in Israel with a high number of cases to be declared restricted zones, allowing the government to further curtail movement in these places in a bid to limit the virus’s spread.

Among the cities the official cited to Hebrew-language media were several with predominantly ultra-Orthodox populations, such as Elad and the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit, as well as several Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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