What happened: Israeli police and public health officials implemented a complete lock down on the ultra-orthodox city of Bnei Brak this morning after the Government declared the city a “restricted area” open only to medical, welfare and security personnel.
- Bnei Brak has a population of 200,000 mostly ultra-orthodox residents and the highest per capita rate of coronavirus infection in the country. One in seven of all Israeli coronavirus patients are from Bnei Brak.
- Police set up checkpoints across the city and are using drones and other monitoring systems to maintain the lockdown.
- A senior health official told a Knesset committee yesterday that nearly 40 percent of the population of Bnei Brak has coronavirus.
- The government is planning to remove 4,500 people over the age of 80 from Bnei Brak and accommodate them in newly opened isolation hotels.
- Israel’s Health Minister, and ultra-orthodox leader, Yaakov Litzman tested positive for coronavirus yesterday. As a result, many of the country’s most senior officials and political leaders, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, must now self-isolate. Netanyahu, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and the head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen have so far all tested negative for the virus.
- Israeli media have reported that the Health Minister broke his own ministry’s guidelines by attending group prayer services earlier this week. According to Channel 12 News an unnamed senior minister accused him of “knowingly demonstrating contempt” for the rules. The unnamed minister said Litzman had “put all of our lives in danger….We are all taking the greatest possible care in these days. And yet the health minister, of all people, doesn’t recognise the gravity of the situation, and endangers us all, ultimately harming decision-making.”
Context: 6,857 Israelis have tested positive for coronavirus. Thirty-seven people have died, 107 are in serious condition and 83 are on ventilators. So far, 241 have recovered.
- Litzman is the leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Two weeks ago at a cabinet meeting, Litzman argued that synagogues should remain open, but Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted: “There is no choice. Synagogues have been the largest sources of infection, together with clubs and shops. It’s a huge source of infection.”
- Unnamed officials at Litzman’s health ministry blamed him, at least partly, for the situation in Bnei Brak, saying that the minister’s refusal to institute restrictions on movement before the Purim holiday last month enabled mass celebrations to go ahead, which allowed the virus to spread. They also criticised his refusal to close yeshivas and mikvehs (seminaries and ritual baths) “until it was too late.”
- Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said last night: “If Bibi does not fire Litzman from his post tonight, this government does not have the moral authority to manage the coronavirus crisis.”
Looking ahead: Israeli authorities are expected to implement similar lock downs in other mainly ultra-orthodox towns and cities as increasing data emerges that rates of infection are very significantly higher in those areas. It has been reported that Elad, Modi’in-Ilit, Beitar-Ilit, and Beit Shemesh will face similar restrictions to Bnei Brak.
- Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s refusal to abide by the rules on social distancing highlights the wider problem of ultra-orthodox leaders failing to abide by and properly implement public health guidelines to reduce infections when they disrupt the routine of ultra-orthodox life. If the community is hit disproportionately hard by coronavirus fatalities then its political and religious leaders will face very serious questions about their failure to safeguard the community during the pandemic.