Virus czar apologizes for criticizing Haredi rabbi who reportedly bucked testing

Moving to mend fences with ultra-Orthodox community, Ronni Gamzu says Chaim Kanievsky did not, as reported, tell students to avoid testing

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on December 26, 2019. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky at his home in Bnei Brak on December 26, 2019. (Yaakov Nahumi/Flash90)

The government’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, apologized for his comments against prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, which he made after the latter was reported to have told students not to get tested for COVID-19.

“An examination I conducted found that Rabbi Kanievsky did not instruct students not to get tested,” Gamzu said in a statement, suggesting that last week’s report in the Haredi Kikar Hashabbat news site had been false.

He went on to confirm a report in the ultra-Orthodox Mishpacha magazine that said the rabbi had not been referring to a blanket policy, but rather was ruling on specific circumstances regarding students who had been tested two weeks prior and who had since been isolated in study “capsules.”

Other news sites including Channel 12 and Walla, have cited officials close to Kanievsky as confirming his opposition to his students taking coronavirus tests, without providing any caveats.

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)

Gamzu said he “regret[ted] the misunderstanding as a result of the biased publication of the remarks of Rabbi Kanievsky, whom I respect and admire, and take back what I said.”

The apology appeared to be an effort by Gamzu to mend his relationship with the ultra-Orthodox community, whose leadership called for his ouster in recent weeks, both for his comments against Kanievsky, and over a letter he sent to the Ukrainian president urging him to bar an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage of mainly Haredi Jews due to fears it would lead to mass-crowding and subsequent spreading of the virus.

Ukraine ultimately accepted Gamzu’s recommendation, shuttering its borders to foreigners through the month of September as both countries have seen spikes in their daily case counts. Lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas parties claimed that the virus czar had no authority to send such a letter.

According to the Kikar Hashabbat report last week, Kanievsky cited harm to Torah studies when he told yeshiva administrators not to quarantine students who are exposed to virus carriers, as is required under Health Ministry regulations.

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

Kanievsky’s instructions did not apply to high school yeshivas, according to the report. 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.

Illustrative: Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

Therefore, students at high schools should get a virus test if they show any of the symptoms of the disease, Kanievsky instructed.

In his initial response to the report, Gamzu said Kanievsky’s statements “endanger the ultra-Orthodox public.”

The comments by Kanievsky came as Israeli children were returning to school following summer vacation, amid fears from officials that students could serve as major coronavirus infection vectors.

In March, as the pandemic began to spread in Israel, Kanievsky announced through a spokesman that study halls should remain open, as “canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus.” His edict, which he later rescinded, was partially blamed for high infection rates in ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, including in his hometown of Bnei Brak.

According to Health Ministry figures, ultra-Orthodox communities have led the country in infection rates, though in recent months morbidity levels have dropped off.

People wear face masks to prevent spread of the coronavirus in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90)

On Sunday, ministers approved nightly curfews in some 40 cities with high infection numbers, instead of the previously planned full lockdown on a smaller number of towns — a plan that had sparked a threat of rebellion from some ultra-Orthodox mayors and a major political crisis with the Haredi parties.

The curfews will be in effect every day between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Non-essential businesses will be closed during the curfew. Schools will be closed at all times.

They were supposed to go into effect Monday night, but the Health Ministry confirmed that the policy will not be implemented until Tuesday, amid disagreements with mayors of the 40 virus hotspots.

The final list of the affected localities will be announced Monday night, the ministry said.

The cabinet had been due to vote on a plan formulated by Gamzu, to impose new lockdowns on 10 municipalities, including the Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm, Tira, and Kfar Qassem, and the Haredi towns of Elad, Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, and Emmanuel. Israel this weekend passed 1,000 COVID-19 fatalities.

Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh) team wearing protective clothes in the coronavirus ward of Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh), in Be’er Ya’akov, southeast of Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

But facing a withering backlash by Haredi leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off the special cabinet meeting on the lockdowns and held a meeting with the heads of the two major ultra-Orthodox political parties, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas in an effort to assuage rising anger in the Haredi street.

Netanyahu’s about-face came after four Haredi mayors published an unprecedented open letter earlier Sunday accusing him of “trampling” their communities and “turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people.”

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