Commander Says in Leaked Recording Police Won't Fine Synagogue-goers in Israeli Settlement

Despite a ban on large gathering under Israel's coronavirus lockdown, station chief in ultra-Orthodox city caught saying law enforcement won't hand out tickets if worshipers disperse when police show up

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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People walk in Modi'in Illit, 2018.
People walk in Modi'in Illit, 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

A police commander in an ultra-Orthodox settlement was recorded saying he did not intend to enforce coronavirus restrictions on synagogues and that he was requesting that the appearance of following guidelines be maintained in return, the news site Charedim 10 reported on Wednesday.

The commander of the police station in Modi’in Ilit was recorded telling a member of the Jerusalemite faction of the Haredi community in the city that he did not intend on enforcing the regulations against gatherings inside synagogues, and in return, Superintendent Tzahi Halfon asked for a show of keeping to the rules for the sake of appearances.

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Haaretz reported this week on a similar agreement in Jerusalem between the police and a number of ultra-Orthodox communities in the neighborhoods surrounding Mea She’arim, according to which residents could hold mass events with thousands of participants to celebrate the Sukkot holiday every evening – as long as they were not filmed and reported.

In the recording, Halfon can be heard telling a member of the Jerusalemite faction: “You know that I won’t enter any synagogue to search here. You know that I didn’t enter with a patrol car on Yom Kippur.” Halfon explained to the man that nevertheless, if a person called the police and complained about what was going on at a synagogue, he was required to send a police patrol car to the scene. “Now, what am I about to tell you? A patrol came? Come on, no problem, you don’t want to listen to the police officer? You don’t want to cooperate? That’s okay, I didn't ask for that,” said Halfon. “I’m just asking – when an officer arrives, exit [the synagogue].”

The Haredi man said in response: “It won’t happen” and “the rabbis said to sacrifice your life and not exit the synagogue.” Halfon then explains in the recording that the entire incident would be over in a second, “without tickets and without anything. The minute you disperse, we won’t mess with the synagogue. After that do … Understand between the lines what I’m telling you.” The man replies: “I understand very well what you’re telling me.”

The police said in response to the recording that it was “part of a preventative and explanatory conversation during which the police officer explicitly said that there is a prohibition on praying inside a synagogue, and this was after police forces had been called to the scene to disperse worshippers.

“The police conduct enforcement operations every day in houses of worship all over Israel, write tickets and even close places that repeatedly and openly violate the regulations,” said the police. “No one and no community has permission to violate the law and the police are acting and will continue to act against violations of the coronavirus regulations in every community and everywhere it is necessary.”

Halfon has been summoned for a clarification by the district commander, the Judea and Samaria District of the police said later. The police said their policy is unambiguous and the emergency regulations will be enforced equally against anyone violating them. The district commander said: “Preliminary dialogue is intended to maximize the following of the guidelines, on one hand, and to minimize the cases of violations and confrontation with police officers, on the other hand. Dialogue and discussion does not mean agreement, and certainly not agreements that contravene the guidelines.”

In addition to the agreements between the police and the Hasidic communities in the Mea She’arim area, Haaretz has learned that the police have reached similar understandings with the large Belz and Vishnitz Hasidic groups. These communities have formal permits from the Health Ministry, which allow them to hold large events for their students, who are living in pods inside the groups’ yeshivas.

But many of the Hasidim who are not inside these pods  have joined in the celebrations held every evening. A Jerusalem police official told Haaretz that it is impossible to prevent the holding of these events because they were approved by the Health Ministry – and denied that the participants included those who were not in the pods. The police official added that there is no documentation of any violations of the coronavirus rules at these events.

No plans to enter synagogues during Simhat Torah holiday

The police will deploy reinforcements for the Simhat Torah holiday starting Friday night, and especially on Saturday – mostly in Haredi neighborhoods where residents are expected to hold celebrations and services. But the police do not intend on entering synagogues on the holiday and police officers will not remove worshippers carrying Torah scrolls, said senior police official.

On Friday afternoon, the police are expected to place roadblocks on intercity roads once again. At the same time, the police are preparing to deploy large numbers of officers in advance of the renewed anti-government protests expected on Saturday in Jerusalem, and especially in Tel Aviv.

On Thursday night, 13 worshipers were arrested during violent confrontations in Modi’in Ilit, where large forces attempted to disperse a gathering in a synagogue. At the end of the confrontations, which lasted two hours, police officers used force to remove dozens of worshippers from inside a number of synagogues in the city. Dozens of youths set dozens of fires during the night and a few vehicles were damaged. The police did not issue a report on the matter.

The Haredi community is preparing for Simhat Torah in a number of different ways. The more extreme Hasidic communities are prepared to continue their mass events during the holiday, which have been conducted in an unspoken coordination with the police. The rabbis in the city of Bnei Brak issued a statement on Thursday evening saying it is allowed to pray inside the synagogues – but some people should try to pray outside in the open air.

In contrast, the leadership of the Sephardi Haredi communities has invested great effort in persuading its members pray outside. For example, the president of the Shas party’s Council of Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, announced that after more than 60 years in which he has spent the Simhat Torah holiday in the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem, for the first time he will be praying in a small minyan in his sukkah. 

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