Ultra-Orthodox press calls for virus czar’s resignation over rebuke of top rabbi

Ultra-Orthodox press calls for virus czar’s resignation over rebuke of top rabbi

Haredi papers fume after Ronni Gamzu condemns reported instruction by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky against coronavirus testing, quarantines

Then deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)
Then deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman, left, shakes hands with Ronni Gamzu during a press conference at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on January 3, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90/File)

Ultra-Orthodox newspapers on Thursday condemned Israel’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu and called for his ouster, after he denounced a prominent rabbi who reportedly told yeshiva students not to get tested for the disease.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, considered among the most important leaders of the non-Hasidic branch of ultra-Orthodox Jewry in Israel, expressed concern that the testing process would take students away from their studies and that positive results would require those who came in contact with the patient to quarantine, further disrupting yeshiva life, according to the Kikar HaShabat website.

He gave similar reasons a day earlier when he told yeshiva administrators not to quarantine students who are exposed to virus carriers, as is required under Health Ministry regulations aimed at curbing the ongoing major outbreak of the coronavirus.

Gamzu said in response that Kanievsky’s statements “endanger the ultra-Orthodox public.”

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the northern Israeli city of Safed, February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Yated Neeman daily, which is affiliated with the United Torah Judaism party, on Thursday seethed over Gamzu’s pushback.

“Rabbis and public figures lodged a furious protest against Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who opened his mouth against… [Kanievsky]. There is serious public indignation among the Haredi comment over the underhanded comment against Torah authority,” the report said.

“This follows the complete distrust in the actions of the official who is supposed to manage the fight against the virus and his ‘traffic light’ plan, due to his misguided thinking that does not reflect the reality on the ground, and the calculated games… which mostly harm the Haredi public.”

The HaDerech daily on Thursday expressed “deep dismay” over Gamzu’s remark.

“Among the general public, and primarily among officials involved in dealing with the coronavirus, there has been unprecedented criticism over the steps taken by Prof. Gamzu, who has chosen to… blatantly incite against the ultra-Orthodox community and its leaders.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study torah in small ‘capsule’ groups at the Ateret Shlomo Yeshiva in the city of Modiin Illit, August 24, 2020. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

According to the Kikar Hashabbat report, Kanievsky’s instructions did not apply to high school yeshivas. Unlike the higher yeshivas, where students are at least 17-18 years of age and often sleep on-site in dormitories, many yeshiva high school students return to their homes every evening, bringing them in contact with a greater pool of people and therefore posing a great risk of spreading infections. Therefore, students at high schools should get a virus test if they show any of the symptoms of the disease, Kanievsky instructed.

In urging against the virus tests, Kanievsky also advised that rabbis who are at risk due to their age or health should maintain a distance from students.

His ruling came has hundreds of yeshiva students were diagnosed with the virus since ultra-Orthodox institutions resumed studies on August 23.

Gamzu has also raised the ire of the Haredi community and other politicians with his opposition to a mass gathering of Hasidic pilgrims in the Ukrainian town of Uman over Rosh Hashanah, which this year falls on September 18, over fears of a mass coronavirus outbreak.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Hasidic Breslev sect protest against PM Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding a solution which would allow them to fly to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. August 29, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ukraine last week announced it would seal its borders to foreigners through September to curb rising coronavirus infections, blocking Israeli and Jewish pilgrims from traveling to Uman. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal also signaled that the government would impose a ban on large gatherings in Uman itself during the Jewish new year.

Some have blamed Gamzu — who sent a letter to the Ukrainian president imploring him to ban the pilgrimage — for an assault on a Jewish pilgrim in the town by local residents. Among them was the leader of the Bratzlav Hasidic sect in Israel, Nahman Benshaya, who told Army Radio on Wednesday: “Gamzu’s letter has become the bible of anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”

Likud’s Miki Zohar and Ze’ev Elkin have echoed that position, claiming the Israeli coronavirus czar stoked anti-Semitism with his position against the pilgrimage to the graveside of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav.

Bratslav Hasidim protest in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Ukraine’s ban on foreign travelers, which will prevent them from going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah, April 29, 2020. The sign reads: “Netanyahu against Rabbi Nahman.” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following Gamzu’s letter, Ukraine’s president announced earlier this month that the country would “significantly limit” the entry of Jewish visitors for Rosh Hashanah at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request, but did not specify the degree to which the pilgrimage would be limited. Netanyahu’s office swiftly denied that the premier had made such a request. But many in Bratslav Hasidic sect held Netanyahu responsible, vowing they would never again support him politically.

According to Channel 12, after the Hasidim withdrew their support, Netanyahu told leading rabbis he was working to find a solution to allow them to enter Ukraine and visit Uman.

The government has since formed a panel to review a possible proposal to allow some to go on the trip, though it is not clear that Kyiv will be open to it.

Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday that two Bratslav Hasidim in Uman have contracted coronavirus. Quoting the city’s mayor, the network said there was concern that they may have infected others.

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