Ultra-Orthodox protest lockdown, with some suspected of evading travel rules

Police reportedly believe some purported demonstrations a ploy to move between cities during coronavirus shutdown; rallies held in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak

A fire burns as ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against coronavirus restrictions in Bnei Brak, September 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A fire burns as ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against coronavirus restrictions in Bnei Brak, September 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Ultra-Orthodox protesters held demonstrations in several cities on Sunday evening against the national coronavirus lockdown, with some suspected of using the demonstrations as a ploy to evade travel restrictions.

Under the three-week lockdown that took effect Friday, Israelis may not travel more than a kilometer from their homes, except for an essential need, though several exceptions were made, including for protests.

Ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday this weekend, police received numerous requests to approve ultra-Orthodox demonstrations after the holiday’s end, raising their suspicions. Officials believed some of the requests were legitimate, but many were cover for travel, according to Channel 12.

“We are well aware there will be those who try to take advantage of the various exceptions to return home after not being at home for the [Rosh Hashanah] holiday,” a police source told Haaretz. “Whoever wants can bypass the regulations, but we expect responsibility from the public.”

It is traditional to spend Rosh Hashanah with family, and for religious Jews this means returning home only when allowed to drive at the end of the two-day holiday. But this year saw the new lockdown begin on Rosh Hashanah eve in order to prevent family gatherings that could spread infections.

On Sunday night, after the holiday ended, fleets of buses arrived in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak to ferry families to events designated as protests in other areas of the country with significant ultra-Orthodox populations, such as Elad and Beit Shemesh.

Some of the buses had signs in the front window saying they were heading to a protest.

“The laws harm the ultra-Orthodox and if the secular are allowed to travel from place to place to protest, we’re also allowed,” Yehuda, a resident of Bnei Brak, told the Ynet news site after spending Rosh Hashanah in Jerusalem.

He added: “Before the holiday began I went with my family to our family in Jerusalem when this was allowed and now I’m returning to Bnei Brak for a demonstration… There’s no problem and there’s many more like me in the ultra-Orthodox public.”

Police told Channel 12 they could not prevent the mass travel from taking place, despite the lockdown, as they had no proof the protest requests were illegitimate.

At a rally in Bnei Brak, a group of demonstrators marched in the streets, with the Haaretz daily reporting that families with suitcases were seen in the area making their way home, apparently under the cover of the protests.

Video showed protesters burning a dumpster in the middle of the street and Hebrew media reports said some of them called police “Nazis.”

Police said a man in his 20s was arrested for allegedly disturbing public order.

A Bnei Brak community representative, Avraham Zilbershlag, defended the demonstration, saying, “The protest is meant to express the feeling of pain in the face of the lockdown’s destructive consequences, which harm religious institutions, the economy and the well-being of residents.”

Hundreds also attended a similar protest in Jerusalem’s Kikar Hashabbat, a major intersection in an ultra-Orthodox area of the city.

There were also reports of non-Haredi Israelis using loopholes to get around the one kilometer limit on travel.

“Suddenly everyone are medical staff members or have an old grandmother who needs help,” police at a checkpoint in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona told Ynet, referring to other exemptions to the travel restrictions.

Anti-government protesters also rallied on Sunday night against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside his official residence in Jerusalem and his private home in Caesarea.

Israel’s coronavirus cases have surged in recent months, with Prof. Ronni Gamzu, who heads the government’s response, saying on Sunday that the numbers were reaching “emergency” levels that could see the 600 Israelis dying of the virus per month.

The three-week shutdown, requiring the closure of many businesses and setting strict limits on movement and public gatherings will extend through other key religious holidays, including Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

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