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Report: 3 advisers to virus czar threaten to quit over opening of Haredi schools

Ronni Gamzu said to make great efforts to persuade experts to stay, while warning that illegal opening of Torah institutions could serve a crushing blow to public trust

Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Ronni Gamzu at a meeting with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion at the Jerusalem City Hall, August 12, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Three advisers to the government’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, have threatened to resign in outrage over the illegal opening of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox schools throughout the country on Sunday, Channel 12 reported.

Preschools, kindergarten, and daycares were allowed to reopen Sunday, after a weeks-long closure, but all other educational institutions have been ordered to remain shuttered. Regardless, many Haredi Torah-teaching institutions, including in Israel’s worst-affected contagion areas, took in students following instructions from a leading rabbi.

It was not yet clear what actions, if any, the state would take against the infractions. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein warned of heavy fines and of possibly revoking licenses, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was more circumspect, calling on all to follow the law and warning enforcement could be intensified.

The network said Gamzu was making great efforts to dissuade the three, cognizant of the public reaction to three members of his team quitting at once. It said Gamzu had warned in internal meetings Sunday that the opening of the schools would destroy public trust in the process of carefully exiting the lockdown.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a televised press conference in Jerusalem, on October 17, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Channel 12 further reported that Gamzu and other experts are strongly opposed to considering any further easing of restrictions at this time, which could lead to large gatherings and increased virus spread.

Roni Numa, a former general who has led and assisted official efforts to deal with the coronavirus crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community, said Sunday evening that any institutions breaking health rules “are in danger of a procedural or legal process [against them], as well as a revocation of their license and a withdrawal of funding.”

But United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni said he had “made clear” to Netanyahu the demand by a leading rabbi that ultra-Orthodox children be allowed back at school — despite fears that the education system may be a major contributor to the spread of the virus.

Gafni said he had told the prime minister that the community would not agree to close down schools.

“We do not believe an error would come from the greatest of his generation,” Gafni said, referring to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a top rabbi in the non-Hasidic Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Israel.

“We are examining the possibility of charting out an agreed-upon solution to reduce the number of children in classrooms and studies in large, roomy spaces… while keeping to Health Ministry guidelines.”

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

There was no immediate comment on Gafni’s statements from Netanyahu, who on Saturday had pleaded with the ultra-Orthodox not to reopen schools.

Many of the ultra-Orthodox schools that reopened on Sunday were in virus hotspots, which currently include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Elad, the northern town of Rechasim, and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, Maalot Dafna, and Kiryat Mattersdorf.

“There is no authorization [to reopen]. No one gave authorization,” Edelstein said during a press conference at Ariel University in the West Bank. “Whoever does this is expected [to receive] heavy fines, maybe even the revocation of their license and the revocation of funding for the institution.”

Also Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with mayors of several largely ultra-Orthodox towns, including Bnei Brak, Elad and Modiin Illit.

Gantz said he expected the heads of so-called “red” towns “to do everything to ensure the public keeps to [health] regulations. There cannot be two nations within Israel. It is dangerous medically and socially.”

Many ultra-Orthodox leaders and residents continue to believe their community is being unfairly targeted by Netanyahu’s government, even as some Haredi cities and towns are removed from the list of high-infection areas. Positive tests among the ultra-Orthodox have been substantially higher than among the general population.

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