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Ultra-Orthodox defy Israel’s COVID plan

Several prominent Israeli politicians are advocating the enactment of stern measures against Jewish religious seminaries and schools that fail to comply with government directives to curb the coronavirus pandemic, primarily the withholding of state funds.

The official exit strategy from the month-long nationwide lockdown aimed at containing the outbreak began yesterday. The latest data from the Ministry of Health shows a decline in the COVID-19 infection level, with a 3.5% positivity rate out of the 27,100 tests conducted.

It is feared that too rapid of a return to routine activities could jeopardize these gains. Only businesses that do not interact with the public have been permitted to resume operations, and office staff has been limited to 10. This is also true of social gatherings, while up to 20 people are allowed to attend outdoor functions.

Confined spaces such as classrooms are seen as particularly risky, and the exit strategy has so far permitted only preschools to reopen their doors.

Tens of thousands of religious students are estimated to have nevertheless returned to studies at seminaries, known as yeshivas, at hundreds of ultra-Orthodox elementary schools. Channel 12 news reported that an estimated 40,000 boys have gone back to school, many of which are located in virus hotspots such in Jerusalem neighborhoods, Bnei Brak, Modiin Illit, Elad, Rechasim and Beitar Illit.

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid faction said funding to any Haredi (another term for ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic Jewish) educational facilities that violate the restrictions should be halted, as Minister of Science Izhar Shay of the Blue and White party told the public Kan network that “an education institution that breaks the law should not be funded.”

Even Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz, who belongs to the Likud party headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed, saying that any yeshivas (seminaries) caught systematically flouting the government directives should be defunded. Although he maintained that “the majority is adhering to the rules” while also speaking to Kan, Steinitz said, “there is no doubt that the violations in the ultra-Orthodox community are very concerning and could cost them and us dearly.”

Religious leaders cited for flagrantly disobeying the government guidelines include Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who reportedly ordered the reopening of all schools for boys in the Haredi Talmud Torah system of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community. Local media was quick to point out that Kanievsky was himself infected by the virus. Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, who is the Co-Chairman of the United Torah Judaism political party,  defended Kanievsky’s actions, saying in a statement that he “made clear” to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the ultra-Orthodox community will not close down the illegally-opened schools –  even if they are located in “red” areas with high infection rates.

The blatant disregard for government edicts comes despite a personal appeal from the Prime Minister to the ultra-Orthodox sector, who constitute an important segment of Netanyahu’s political base. “The Torah sanctifies life, and this endangers life,” he said in reference to the unauthorized opening of seminaries.

Commissioner of the Coronavirus Cabinet, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, echoed that plea, warning that “opening the education system in violation of the regulations is dangerous and against the law.”

Alternate Premier and Defense Minister Benny Gantz today insisted during a meeting of his Blue and White faction that, “the law must apply to everyone equally” and that “we cannot accept a state of anarchy.”

According to the Israeli Police, talks are being held with the mayors and Chief Rabbis of Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit, where ₪ 5,000 Shequels ($1,480) fines were imposed on five principals of illegally-opened schools.

59% do not believe the government’s exit strategy to slowly lift the restrictions will prevent a third lockdown, according to the most recent Channel 12 poll.  58% of those questioned said Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing a poor job handling the outbreak, and 63% believe the plan is primarily being dictated by political considerations. Mass demonstrations demanding Netanyahu’s resignation show no sign of abating.

Meanwhile, in other coronavirus developments, senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was rushed from his home in Jericho yesterday to the Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem for emergency care of respiratory complications. The outspoken critic of Israel contracted the disease in the Palestinian Authority a week and a half ago. According to a hospital statement this afternoon, the PLO official has been “ventilated on high concentration of oxygen and on nitric oxide gas and is in the prone position. He has received concentrated convalescent plasma with high levels of anti-Covid antibodies.”