Israeli Minister Told ultra-Orthodox Leaders Netanyahu Agreed to Open Schools in Violation of COVID Rules

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A religious school opens in Jerusalem, in violation of coronavirus regulations, October 18, 2020.
A religious school opens in Jerusalem, in violation of coronavirus regulations, October 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Interior Minister Arye Dery, leader of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas, told ultra-Orthodox leaders that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana had agreed to allow the community’s elementary and middle schools to operate unofficially, in violation of coronavirus regulations, while police would carry out minimal enforcement, several sources told Haaretz. 

The alleged agreement was not ultimately implemented, as Dery said that the prime minister and Ohana had rescinded their consent. 

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Dery, Netanyahu and Ohana all denied that the agreement ever existed.

Under the proposed deal, the ultra-Orthodox schools would have obeyed Education Ministry rules regarding learning in pods, wearing masks, virus testing and social distancing. However, under the coronavirus regulations, the only schools currently allowed to open are preschools, with a decision on grades one and up still pending.

Interior Minister Arye Dery during his swearing in as a member of Israel's Knesset, Jerusalem, May 15, 2020.Credit: Amos Ben Gershom / Knesset

A senior Public Security Ministry official tried to reach similar understandings with Haredi leaders. In a conversation with ultra-Orthodox interlocutors, he said he understood that the schools, known as Talmudei Torah, would open, and wanted it to happen under agreed guidelines. In exchange, he said he would work within the ministry to minimize police enforcement against the schools

On Saturday night, a statement issued on behalf of Rabbi Chaim Kanievksy, the leader of the “Lithuanian” (non-Hasidic Ashkenazi) ultra-Orthodox community, ordered the schools to reopen. This order, together with the collapse of negotiations between ultra-Orthodox representatives and senior Health Ministry officials on an agreed reopening plan, caused the understandings to be withdrawn.

Over the last two days, tens of thousands of Haredi students have returned to school in defiance of the regulations. A senior Haredi source said the rabbis had effectively approved the reopening – “some with demands for restrictions, others with no demands at all.”

Police enforcement, which was fairly lax on Sunday, was stepped up Monday. By the evening, dozens of principals had been fined, and some had even been summoned for questioning.

The leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, in 2010.Credit: Tal Cohen

Meanwhile, government officials are hoping to minimize the effects of reopening the schools without angering the ultra-Orthodox public, with Netanyahu seeking to schedule a visit to Bnei Brak and Defense Minister Benny Gantz instructing officials to examine the possibility of classes being held outside. Officials are also writing up a document, to be signed by the most senior Haredi rabbis, calling on people to observe social distancing rules during school. 

The talks on a plan for reopening the schools began a week ago in Bnei Brak’s Masuot community center. The building normally hosts events for hundreds of people, but last Monday night, it hosted a meeting of just ten.

The participants were ultra-Orthodox leaders, senior Health Ministry officials and the people responsible for dealing with the coronavirus in the ultra-Orthodox community. The agenda was how to handle the reopening of ultra-Orthodox schools.

By the time the Simhat Torah holiday ended on the night of October 10, “it was clear that everyone was going to open the schools,” one of the people involved explained. “All the rabbis approved the opening.”

The six Haredi participants were lawmaker Moshe Gafni from the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, Rabbi Yehuda Silman, one representative apiece from the Belz and Gur Hasidic sects, and a representative of UTJ’s Council of Torah Sages. Shortly after 9 P.M., the other participants arrived, having been delayed by a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. They were Dery, Prof. Itamar Grotto, the Health Ministry’s deputy director general, Uri Gordon, the head of the army’s Home Front Command, and Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, who had been chosen by the Health Ministry to deal with the virus in the Haredi community.

The urgent agenda item was the Talmudei Torah, the Haredi elementary schools. After exhausting negotiations, it became clear that the cabinet wouldn’t approve a plan to reopen them. At that point, Dery unveiled his agreement with Netanyahu, under which the schools would operate unofficially, while police enforcement would be minimal.

“Dery said that from a health standpoint, the plan met the Health Ministry’s requirements, but from a political standpoint, it was impossible to approve the plan due to opposition from Kahol Lavan and legal hurdles,” one participant said. “Dery said, ‘There won’t be enforcement, but be smart and abide by the plan.’”

A day and a half later, Dery’s plan collapsed. Principals were then told to open the schools secretly, but to comply with the plan’s rules. However, they were also told that the agreement to refrain from enforcement no longer existed and they should take that into account.

Nevertheless, a senior Public Security Ministry official was still trying to revive the understandings as of last Friday. In conversations with several ultra-Orthodox community members with connections to leading rabbis, he said he would make every effort to minimize police enforcement as long as principals complied with the plan’s rules. He also warned that if this became public, police enforcement would turn aggressive.

A religious school in Bnei Brak, open in breach of coronavirus regulations, October 18, 2020.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

“Dery saw the announcement about Rabbi Kanievsky’s order Saturday night and went crazy,” one source said. Today, everyone agrees that this was a mistake that might cost the Haredi community dearly. Numa even said that opening the Talmudei Torah without permission might derail a plan for opening ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high schools, which hasn’t yet been approved.

“He was like a voice crying in the wilderness,” this source said of Dery. “All the other [Haredi] representatives fled the battle. He was the last man standing, and tried to secure compliance with the instructions within the existing constraints.”

Another source termed Dery “the only responsible adult the ultra-Orthodox community had left. All the others disappeared. Ultra-Orthodox representatives no longer have control over the business.”

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