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Religious affairs minister officiates wedding in violation of lockdown

Yaakov Avitan of Shas apologizes for overseeing ceremony attended by dozens after Israeli TV publishes photo of him signing ketubah

Yaakov Avitan (Screen capture: YouTube)
Yaakov Avitan (Screen capture: YouTube)

Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan officiated a wedding on Tuesday in violation of the national lockdown, joining a long list of senior officials caught flouting the coronavirus rules.

Dozens of people attended the wedding at a home in Gan Yavne and Channel 13 news published a photo of Avitan, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, inside the house during the signing of the marriage contract, known as a ketubah.

Avitan can be seen wearing a mask in the photo, but at least one other person in the room does not have their face covered.

The wedding ceremony was held outdoors in the yard, according to the Ynet news site.

The event was dispersed by police, who handed out 14 fines, according to Channel 13.

The network said Avitan had left before the cops arrived.

While weddings are not explicitly prohibited under the lockdown regulations, they are not exempted from the one kilometer limit on travel, unlike funerals and circumcisions.

The current restrictions also limit outdoor gatherings to 20 people and indoor ones to 10, while Israelis are barred from hosting anyone at their homes who does not live there.

“I’m very sorry for my participation in this evening’s wedding. I was at the wedding for 15 minutes. I made a mistake in judgment and I express remorse,” Avitan said on Tuesday night.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of Shas, said he censured Avitan.

“This is a grave act,” Deri’s office said in a statement. “Everyone is equal before the law. Members of the government must observe the regulations.”

The incident came after a number of top officials were caught breaking the lockdown, including IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman, Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel and Yesh Atid MK Mickey Levy.

Gamliel, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, also reportedly withheld information on her whereabouts from epidemiological investigators after she tested positive for the coronavirus.

Netanyahu himself broke lockdown restrictions earlier this year over Passover, as did President Reuven Rivlin, by hosting family members who did not live with them for holiday feasts.

According to a Channel 12 news report Tuesday, 10 top officials who violated the Health Ministry’s guidelines have not paid fines.

The officials were named as Netanyahu, Rivlin, Kohavi, Argaman, Gamliel, Levy, Education Minister Yoav Gallant, Yisrael Beytenu MK Avigdor Liberman, Yamina MK Naftali Bennett and United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Litzman, the latter of whom contracted COVID-19 after allegedly attending a prohibited prayer service.

Also Tuesday, the Haaretz daily reported that 20 ultra-Orthodox elementary schools opened the past two days in breach of the lockdown.

Illustrative: An ultra-Orthodox man walks his son to the Poalei Menahem Talmud Torah school, in the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, September 4, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The schools that opened are mostly affiliated with hardline Haredi groups and the majority of ultra-Orthodox educational institutions remained closed, according to the newspaper.

The schools that opened were reportedly in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox cities of Modiin Illit, Bnei Brak, Elad and Beitar Illit. According to the Health Ministry, Modiin Illit has the highest number of active coronavirus cases per capita of any community in Israel; Bnei Brak has the fourth highest infection rate; Elad ranks fifth; and Beitar Illit seventh.

Israel’s schools have been shuttered for almost a month, since the country entered a second lockdown to try to curb surging coronavirus infection rates, which have been disproportionately high in the ultra-Orthodox community.

Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent weeks. Though many in the community are keeping to guidelines, a significant number of ultra-Orthodox people disregarded lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by holding mass gatherings.

Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of Sukkot, the so-called coronavirus cabinet agreed on Tuesday to extend the lockdown until next week.

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