Health Minister calls for curfew on ultra-orthodox city with serious outbreak

Head of ultra-orthodox party Rabbi Yaakov Litzman calls for total curfew on Bnei Brak to stem massive infection rate in mostly religious city.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman called Sunday for a total curfew to be imposed on the city of Bnei Brak, whose mostly ultra-orthodox population has one of the highest infection rates in Israel, Ynet reported.

“Today I proposed to the Prime Minister and the Interior Minister to impose a curfew on Bnei Brak,” said Litzman, himself a member of the ultra-orthodox community and leader of the religious United Torah Judaism Party in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

Health ministry statistics showed that the highest number of confirmed cases of coronavirus infections were in Bnei Brak, located just east of Tel Aviv and north of Jerusalem, home to dense populations of ultra-orthodox. As of Tuesday morning Jerusalem had 650 people sick with the virus and Bnei Brak 571, but its population is less than a quarter of the capital city giving it much higher per-capita infection rate.

Health ministry director general Moshe Bar Siman Tov said preparations were being made for curfew scenarios, Channel 12 News reported.

“It requires a very high level of involvement of the [IDF] Home Front Command and the police – I believe there will be progress on this issue during the day,” he added.

The mayor of neighboring Ramat Gan, a city of some 175,000 sandwiched between Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, echoed Litzman’s call for a closure.

“Bnei Brak is not a ticking time bomb, but rather a massive bomb that is blowing up in our faces,” Mayor Carmel Shama told Channel 12 News.

Over the weekend police were criticized after media reports showed hundreds of Bnei Brak residents attending the funeral procession of a prominent local rabbi, in violation of health ministry orders that restricted funerals to only 20 people.

Although ultra-orthodox leaders said the vast majority of their followers were complying with health restrictions, the government and health ministry found themselves at odds with pockets of faithful who defied orders not to congregate and continued to hold weddings and group prayers, which are normally conducted in communal settings three times daily.

Influential rabbis had previously flouted health ministry regulations and ruled that group prayer of least ten people should continue. That changed over the weekend when statistics showed that the ultra-Orthodox make up 40 to 60 percent of corona cases in large hospitals.

“Unfortunately there are more seriously ill patients,” Litzman said in a Ynet interview. “Right now the public must listen to the voice of the Ministry of Health.”

With some faithful continuing to pray in groups in defiance of health orders and rabbinical rulings, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced even greater restrictions Monday night and said police would step in to prevent “unabashed lawlessness.”

“I have ordered the security forces to prepare for a stepped-up enforcement operation in neighborhoods and communities in which there are such violations and in which there are events that endanger the lives of all of us,” Netanyahu said. “We will prevent extremist elements from harming the general health.”

Netanyahu issued a stern warning after Magen David Adom medical staff were attacked Sunday in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthdox Meah Shearim neighborhood. A few residents threw rocks as medics arrived to carry out coronavirus testing, lightly injuring one person.

“We will settle accounts with whoever attacks police, health and military forces, which are trying to carry out their mission on behalf of all of us,” the prime minister said.