The siege of Bnei Brak: 7 things to know for April 3
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The siege of Bnei Brak: 7 things to know for April 3

The insular ultra-Orthodox city is now forcibly so, but concerns about the police cordon around the city are almost as heavy as those about the health of the community itself

Police set up temporary checkpoints at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Police set up temporary checkpoints at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

1. Putting on the Bnei Brakes: After days of hemming and hawing and threats and reports of political considerations overriding health ones, the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak has been locked down.

  • “No leaving Bnei Brak: Dozens of checkpoints put up,” reads a headline in Ynet.
  • “Border police forces enforce a lockdown on Bnei Brak,” reads a Channel 12 headline, reporting that police are checking anyone trying to come in to be sure they actually live there.
  • Kan radio reports only those will special permission will be allowed to leave, while only food, medicine and some other essentials will be allowed in.
  • “We’re sending out hundreds of police, checkpoints, patrols both in uniform and undercover to make sure that the restricted zone stays that say,” a senior police official tells the news site, adding that they are using common sense in considering special cases and working with local authorities. But “the general rule is that Bnei Brak is a closed zone.”
  • Also being let in apparently are plenty of journalists. Ultra-Orthodox reporter Yanki Farber of the Bahdrei Haderim news site tweets pictures of him with other reporters doing their job right below his apartment.

 

  • Not everybody is having such a fine time. Another Bnei Brak resident on Twitter posts a video of a news photographer walking over to him and seemingly coughing and spitting on him.

 

2. Escape from Bnei Brak: Yedioth Ahronoth runs a headline “Saving Bnei Brak,” noting the high rate of incidence in the ultra-Orthodox city, where on Thursday the head of the Maccabi HMO said he estimated some 38 percent of the population there, 75,000 people, may be carrying the virus.

  • The paper notes that a large part of the operation will not only be closing off the city, but also removing those who are supposed to be in quarantine or who are sick into special hotels or other facilities where an eye can be kept on them. The problem is, according to officials, people do not want to be tested.
  • “People do not want to go to quarantine,” a doctor who works in the city tells the paper. “They fear the level of kosher supervision in quarantine, and they are afraid to leave their families. They understand why it’s important to get tested, but they fear isolation. Even the older people don’t want to leave and want to stay at home, especially for Passover.”
  • A senior police official tells Army Radio that “in the next few hours, residents will start to see a high presence of police and soldiers, who will be taking people to isolation. In cases like this, we are allowed to use reasonable force.”
  • Channel 12 news reports that forces “have the authority to use force against anyone who refuses to comply with the restrictions or disperse from areas where movement is forbidden,” noting that there is a history of residents clashing the police since the coronavirus restrictions went into effect.

3. Siege mentality: Despite the claim of coordination with local authorities, Bnei Brak Deputy Mayor Gedalyahu Ben Shimon tells the media that the cordon is a “death closure for the elderly.”

  • “Unlike a closure in which the army takes full responsibility for hundreds of thousands of residents and distributed food and medicine, here they have done half the work and are heightening the risk of infection and could cost human lives. I demand that they think of another way,” he’s quoted saying by Channel 13, noting that just as many people are now forced into even fewer supermarkets.
  • ToI’s Jacob Magid reports that on Sunday there will be help for the elderly at least, with the military planning to put 4,500 elderly residents of the city into special quarantine facilities to protect them.
  • He notes that the hotels are being outfitted to address the needs of the future residents.
  • Others are also critical of the closure. Radio Kol Hai producer Bezalel Kahn writes on Twitter: “Ok, there is a closure on Bnei brak, but why do the police and soldiers need guns. Totally unnecessary.”
  • Haaretz’s Josh Breiner is also critical: “The closure on Bnei Brak is important, but the rules and powers given police are too much. For example, they can use force against anyone who doesn’t show them documents or some knowledge about enforcement of the rules. Every paper, every document, even without any connection to identification. My advice: film every encounter with a cop.”

4. Rock out with your Brak in: Walla news reports that even before the cavalry rode in, most people in Bnei Brak were already following instructions, noting that it is especially hard given Bnei Brak’s notoriously small apartments and large families.

  • “From the windows of homes, one hears children playing, and between them also moms trying to prepare for Passover. They aren’t guilty. The crowdedness is one of the ultra-Orthodox community’s calling cards, especially in Bnei Brak, and families with many kids are being forced now to deal with a new reality.”
  • In a striking editorial designed as a letter to the writer’s parents, the editors of Kikar Hashabbat lay out the seriousness of the disease in stark terms and why they cannot celebrate Passover together.
  • “You told me, dad, that there are rabbis who will allow [getting together]. I don’t know of any such rabbis, and there’s not a person in the world who understands the situation and would allow taking the risk. There are only two types of people in the world. Those who understand, and those who, heaven forfend, only understand when it is too late.”
  • A report in Bhadrei Haredim notes that the city itself has created an internal hierarchy and closed itself off to those connected with the Beit Hillel study hall, the largest in the city, where there is thought to be a large outbreak of the disease.
  • “Anywhere in the city where they are distributing Passover charity or in a line for eggs at local stores, the question asked is whether anyone is from Beit Hillel. If someone answers yes, they are told to leave so they don’t infect everyone,” the paper reports.
  • It adds that many are asking why the authorities are putting all their weight “on a city of Torah and Hassidism,” when they can just focus only on the Beit Hillel crew.

5. Sympathy for the saintly: In Israel Hayom, Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau expresses a surfeit of understanding for those who refuse to heed rules against praying together, saying that its the same as depriving them of oxygen, and but he also censures the rule breakers for making trouble for everyone else.

  • “With all this energy that could have gone to helping others and connecting people, we’re busy finding fringe groups breaking the rules, infecting their surroundings and giving a bad name to those that look like them,” he writes.
  • Channel 12’s Yair Cherki also asks to stop all the carping about the ultra-Orthodox: “The outpouring of hate is more dangerous than the virus itself,” he writes.
  • In ToI’s blog site, Haredi school principal Menachem Bombach pleads for civility and understanding, admitting that some communities were wrong to ignore the rules, but are learning.
  • As for Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered among the most important rabbis in the world, who at first ruled that there was no need to heed the rules, he excuses him by saying that he was misinformed. “Had he been presented with all the facts and figures including an understanding of how contagious and deadly this disease is, there is no way he would have allowed the schools and synagogues to remain open.”
  • And a number of Twitter users point out that the ultra-Orthodox are far from the only ones breaking the rules, with scenes of people out and about, or bringing their kids shopping in Tel Aviv, Ramat Gan and other areas.

6. Late to the non-party: ToI’s Sam Sokol looks at why it took so long for the ultra-Orthodox community to catch on to the seriousness of the rules, and finds a complex web of reasons, from uninformed rabbis to deeply held beliefs.

  • One Orthodox psychiatrist who treats members of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community tells him that the issue was the community’s tradition of seeing things through the lens of religious persecution, such as the Nazis banning teffilin usage, with the belief that it’s in those times that holding on to one’s values are more important than ever.
  • “Exactly what we were good at and what we were taught was righteous is now a problem and getting us into trouble,” he says.
    https://www.timesofisrael.com/haredim-have-finally-begun-embracing-social-distancing-why-did-it-take-so-long/
  • In Haaretz, Anshel Pfeffer calls the virus “the greatest challenge to ultra-Orthodox Jewish life since the Holocaust.”
  • He writes that they are particularly exposed because of “Their deep belief that they can’t be taught anything. There’s nothing new under the sun. That they were always here, learning Torah, and survived despite everything. So don’t tell them about COVID-19 and doctors. They have the best medicine, which science can never improve on. They call it Torah magna u’matlza – Torah protects and saves. But it’s not Torah, it’s the belief in continuity.”
  • In JTA, Ben Sales writes that the lack of action from Israeli rabbinical authorities mirrored the lack of action from any authorities in the US, just as people were getting together for Purim, helping the virus run rampant through Jewish communities there.
  • “Purim came at a really bad time in the outbreak,” Eili Klein, a professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins Medical School in Baltimore, tells him. “The virus was just starting to spread in the community, and congregations of people in close proximity might have allowed the small number of infected people to spread it more widely than they might have otherwise.”
  • But he says it likely would have hit the Orthodox hard no matter what: “Between communal lunches on Saturdays, regular religious services, mourning rituals … some international travel, and large families, there was potential for this to spread faster in this community regardless of Purim.”

7. The minister has no clothes: It now appears that the man ostensibly at the head of Israel’s response to the coronavirus crisis, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, himself ultra-Orthodox, may have been flouting the rules as well.

  • According to Channel 12, citing several witnesses, Litzman prayed in a communal gathering at a home less than a week before testing positive for the virus.
  • Litzman also apparently refused to have his temperature taken at the channel’s studio, and Channel 13 reports that at the Knesset he refused as well, despite his own rules requiring it.
  • Litzman denies the claims of the group prayer, and Walla news reports he has cooperated with allowing his phone to be tracked for an epidemiological investigation, though the results (which would reveal whether he is lying or not) have yet to be released publicly.
  • A source tells the site that there’s no cover-up, just a normal delay because the investigation was only run late Thursday night. “There’s no reason the probe’s results won’t be published at the end, like any other citizen who is found to be positive.”
  • The Calcalist news site reports that 38,000 doctors and health professionals have signed a petition calling for Litzman to be fired. The site reports that some doctors in hospitals on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus have threatened to quit if he is not fired.
  • “When the minister himself violates instructions, they no longer have any validity — moral or legally speaking — in the eyes of the public,” the Movement for Quality Government watchdog is quoted saying in ToI.
  • Pushing back against those calling for Litzman to be fired, or criticizing him, Yehuda Shlezinger in Israel Hayom chalks it all up to anti-Haredi sentiment: “Tell the absolute truth – isn’t the criticism of Litzman especially venomous because of his Yiddish, his beard and his attire? The criticism of him indicates something about the public’s feeling about everything that is happening in Bnei Brak. There is a feeling that it goes beyond concern for the city’s residents themselves. The discourse about Bnei Brak reeks of prejudice.”
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