Israeli Police, ultra-Orthodox Clash Over COVID Restrictions on Schools

Despite leading ultra-Orthodox figures calling to follow lockdown procedures, radical groups have kept dozens of schools opened throughout Israel

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Ultra-Orthodox protesters surround a police car in Ashdod, January 11, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters surround a police car in Ashdod, January 11, 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Eleven people were detained in the southern Israeli port city of Ashdod on Monday afternoon, after hundreds of ultra-Orthodox clashed with police officers attempting to close a religious school that was operating in violation of lockdown regulations. 

Police said three officers and two municipal inspectors had been injured in the riots. Reinforcements were sent to the Meir Eini Yisrael school, which is associated with the radical ultra-Orthodox group "Jerusalem Faction." Some protesters blocked a road at the scene, others boarded a police car while driving and were nearly ran over. Rioters also threw stones, sand and other objects at police officers.

Ultra-Orthodox clashes with police officers in Ashdod

The Bnei Torah movement, which is also linked to the Jerusalem Faction, condemned the "criminal attempt" to close the yeshiva, claiming that it could be run because it had a boarding school. 

However, regulations stipulate that only boarding schools without outside students are allowed to operate normally. Students in this institution come and go from it every day.

An officer clashing with an ultra-Orthodox youth in Ashdod, January 11, 2020Credit: Ilan Assayag

Dozens of religious schools in some of Israel's most radical ultra-Orthodox communities remained open again on Monday, in contravention of current lockdown restrictions and despite staggering infection rates among Haredi schoolchildren.

The schools, which also operated on Sunday, are located mostly in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhoods of Mea She’arim, Geula and the Bukharan Quarter, hotbeds for extremist communities which do not cooperate with the government, and in many cases, do not even accept government funds. Other schools, primarily those of the “Jerusalem Faction,” also opened their schools on Monday, in Bnei Brak and Modi’in Ilit.

Unlike in previous lockdowns, the schools of the mainstream Haredi community have remained closed this time around, upon the orders of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism party and leader of the non-Hasidic “Lithuanian” ultra-Orthodox community.

Principals at many Haredi schools are now working to carry out the instructions of ultra-Orthodox leaders that they find ways to keep children busy and encourage them to study while staying at home, an ultra-Orthodox school principal told Haaretz, adding that principals are exchanging ideas to facilitate implementation.

Despite the about-face, the closure of certain Haredi religious schools for elementary school-aged children is not likely to last much longer. According to the principal, they can be expected to reopen within a few days, at least in a limited format: “I anticipate that on Wednesday we will reopen, it’s still not clear in what format and whether all the students will return to class.”

The clashes in Ashdod, January 11, 2020Credit: Israel police spokespersons' unit

Last week, Kanievsky approved the closure of schools for a few days, including those for elementary school-aged boys, following a conversation between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kanievsky’s grandson, the rabbi’s chief aide. Prior to that conversation, he had ordered that schools remain open even during the current lockdown.

The move marks a stark reversal from his policy since the coronavirus pandemic began, which was to keep such schools open, despite regulations requiring otherwise. Last March, Kanievsky said that canceling Torah study would be more dangerous than the coronavirus.

Over the past month, infection rates among Haredi students have reached new heights. In Jerusalem, some 400 students – mostly students at Haredi schools – test positive for the coronavirus each day. Unlike in previous waves of the pandemic, outbreaks have even been recorded in girls’ schools and high schools this time around.

A student walks into a religious school in Jerusalem, January 10, 2021. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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