Virus czar seeks to ease restrictions in some ultra-Orthodox areas

Ronni Gamzu wants to lift lockdown rules in Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Rechasim to match rest of country, as infection rates there improve

Ultra-Orthodox kids make their way back home from a Talmud Torah in Jerusalem, October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox kids make their way back home from a Talmud Torah in Jerusalem, October 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu reportedly wants to ease lockdown restrictions in several ultra-Orthodox areas that were previously flagged as hotspots, as the coronavirus infection rates there improve.

The cities and towns, currently defined as “red zones,” are Rechasim, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit and the Kiryat Mattesdorf neighborhood of Jerusalem, all ultra-Orthodox majority areas, according to Hebrew media reports Monday.

Gamzu’s traffic light ranking system calculates local rates of infection based on the number of actual cases, the rate at which cases double, and the percentage of tests that return positive on a week-by-week basis.

As some lockdown rules were eased Sunday around the country, several areas remained under a nearly full closure until at least midnight Wednesday, though kindergartens, preschools and daycares were permitted to reopen. The other red zones, also all ultra-Orthodox, include Bnei Brak south of Jabotinsky Street, Elad and the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Ramat Shlomo, Ramat Eshkol, and Maalot Dafna.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were among the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu at a meeting of the Knesset’s Labor and Welfare Committee, in Jerusalem, October 19, 2020. (Shmulik Grossman/Knesset)

On Sunday, many ultra-Orthodox Torah-teaching institutions, including in Israel’s worst-affected contagion areas, took in students following instructions from a leading rabbi, despite regulations forbidding them from opening.

The government decided to lift some restrictions around the country after a month-long lockdown successfully drove down infection rates, including striking the one-kilometer limit on travel and reopening the education system for those under the age of 6.

Gamzu, however, has been hit with criticism in recent days from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers claiming he is singling them out for unfair restrictions.

“Ronni Gamzu doesn’t make decisions based on the number of sick people, but rather only if they’re Haredi,” said United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Friday, accusing the coronavirus czar of “doing calculations in his head in the dead of the night about how to put the Haredim in lockdown.”

Chairman of the Degel HaTorah party Moshe Gafni, at the opening event of their election campaign, ahead of the Israeli elections, in Jerusalem, on February 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“I urge the prime minister to stop the activities of this man, immediately,” added Gafni.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are close allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold sway in the government.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein backed up Gamzu on Friday, with a statement from his office saying he supports his expert opinion.

The decisions to lift some restrictions came a week after the Sukkot and Simchat Torah holidays, prompting concerns an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded, may not yet be reflected in the official data.

Most Popular
read more: