Unorthodox understanding of the rules: 6 things to know for April 1
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Unorthodox understanding of the rules: 6 things to know for April 1

Spiraling situation in ultra-Orthodox towns, particularly Bnei Brak, continues to make headlines — now not just in Israel but abroad as well

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

ILLUSTRATIVE: Police officers detain a man in Beit Shemesh while enforcing social distancing rules on March 31, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)
ILLUSTRATIVE: Police officers detain a man in Beit Shemesh while enforcing social distancing rules on March 31, 2020. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

1. In desperate need of closure: Prime-time coverage and front-page headlines remain focused on the coronavirus outbreak in ultra-Orthodox towns throughout the country, especially Bnei Brak, where while much of the population has internalized the seriousness of the situation, a stubborn and substantial minority continues to endanger the rest of the community as well as the entire country.

  • The major Yedioth Ahronoth daily’s front page is plastered with the headline “city on lockdown” with a photo of a resident opening wide as a Magen David Adom medic swabs for a coronavirus test.
  • While noting a slight improvement in the willingness of Haredi communities to follow the rules, Channel 12 shows footage from Bnei Brak of police raiding yeshivas, mikvehs and synagogues where men were hiding underneath prayer shawls, seemingly thinking this entire pandemic is just one big game of hide and seek.
  • The Kan public broadcaster reports that a majority of ministers support ordering a closure over Bnei Brak, but that the National Security Council has resisted, arguing that such a widespread operation may not even be possible and could risk further harming law enforcement’s relationship with the communities, whose extremist members have been calling cops “Nazis” and shiksehs for several days now.
  • Channel 13 explains that for all intents and purposes, the current police restrictions in Bnei Brak already amount to the closest thing to a closure any city in Israel knows. Only residents are allowed in and checkpoints have been established throughout the city, with over a hundred fines being handed out to guideline violators.
  • Channel 12’s Gilad Shalmor points out that part of the problem is that many large families live in tiny apartments, making the idea of home isolation a rather laughable directive for the Haredi sector. To address the problem, the Health Ministry had cleared a dorm in Bnei Brak to house dozens of residents ordered into quarantine, but Shalmor says that only ten locals agreed to lodge there. Hebrew media reports that at least 67 residents who tested positive were extracted from the city late Tuesday and placed in isolation hotels near Haifa.
  • The network’s new go-to analyst, former Health Ministry director Gabi Barabash, warns that while much attention is being paid to Bnei Brak, the problem is no less serious in other Haredi hotspots such as Elad, Ramat Beit Shemesh and Beitar Illit.

2. Airing out their dirty laundry: The topic is making not just national headlines but international ones as well, with major publications around the world giving prominent site-space to highlight Israel’s ground-zero communities.

  • An article leading CNN’s website for several hours notes that a number of signs in Bnei Brak blame the outbreak on women: “‘Terrible Discovery” that the “Corona Epidemic = A Lack of Modesty.’ The poster implored women and girls to dress modestly and adhere to religion according to the demands of Jewish law.”
  • The New York Times’s David Halbfinger writes that on a stroll through one Bnei Brak neighborhood, he noticed dozens of quiet prayer quorums, some of as many as 50 men. “At one synagogue, where worshipers shooed away a journalist and photographer, the morning service was still being held indoors.”
  • Back in Israeli media, Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer writes a fascinating piece in which he suggests that the fallout from the pandemic may lead to a reckoning in many ultra-Orthodox communities, where members have for some two hundred years been convinced that closing themselves off from the rest of the world and studying Torah all day will keep them safe.
  • Pfeffer recalls the last time Israel was under such a lockdown: the 1991 Gulf War. Then, senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis told their followers not to comply with government recommendations that Israelis shave their beards in order for gas masks to properly fit. When all other schools closed, yeshivas in Bnei Brak remained open.
  • To their fortune, the missiles fell on nearby Ramat Gan and they did not contain chemical weapons as initially feared, “again proving that the [Haredi] ethos [of only relying on prayer and Torah study] was right, and allowing for it to last for another thirty years,” Pfeffer writes
  • “But there was no need to wait until the coronavirus hit to realize that a million people could no longer exist in an autonomy detached from Israeli society, as their rabbis and political representatives continued to… [bar their followers] from basic education and integration into the modern labor market,” he adds.

3. Leaks on leaks: In what is becoming a near-nightly affair, the various TV networks report on the latest bickering match that took place during the prior evening’s cabinet meeting.

