At first glance, the ultra-Orthodox protest held Monday in the southern city of Arad was no different from many other recent mass events held by members of that community that have been criticized for flouting coronavirus regulations and endangering public health.
However, this demonstration, attended by hundreds, adhered meticulously to the rules that require mask-wearing and a two-meter distance between people, and was fully coordinated with the police.
Notably, the demonstration was of the Gur Hasidic sect, a hardline community that has been slammed repeatedly in recent months for holding a host of mass events with little regard for social distancing.
The rally was called to protest “the continuous incitement against the ultra-Orthodox public,” hours after an arson incident at a Haredi-owned store in a local shopping center. A police investigation and questioning of a 17-year-old suspect found it was not motivated by anti-Haredi sentiment.
Rabbis and lawmakers took part in the demonstration.
“Today’s protest is not against [anything or anyone], but in favor of the right to live in our holy land and for anyone to live their lives in accordance with God’s commandments. What happened here was a hate crime,” said MK Yaakov Litzman, the leader of the United Torah Judaism Knesset party and a Gur Hasid himself.
“I want police to look and see how the ultra-Orthodox keep the law, in contrast to what’s happening in Balfour,” Litzman said, referring to weekly mass anti-government protests held outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street. Mask-wearing is enforced in those rallies, but distance-keeping is patchy.
“The mayor always complains about what the ultra-Orthodox are doing to the city,” Litzman said. “Had Gur Hasidim not come here, nobody would’ve come here.”
Arad Mayor Nisan Ben-Hamo responded that the former minister was “using the ‘peace and love’ protest to incite and sow division. This is the same Litzman who rejected funds for the Arad municipality.”
אלפי חסידי גור מפגינים בערד נגד ההסתה נגד הציבור החרדי בעיר, לטענתם. לדברי המפגינים, ההסתה בעיר הובילה להצתה של חנויות המשמשות את הציבור החרדי, בגינה נעצר נער בן 17. ח"כ יעקב ליצמן גם משתתף בהפגנה: "אם זה היה נגד מגזר אחר לא היו מפסיקים לדבר על זה"@AkivaWeisz @pozailov1 pic.twitter.com/bUFesrTA3I
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 19, 2020
On Tuesday, hundreds of members of the Belz Hasidic sect participated in a funeral for Yitzhak Landau, a prominent member of that community.
Though it occurred outside, and though participants mostly wore masks throughout, the gathering went against police guidelines that only allowed several dozens to take part in the funeral.
Hundreds of others who came to Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery were blocked by police.
הלוויה המונית מתקיימת בשכונת קריית בעלז בירושלים ללא שמירה על כללי הריחוק @SuleimanMas1
(צילום: מחאות החרדים הקיצוניים) pic.twitter.com/67jIja6cv7
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 20, 2020
Since the beginning of the week, schools and yeshivas in the ultra-Orthodox community have opened illegally — including in high-infection areas that are subject to extra restrictions — even as most of the education system in the rest of the country remains under lockdown to curb the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.
Across the country, only preschools, kindergartens and daycare centers have been given permission to open following a month-long lockdown that brought down rampant virus infection numbers but also shuttered much of the economy and paralyzed many aspects of life for many people.
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 test rates among the ultra-Orthodox have been substantially higher than among the general population.