PM to meet ultra-Orthodox MKs amid claims virus rules are masking discrimination

Senior Haredi politicians complain of serious police violence, say lockdowns unfairly target ultra-Orthodox areas

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then Health Minister Yaakov Litzman hold a press conference about the coronavirus, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on March 8, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with an ultra-Orthodox minister Sunday after several senior Haredi politicians condemned the government’s handling of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and decried what they described as biased and selective enforcement of public health regulations that unfairly targets their community.

Meeting with Netanyahu on Sunday, Construction Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of the United Torah Judaism party, pushed back against the government for “imposing restrictions on movement in ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods only” and “serious allegations of selective and discriminatory police behavior toward ultra-Orthodox demonstrators,” according to Hebrew media reports.

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, on Sunday condemned what he called “deliberate violence by police against ultra-Orthodox protesters,” contrasting how the police treat religious and secular citizens during demonstrations, news site Walla reported.

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

There is “selective enforcement against the ultra-Orthodox public,” he asserted, declaring that “it has to stop.”

The comments by the senior ministers, who voted on the new virus regulations, followed several filmed incidents of police violence against members of the ultra-Orthodox community over the virus rules.

The government last week also announced lockdowns of neighborhoods in five cities and towns, many of them Haredi-majority areas.

Netanyahu’s office said he would meet with Litzman, Deri, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and other lawmakers on Monday to discuss the issue.

On Friday, one ultra-Orthodox lawmaker called on the two Haredi parties to temporarily leave the government to protest what he called “selective” targeting of religious neighborhoods for coronavirus lockdowns.

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

“I call on the Haredi ministers to temporarily quit the government until they remove the selective closures from Haredi neighborhoods,” said MK Yisrael Eichler of UTJ. “This is the only way that [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu will understand that Haredi human rights are not expendable.”

Eichler’s call came only 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.

Renewed lockdowns

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 Haredi West Bank settlement city of Beitar Illit, and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Ashdod.

On Saturday, ten people were arrested in Jerusalem as ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clashed with police during protests against the lockdowns. 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.

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.

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,)

Earlier this month, as the second wave began sweeping across Israel and cases doubled in the capital, the Corona National Information and Knowledge Center released figures showing that most of the rise in Jerusalem was concentrated in ultra-Orthodox and East Jerusalem neighborhoods. But the virus rates are up around the country and other areas with high rates of infection have not been sealed off.

While the ultra-Orthodox were initially reluctant to shut down yeshivas and synagogues, they subsequently adopted social distancing measures. However, many public health experts believe that such measures are insufficient due to a host of other factors outside of their control. The ultra-Orthodox generally have large families, live in dense urban areas and engage in a lifestyle that puts a premium on community engagement, all factors that could facilitate the virus’s spread.

Members of the community have complained that enforcement of the virus regulations has been concentrated on them, while giving other Israelis a pass.

Last Sunday, the police announced a plan to step up enforcement of social distancing guidelines meant to curb the spread of the 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 multiple videos of law enforcement officers using what many see as disproportionate force against ultra-Orthodox Jews for failing to comply with mask regulations.

In one case, which generated widespread outrage, police were filmed stopping a young ultra-Orthodox girl for failing to wear a face mask properly. In the video, the girl, aged 13 according to reports, begins to cry as police question her. According to witnesses and the girl’s mother, she had been wearing a mask, but moved it off of her face to drink. In the video, she is not wearing a mask, but a man walks up and appears to hand one to her.

Her mother complained to Channel 12 news that the police immediately told the girl that they were giving her a fine, instead of simply instructing her to put her mask on properly.

On several occasions, efforts to enforce mask regulations in extremist ultra-Orthodox enclaves such as Mea Shearim have led to clashes between police and Hasidim.

In one incident reported by the Kikar HaShabbat website, a woman was handcuffed after she did not cover her nose with her mask and declined to provide her identity number. According to the ultra-Orthodox news site, the woman then fainted and was treated while still handcuffed.

In one video shared on social media, a policeman can be seen slapping an ultra-Orthodox man while screaming “mask” despite the man appearing to be wearing one.

In another, a policeman can be seen punching an ultra-Orthodox man in the face during a demonstration.

Police violence in the course of enforcing mask regulations has not been limited to the ultra-Orthodox.

Last Wednesday, lawmakers heard testimony from David Biton, a 24-year old from the central city of Holon, who was filmed being beaten and tased by police before being jailed for four days for failing to wear a mask. “They just wanted to brutally hit me,” he said, according to the Ynet news site. Biton described the beating as “unparalleled cruelty,” the report said.

During the incident, which was caught on video, officers repeatedly punched and tased Biton as he cried out. He required hospital treatment for cuts and bruises sustained during the incident.

Police said Biton refused to identify himself and resisted arrest. In the video, he appears to try to remove his identity card from his pocket before officers wrestle him to the ground.

A police spokesman told Channel 12 that it was “a bad incident” and that it was currently being investigated.

In a letter recently published on his Facebook page, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana wrote that he was aware of the issue, stating “I see the videos. I see and it hurts. They are not easy. Believe me — they aren’t easy for police either.”

“In the incidents where there was poor behavior the matter will be thoroughly clarified, procedures will be made clear, and where necessary lessons will be learned,” Ohana added.

“Police officers are not the enemy. They are fulfilling their sacred duty in a national effort.”

Separately, 19 people were arrested in Tel Aviv on Saturday night during a largely secular demonstration against the government’s coronavirus-linked restrictions on businesses. According to Ynet, police were in some cases using riders on horseback and pepper spray to disperse crowds as hundreds of people blocked roads and clashed with police.

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