Israeli police clash with ultra-Orthodox who refuse to close schools

Four police injured as ultra-Orthodox try to break through a security line and open a religious school despite coronavirus lockdown.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

Crowds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police Sunday in the cities of Jerusalem and Ashdod as security forces attempted to enforce coronavirus health orders barring the opening of schools and synagogues.

The clashes came after some rabbinical leaders of small sects called on their faithful to reopen religious schools in violation of lockdown orders imposed across the country to battle a third wave of coronavirus infections in Israel.

In the port city of Ashdod, four people were arrested as they tried to break through a police line surrounding a religious school in an attempt to open it, Ynet reported. Police have repeatedly been attacked when trying to shut down schools in Ashdod that remained open despite the closure order.

Similar clashes occurred in the ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem where followers of the Satmar sect tried to hold prayers in their synagogue. Health restrictions that closed the school system also included a ban on indoor gatherings of more than five people, forcing synagogues to hold prayers outdoors in small groups.

Police said rioters in Jerusalem threw rocks and bottles at them and dumped bleach and garbage on the officers from surrounding balconies, while some in the crowd called the police “Nazis.” At least four police officers were injured and one ultra-Orthodox youth was arrested.

Despite ultra-Orthodox communities being among the most infected, several rabbis ordered their followers to ignore the closure and hold classes and prayers as normal. On Saturday evening the leader of the Vizhnitz Hasidim in the city of Bnei Brak, Rabbi Rabbi Yisroel Hager, said ultra-Orthodox schools associated with his movement should stay open and if the police complained, his followers should not attack the police or call them “Nazis,” but instead send the police directly to his house.

After an outcry from other religious leaders including religious members of the Knesset, Hager backed down and issued another statement that the schools should stay home and his faithful should get vaccinations. Despite the reverse call, police were out in force in Bnei Brak Sunday morning to ensure the schools stayed closed.

Deputy Commissioner Ziv Sagiv told Israel Army Radio that the police expected there would be attempts to violate the lockdown order.

“The police will have to deal with where civilian leadership has failed,” Sagiv said. “We have no choice, in some places we will have to show strength.”

Israel is entering a third week of a national lockdown during a third wave of coronavirus infections. Aside from schools, most retail businesses are closed along with entertainment venues, hair salons and health clubs, with Israelis restricted to remain within one kilometer of their homes unless they are working in permitted industries, shopping for food or getting health care.

While most of the ultra-orthodox leaders have been instructing their followers to obey health restrictions, some of the more radical sects have flaunted the regulations leading to repeated clashes – especially in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, where a mob of ultra-Orthodox attacked a police car Thursday evening and a small riot ensued.

Police are not authorized to close down schools and can only give the institution a 5,000 shekel ($1,700) fine. A bill is expected to be tabled in the Knesset Monday both to double the fines and to give police the power to close schools, although the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism parties that are part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s coalition government are expected to oppose the legislation, Ynet reported.

Former education minister Naftali Bennett of the right-wing Yemina Party, who identifies with the “national religious” stream of orthodox Jewry, said no institution was above the law regardless of religion or ethnicity.

“An institution that breaks the law, no matter what sector, should not receive money from the state,” Bennett told Army Radio.

One of the more prominent faces of the ultra-Orthodox community is Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder and chairman of the Zaka rescue organization, whose parents died from coronavirus in the past week after his younger brother succumbed to the disease last month.

Meshi Zahav described the anguish of losing so many close members of his family to the virus and his frustration that members of fringe ultra-Orthodox communities refused to abide by the health regulations.

“Violators of the guidelines do not understand what [hospital] corona wards look like… they are causing death,” he told Israel Army Radio.