Police chief suspends officers who allowed mass Hasidic wedding to go ahead

Cops to be removed from their posts ‘until the end of the inquiry into the matter,’ after photo shows one getting a blessing during Beitar Illit event that violated virus rules

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men from the Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty attend a wedding in Beitar Illit, violating coronavirus regulations, January 5, 2021. (Screenshot: Twitter)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Wednesday suspended several police officers who allowed a mass wedding to go ahead in an ultra-Orthodox community with soaring coronavirus infections, in violation of lockdown rules.

The officers will be removed from their posts “until the end of the inquiry into the matter,” a police statement said.

The announcement came after a photo circulated on social media showing an officer bowing as he received a blessing during the Tuesday event in the Beitar Illit settlement, surrounded by unmasked Hasidic revelers.

The officers were also summoned to a hearing with the local commander by Deputy Commissioner Moshe Barkat, the head of the police’s West Bank division.

Barkat “views the conduct of the officers gravely,” police said.

Hundreds attended the wedding in Beitar Illit — mostly without wearing masks — against restrictions barring more than 20 people from congregating together outdoors and 10 indoors.

Beitar Illit is one of the country’s worst virus hotspots, with 145.5 COVID-19 patients per 10,000 people and a positive test rate of 26% — the highest in Israel — according to the Health Ministry.

The attendees were from the extremist, anti-Zionist Toldos Aharon Hasidic dynasty, and were celebrating the wedding of its spiritual leader’s grandson.

Other police forces arrived near the end of the event to break up the illegal gathering in a local synagogue and found its doors locked.

“The revelers refused to open them,” the Israel Police said in a statement. “Only after talks with the organizers were the doors opened and hundreds were seen not wearing masks and in violation of the restrictions.”

While the crowd was being dispersed, dozens of wedding guests clashed with the cops and threw rocks at them, damaging a police vehicle, according to the statement.

The event organizers and the owner of the venue were summoned for questioning, and their sound equipment was seized.

In a separate event in the central Israel city of Bnei Brak, some 700 members of the Erlau Hasidic dynasty participated in the wedding of its leader’s grandchild at a construction site.

Police arrived at the beginning of the event, but left after intervention by police and municipality officials, according to Haredi journalist Israel Frey.

The event continued and only toward the end of the celebration did the cops return, ask attendees to leave, gave organizers a NIS 5,000 ($1,570) fine and summoned the site owner for questioning.

With tightened lockdown restrictions set to come into force Thursday night, police vowed to up enforcement, but anonymous police officials told the Haaretz daily that officers wouldn’t take action against Haredi schools that remain open in violation of the lockdown.

“You won’t see officers dispersing children at educational institutions and you won’t see officers entering schools and synagogues,” one of the officials said.

Meanwhile, one of the most influential spiritual leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community urged his followers to heed the government lockdown regulations and the instructions from the medical establishment.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and his grandson at Yaakov Kanievsky (L) at the former’s home in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on September 22, 2020. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

But Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky didn’t refer explicitly to whether schools should remain open, following reports earlier Wednesday that he had instructed Haredi institutions to keep running despite the countrywide shutdown.

Kanievsky has in the past ordered ultra-Orthodox schools to remain open as lockdown measures were in force.

Ran Balicer, who heads a national team of experts on the virus, said earlier Wednesday that while infections had dropped dramatically in the ultra-Orthodox community in October due to adherence to the regulations, the situation was now life-threatening.

“For several weeks, the number of new infections has been doubling every week,” he told the Kan public broadcaster. “I hope and assume the community leaders will understand that and take appropriate action.”

Updated Health Ministry figures released Wednesday evening showed 4,488 new coronavirus cases diagnosed since midnight bringing the number of active coronavirus cases to 60,801.

The ministry said 887 people were in serious condition, 210 of them on ventilators. The death toll stood at 3,512.

The ministry said 8,191 people were diagnosed Wednesday, the second straight day over 8,000 infections were confirmed with 6.8% of tests returning positive. The highest daily tally since the start of the pandemic was September 30, when over 9,000 infections were recorded while the country was under a second lockdown.

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