Residents Claim Discrimination Over Closure of ultra-Orthodox City in Israel

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Residents of Bnei Brak, April 2, 2020.
Residents of Bnei Brak, April 2, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The residents of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak woke up Friday morning to a closure barring them from leaving the city. Hundreds of police officers were deployed in the area, roadblocks were erected and the border with the city's secular neighbor Ramat Gan was marked off with tape.

In normal times, the main streets of the city would be crowded, especially on a Friday before the Passover seder. But this Friday the sidewalks were empty of pedestrians and only a few cars drove by. The police patrol loudspeakers told the public to stay indoors and officers asked passersby to identify and explain why they're not staying at home.

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On the side-streets off the main road one could see a few people shopping for Shabbat. They were waiting in line at stores, maintaining distance from one another. It seemed that most residents have internalized the new restrictions and the implications of what a larger outbreak would mean.

“Hats off to the army and police who found every small exit from the city and didn’t let anyone leave,” said Yehuda, who lives in Bnei Brak. Yehuda thinks it's the right thing to do, even if at first it's shocking. He points at residents' suspicion that there is discrimination against the ultra-Orthodox community: "The public will be angry if one day it turns out that there is another city with high disease rates that wasn’t put under closure."

Police enforce coronavirus restrictions in Bnei Brak, Febraury 4, 2020Credit: Moti Milrod

Indeed, many in Bnei Brak feel offended by the government's decision, saying they are being unfairly treated compared to nonreligious cities. “What is happening here is an injustice. I’ve been at home for a month, with my children, no one comes or goes. Hermetically sealed. The vast majority of all my friends and family in Bnei Brak are like me,” said A., who lives in the city.

“This morning I woke up to a blockade because of a very small and extreme handful of people [violating restrictions], like there are in every city … I saw videos from Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv and other places where people flouted orders, but only here, with the Haredim, it is possible to close, lock up and trample,” he added.

Shlomo Klein, a local resident, agrees with A.: “This is the first time I grasped that the Jerusalem faction [of Haredi extremists] is right ... In Ramat Gan they wouldn’t have a closure,” he told Haaretz. “There are 800 confirmed [COVID-19] patients out of a city of 200,000. That’s not a third of the city and they are making a closure here as if it’s Gaza. They wouldn’t do such a closure for any secular city.” According to Health Ministry statistics, more than 1,000 Bnei Brak residents have been diagnosed with the disease as of Friday evening.

Coronavirus in Israel: Policewomen at the entrance to Bnei Brak, as lockdown of ultra-Orthodox city begins, April 3, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/ Ammar Awad

Klein put the blame on the mayor, Avraham Rubinstein. “We have a mayor who is a coward who has not given the government an alternative plan … Closure is the last thing they needed to do here, it would have been possible to provide other solutions,” he added. Klein said that according to his estimates, thousands will come out to protest on Sunday against the situation: “We won’t let it happen. The army doesn’t know the residents. It won’t be worth it for them.”

Yehuda disagrees with Klein and supports the restrictions. He says all the threats of the “delinquent youths” are just scare tactics: “They are disciplined … Most of the young people are working these days with deliveries and food packaging. There is now way to map out and close down buildings or neighborhoods, people need to demonstrate maturity and not leave their homes.” Yehuda does not see this as an act of collective punishment. “There is no choice. This is the result of people who want to live in a city with a diversity of people. I’m not angry at the decision makers.”

Yair also supports the closure imposed on the city. “I agree with it. I have an 80-year-old mother. It’s not collective punishment, it’s for us. I have a grocery store downstairs from my home. I’ll buy everything I need for Shabbat there. If they would have enforced [the closing of the] yeshivot, it would have been possible to prevent the closure,” he said. Yair also supports evacuating the elderly to hotels and hostels for isolation: “My mother wants to live. It’s not like at the beginning when we thought it was nothing, now we see it's real.”

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