  • Channel 13 managed to get the transcript of what appears to have been large chunks of the meeting, meaning at least one of the participants — a senior government official — saw it appropriate to record the entire thing.
  • In minutes leaked to the network, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scolds fellow cabinet members for leaking quotes from their arguments during previous meetings to the press. His cabinet secretary Tzachi Braverman adds, “Everything being said here is somehow making it out to the open. [But] if you’re going to leak, at least be accurate,” he says, appearing to  accuse leakers of giving edited transcripts to reporters.
  • The rest of the bickering that made it into the news mainly centered around arguments between Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and pretty much everyone else on the Zoom conference. Bennett has sought to make himself somewhat of the face of the response team — after Netanyahu, of course —  holding daily video-chats on social media, seeking to explain his philosophy for how to best deal with the crisis, while also urging Israelis not to celebrate the Passover seder without their grandparents.
  • He has quickly sparked the ire of Netanyahu and many senior Health Ministry officials as a result. During the meeting, Channel 13 reports that he asked why only 6,000 tests were being done daily instead of the 10,000 that were promised. At which point, the leaks suggest, Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov loses his cool and barks back that they don’t have enough kits to carry out that many tests and that Bennett’s office is the one responsible for providing them.
  • Netanyahu then tells Bennett, according to Channel 13, that he better worry about the photos of hundreds of soldiers crowded together at the IDF’s enlistment center before telling other ministers how to do their jobs.
  • Apropos testing, Bar Siman-Tov let it slip during a hot-mic moment at the start of a press conference that he had read research that the tests are only 70% accurate and not 90% as the ministry initially said.

4. Modern day Exodus? With Israelis desperate for a timetable for when this nightmare will end, those willing to give one have suggested that if all goes well restrictions could begin to ease up after the Passover holiday.

  • In a briefing to cabinet ministers, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat says that after the coming holiday, the government may gradually allow the public to return to routine life, but one that is “entirely different” from what Israelis have been accustomed to.
  • Kan reports that fuller freedom of movement would first be granted to younger Israelis before the government slowly makes its way up to senior citizens.
  • But on this issue too, there were arguments in the cabinet meeting, with Kan reporting that Bennett pushed for the government to keep to the post-Passover date while Bar Siman Tov urged against giving false hope to Israelis.
  • What surely won’t help plans to ease the country away from closure are apparent mismanagements confirmed by Bennett to Channel 12. Hundreds of people have been entering Israel from areas hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic without being tested for the virus upon arrival and without being sent for 14 days to quarantine hotels set up for that purpose, the defense minister acknowledged during an interview on the network.
  • Barabash tells the network that due to this “idiotic management,” Israel is in danger of “simply becoming a branch of New York” — the US state where 1,550 people have died and more than 75,000 are infected.

5. So close, yet so far: Various news sites continue providing constant updates on the status of unity government negotiations, even though wheels appear to be spinning for days.

  • One official involved in the negotiations tells Channel 13 that despite the significant progress that was made Sunday that led much of the media to report that the unity government was a done deal, “if an agreement is not made by the end of the week, I’m not so sure there will be an agreement at all.”
  • Haaretz’s Chaim Levinson reports that with Likud very nervous about giving Blue and White the Justice Ministry portfolio, the parties have agreed that both sides will have a say in the appointment of judges. Blue and White is still pushing to have seasoned politician Avi Nissenkorn tapped to head the ministry while Likud is digging in its heels against the idea.
  • The Times of Israel’s Raoul Wootliff points out that if negotiations extend through Passover, Blue and White chairman’s allocated time to form a government will come to an end. He’ll have to return the mandate to President Reuven Rivlin, and with it, much of the leverage he holds in negotiations.
  • “If the prime minister does not follow through with his promises to give the center-left bloc half of the cabinet portfolios in the emerging government, and if he does not budge on several key appointments seen as unacceptable to Blue and White, a minority government headed by Gantz could still be formed. That’s why, despite being in the middle of talks to allow Netanyahu to serve as prime minister for the next 18 months, the former IDF chief still retains the mandate to form a government that he would head, and isn’t planning on giving it up until he needs to,” he writes.

6. Pick me up: Because good news continues to be scant these days, here are a few reasons to get out of bed (but not go outside) as coronavirus days roll on.

  • The PMO reveals that Israel’s defense biological research institute has made “significant progress” in developing a vaccine against COVID-19 and will soon start testing on animals.
  • Larry David gives us one more reason to just stay inside.
  • A Spanish hospital reminds us that it’s not just medical staff but also the maintenance crew that deserves our applause.
  • MDA staff at a drive-through testing site in a northern Arab Israeli town give worried patients a reason to smile.
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