Ultra-Orthodox Israeli lawmaker Moshe Gafni, head of the United Torah Judaism party, accused Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of being a "murderer" on Wednesday, declaring that his handling of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic was the direct cause of Israeli deaths.
"I'm telling you those who are dead now from COVID, it's Naftali Bennett, he's their murderer," Gafni said in a Knesset speech. "He's the one that caused people to die.”
After being confronted by Deputy Knesset speaker Ahmad Tibi over his choice of words, Gafni retracted his use of the word murderer but insisted that the prime minister was “to blame for those who are dying of COVID now.”
The opposition has blasted Bennett's handling of the pandemic ever since he took office in June. Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has regularly accused Bennett of failing to cope with rising case numbers and on Tuesday, his Likud party said that within several weeks Bennett had turned Israel’s widely-touted success battling the virus into failure.
Speaking with the Ynet news site, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked accused Gafni of “crossing a red line” with his comments and connected her need for an armed protective detail to the opposition’s harsh rhetoric.
In 2020, the initial refusal by the rabbinic leadership of the ultra-Orthodox constituency represented by Gafni to close down schools, yeshivas and synagogues in the face of the pandemic drew widespread anger, as did subsequent widespread violations of COVID restrictions.
In March last year, several of the country’s most prominent rabbis—including Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the spiritual leader of the Lithuanian branch of non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodoxy— announced that they would not comply with government directives, stating that their schools and yeshivas would remain open.
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“Rabbi Kanievsky says canceling Torah study is more dangerous than the coronavirus,” Shmulik Woolf, a member of the rabbi’s inner circle, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at the time.
As the virus ravaged their communities, many of the rabbis backtracked and voiced support for various restrictions.
In October, during the second wave, health officials reported that the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for at least 34 percent of all cases despite comprising just 12 percent of the total population. That Ultra-Orthodox Jews tend to have larger families and live in denser neighborhoods than their secular counterparts, and emphasize group activities such as communal prayer and learning, hampered the adoption of social distancing measures.
Last summer, Gafni threatened to bolt then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition over plans to close yeshivas in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus. Several months later, fellow UTJ politician Yaakov Litzman resigned as Housing Minister to protest government lockdown policies.
Litzman himself was diagnosed with COVID-19 in April while serving as Health Minister, allegedly after attending an illicit prayer gathering in violation of his own ministry's rules.
Ultra-Orthodox politicians repeatedly complained during the first year of the pandemic that police and the media were discriminating against their communities, paying them inordinate attention and singling out their neighborhoods for lockdowns.
But data obtained earlier this year by Be Free Israel, a nonprofit that promotes separation of religion and state, showed that residents of Haredi cities were significantly less likely to be fined for defying coronavirus regulations, even though these cities have experienced some of the country’s worst outbreaks.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters repeatedly clashed with law enforcement over neighborhood closures in 2020 and early 2021, culminating in several days of violent riots in Bnei Brak this January, during which residents erected barricades and set fires in an escalating wave of violence which left multiple people injured on both sides.
JTA contributed to this report.