As elements of the ultra-Orthodox community continued with flagrant violations of a national lockdown ordered to curb the coronavirus outbreak, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein on Thursday called for jailing offenders.
Two people were arrested Thursday and two police officers were injured during clashes as police shut down a yeshiva in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on what marked another day of violent pushback against enforcement.
The lockdown, in its third week and extended to end on January 31, has shuttered all nonessential businesses and also closed down the entire education system, excluding special education.
However, media reports have shown that many in the ultra-Orthodox community, known as Haredi, are flouting the orders, keeping open Talmud Torah schools, which roughly cover grades 1-8, and Talmudic yeshivas. In addition, there have been incidences of weddings with hundreds of guests and prayer services attended by dozens despite the lockdown limiting indoor gatherings to just five people and outdoor gatherings to ten.
“In the Haredi world there is too much violation, but the mood has changed a bit,” Edelstein said in an interview with the Srugim website, which caters to the national Orthodox community.
Asked if he supports prison sentences for violators he responded, “Certainly.”
Edelstein said plans for steeper fines for violators have not been approved by the Knesset because there are too many MKs who oppose the idea over concerns of how it will impact their voters.
His remarks came after the Blue and White party accused coalition partners from Edelstein’s Likud of hampering efforts to expand enforcement of the nationwide lockdown as agreed upon by the parties. Blue and White accused Likud of delaying a Knesset vote on raising fines due to political considerations, as Haredi parties are key allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Likud.
Edelstein also defended appeals that he and Netanyahu made to a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi asking that he influence the community to obey the lockdown. The minister rejected the idea that such moves indicate that Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky is calling the shots, saying the overtures are justified as a means of getting the message through to the Haredi community.
“If to do it you need to go to a rabbi, then I will go to him ten times,” Edelstein said. “The same goes for city mayors in the Arab population,” another segment of society that has seen widespread violations of the lockdown.
Aside from the confrontations in Bnei Brak, the Ynet news site reported that in Beit Shemesh, a city with a large Haredi population, ultra-Orthodox schools were open, with students piling into buses to get to school.
The Beit Shemesh municipality responded in a statement that it has “led a number of information campaigns, talks with community leaders and made other efforts to clarify the fact that guidelines from the Israeli government and the Health Ministry save lives.”
Noting that enforcement of the lockdown is the responsibility of the police, the municipality said that the “dramatic majority” of the city’s education system is shut.
Ynet also reported that a Satmar Hasidic sect Talmud Torah school in Jerusalem, which made headlines the day before because of violent clashes as police raided the site, was operating as usual on Thursday, with residents saying that studies had restarted Wednesday minutes after police left.
Ynet said that a team of its reporters who arrived at the school’s location to film were attacked by local residents and chased away.
According to the report, whereas the Lithuanian streams of the Haredi community are largely keeping to the lockdown orders, there has been more widespread disobedience among Hasidic sects.
There have been almost daily recent incidents during which police have faced violent resistance to enforcement of the lockdown by the Haredi community. Police upped their crackdown on ultra-Orthodox communities following media reports of previous limited enforcement, with figures showing that rates of handing out fines in Haredi neighborhoods are significantly lower than for the general population.
Netanyahu on Monday asked Kanievsky, a major leader of the Haredi community, to keep schools shuttered if the lockdown is extended, according to Hebrew-language media reports. On Tuesday the government voted to extend the lockdown by ten days until the end of the month.
Channel 12 reported Tuesday that Kanievsky has quietly given orders that the Talmud Torah elementary schools remain open, telling close associates that God is angry that Torah study has been interrupted and that is the reason for recent “tragedies” — an apparent reference to the death toll of over 4,100 since the start of the virus outbreak early last year.