Police have been turning a blind eye to lockdown violations by ultra-Orthodox worshipers at synagogues in Modiin Illit, according to a leaked call published Wednesday between a police official and representatives of an extremist sect in the Haredi town.
Following the publication of the story, police said an inquiry had been opened into the officer’s conduct.
The development comes as the ultra-Orthodox face mounting criticism over widespread disregard for rules put in place by the government to combat the coronavirus and with infections in their community rapidly spreading.
The ultra-Orthodox website Charedim10 published a transcript of the call between a police officer and an unidentified member of a hardline Jerusalem Faction community in the Haredi settlement of Modiin Illit. A recording of the call was then broadcast Thursday by Channel 12, which identified the officer as the police chief in Modiin Illit, Tzahi Halfon, and said he was talking to a local ultra-Orthodox representative.
In the call, which reportedly took place on Sunday, Halfon is heard urging worshipers not to argue or fight with policemen if they arrive to break up gatherings, heavily hinting that the worshipers can do whatever they want once the cops leave.
The conversation apparently did not have the desired effect, Channel 12 said, reporting that clashes broke out between members of the hardline Haredi faction and the police in the town overnight Tuesday-Wednesday because congregants refused to disperse when cops were called to a synagogue where prayers were being held.
“You know I don’t come in to search any synagogues here” to ensure that rules barring indoor prayers are being followed, Halfon says in the call. “I didn’t send patrols on Yom Kippur… I didn’t come in yesterday.”
“Between us, you know I’m not trying to harass anyone,” Halfon goes on. But, he says, he has no choice but to send a cruiser “the moment a citizen calls in [with a complaint].”
Halfon then explains what those who are breaking the rules by holding indoor prayers in synagogues should do if his officers arrive.
“A police car comes? Come on, that’s not a problem. You don’t want to listen to the officer? That’s okay, I didn’t ask for that. I only ask that when a policeman comes, get out of the synagogue… The moment they listen to the officer, the moment they disperse, we don’t mess with that synagogue. Understand between the lines what I’m telling you.”
“I understand very well what you are telling me,” the Haredi extremist responds.
Responding to the publication of the recording, police initially said Halfon misspoke, but insisted he at no point suggested that police would turn a blind eye to lockdown violations. However, on Thursday night, police said Halfon had been summoned for an inquiry into his conduct.
“It was explicitly said during the call that there is a ban on praying inside the synagogue,” police said in its original statement. “No person or community has permission to break the law and police will continue to act against violations of the coronavirus restrictions in all communities and wherever is needed.”
“The organization’s policy is unequivocal: The emergency regulations will be enforced equally among those who violate them,” the statement added.
מהומות ע"י הבית.
מודיעין עילית. pic.twitter.com/KMK3i1pdlu
— מיכאל אסטנבולי (@I_Michoel) October 6, 2020
The news followed a report earlier this week by the Haaretz daily, which said that ahead of the Sukkot holiday Jerusalem police made a deal with some extremist ultra-Orthodox communities, under which they could hold mass events despite the national lockdown on condition that the gatherings not be publicized.
That report, which police adamantly denied, was based on two sources inside the ultra-Orthodox community, the newspaper said.
According to the report, Chief Superintendent Shimi Marciano, commander of Jerusalem’s Habira station near the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, spoke with Hasidic community leaders ahead of the week-long Sukkot festival and came to the agreement.
Sources told Haaretz that representatives of the Toldos Aharon, Toldos Avraham Yitzhak, Dushinsky and Slonim local Hasidic sects participated in the talks.
The sides agreed that communities could hold annual holiday events, which include Simhat Beit Hashoeva celebrations usually attended by thousands, and police would not interfere despite such events being banned under the lockdown regulations — on condition that no documentation of what goes on is made public.
As a result, while police carried out a high-profile enforcement drive on Sunday and Monday in Mea Shearim, making arrests and issuing tickets amid violent confrontations with protesters, officers totally ignored some mass events that were being held within meters of the street clashes, the report said.
Haaretz reported Thursday that covert understandings were also agreed with the Belz and Vizhnitz Hasidic communities. The report said those communities have approval to hold big events for yeshiva students studying in separate “capsules,” but that many others join those events.
The report quoted a police source as saying the events cannot be stopped and denying that outside people are attending them.
Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with reports showing that a significant number are disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.
The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average. Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of the Sukkot holiday, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.
On Thursday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the ultra-Orthodox public to stick to the rules this weekend while marking the festival of Simchat Torah, when worshipers traditionally gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse holding Torah scrolls.
“I ask of everyone who is listening, protect yourselves — no dancing on Simchat Torah,” Netanyahu told Kol Barama radio. “There is no greater blasphemy than for us to lose lives due to Simchat Torah. Pray outside, keep to the rules, and sanctify both the Torah and the value of life.”