Police Pledged Minimal Enforcement of COVID Rules in Haredi Communities, Barring Attacks on Officers

Yeshiva heads told Haaretz that Israeli police struck a deal with them, promising not to enforce regulations as long as students refrained from attacking officers

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Protesters clash with police as they attempt to close down a school open against coronavirus lockdown violations, Ashdod, January 11, 2021.
Protesters clash with police as they attempt to close down a school open against coronavirus lockdown violations, Ashdod, January 11, 2021.Credit: Ilan Assayag
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israeli police reached an agreement with yeshiva heads in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak that they would refrain from enforcing coronavirus regulations as long as the students did not attack the police, yeshiva heads told Haaretz.

Sources said the deal was struck in September at the beginning of the second lockdown, after a number of instances where stones and food items were thrown at police officers who had come to enforce the regulations.

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The sources told Haaretz that officers in the Bnei Brak police, including the city’s station commander Chief Superintendent Yair Weizenberg, met four months ago with local yeshiva heads for the purpose of reaching understandings with regard to enforcement of the regulations. The meeting was also held to address rivalries among yeshiva students from different branches of ultra-Orthodoxy.

According to the sources, senior officers at the station had promised that as long as the students did not attack the police, the police would not enter the yeshivas to enforce coronavirus regulations.

One person present at the meeting said that Weizenberg had pledged minimal enforcement, unless students threw objects at patrol cars, and said police would respond aggressively to such attacks.

“He didn’t say there would be no enforcement,” the source said, “but he reiterated that so far there had been no significant enforcement against the yeshiva students. But if they continue to attack the patrol cars with stones and (food), he would bring in riot control every night and take us apart until war broke out there.”

A senior official at one of the yeshivas said that he would not have exposed the agreement if not for Thursday’s unusual enforcement operation in the city, during which police were filmed beating residents with batons. The assault began after police enforcing a ban on gatherings in an area identified with the Vishnitz Hasidic sect were attacked by dozens of residents. The police said the residents smashed the windows of a car in which they were riding, punctured its tires and threw stones at them. A policewoman was slightly injured in the incident.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews walking in the city of Bnei Brak in Israel, January 2021.Credit: Moti Milrod

After the police were attacked, hundreds of officers arrived in the area of the main Vishnitz yeshiva and confronted thousands of residents. The police threw dozens of stun grenades and used water cannons and batons. The residents threw stones and burned garbage bins and tires on main streets. At least six people were arrested, some suspected of assaulting police.

The source said that the police had initiated the unusual enforcement operation on Thursday because the agreement had been violated.

“Since the coronavirus started they (the police) weren’t interested in enforcement, only that the police would not be hurt,” he said. Criticizing the agreement as “the most unpleasant there could be,” he said: “Instead of acting only against those who attacked the police and against the extremists, they’re acting out against everyone. All through the past months they weren’t enforcing the regulations, and then suddenly they burst out against the whole city because of a few extremists who decided to attack a policewoman. After all, it’s all an act, there’s hardly a synagogue that’s closed, every day three times a day everybody meets with everybody and the police don’t give out fines. The main concern is just that the police aren’t hurt,” he said.

An official from another yeshiva in Bnei Brak also spoke about the understandings reached with local police regarding minimal enforcement as long as police were not attacked, and that “this was the message that we conveyed to the students.”

The source said that the synagogues and yeshivas in Bnei Brak “were operating as usual and the patrol cars passed by, but Thursday they made a mistake and if they hadn’t assaulted those detectives nothing would have happened,” referring to the incident in which the policewoman was injured. “That’s how it works around here all the time,” he said.

The police, the source said, have been “taught a lesson” by the radical Yerushalmi faction. The police had “turned a blind eye to infractions here to keep things quiet. Instead of hitting somebody in their pocketbook for a violation, they turned a blind eye. So why should Rabbi Kanievsky close the institutions if the Yerushalmi faction says open them?” the source asked, referring to the leader of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community.

A number of secret agreements were also reached between the police and ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem, as Haaretz reported in October. Under those understandings, the police were to allow a number of extremist groups in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim to hold events attended by thousands every night during the interim days of the Sukkot holiday, as long as no film clips of the gatherings were released.

The police denied the existence of such understandings, but it turned out such agreements had indeed been made. An internal investigation was launched that led to the opening of a file in the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct.

The police said in response: “The statements by the station commander involve enforcement of public order with no connection to the oversight of Health Ministry and coronavirus regulations, and any attempt to present such a misleading picture is unacceptable and should be rejected outright. Moreover, we stress that the statements involve the professional treatment by police of internal conflicts among different groups in the city, which forced the police to intervene in brawls among them and when the police arrived, an unacceptable attempt was made to attack them as well.”