‘There Will Be a Revolt’: Life Under Lockdown in Israel’s Haredi Coronavirus Hot Spot

Residents of the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak tell of chaos and bewilderment as they prepare for Passover, cut off from the rest of the world

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Soldiers from the Home Front Command distributing food in Bnei Brak.
Soldiers from the Home Front Command distributing food in Bnei Brak, April 5, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Saturday night in Bnei Brak was for many the beginning of the home stretch in the race to prepare for Passover.

In normal times, all the stores in the city would have been open and tens of thousands of people would have descended on them all at once. But when the city’s 200,000 people are under lockdown, instead of descending on the stores, which were almost all closed, tens of thousands swamped the 106 municipal hot line to try to understand where to go from here.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

But they were almost immediately disconnected. The hot line simply collapsed. It was only after midnight that the pressure lessened and one could finally get through, after waiting half an hour. On Sunday afternoon the municipality woke up and finally bolstered the hot line with soldiers from the Home Front Command. This is pretty typical of the chaos prevailing in the city.

Since the lockdown began, an increasing number of people are panicking. Residents say the guidelines for the people in the field aren’t clear enough, which has caused confusion and distrust of the authorities. “My son cut his eye on glass, got in his car and started driving to the hospital. At the police checkpoint they wouldn’t let him through. Only after begging and after the policeman saw the blood in his eye, they had mercy and let him pass,” said a resident.

Similar stories could be heard the entire day. “I need to get to a specialist at Tel Hashomer. I called the Home Front Command hot line to find out how to get an exit permit. They referred me to the municipality. At 106, after a long wait, they answered but they didn’t really know what to tell me,” said another resident.

Men praying in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak under coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.
Men praying in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak under coronavirus lockdown, April 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

A recording of his conversation confirms his report. “You have to get a doctor’s referral,” said the representative on the line. “Without that you will not be allowed to leave.” But many people in this city have neither a fax nor email, making it impossible to get a referral. “Get it somehow,” said another representative, to whom his call was passed.

The only businesses still open in Bnei Brak are the grocery stores, but they, too, are feeling the lockdown. “Our suppliers aren’t being allowed in [to the city],” a businessman who runs a grocery chain said Friday. “Some of the policemen don’t know what the orders say. They didn’t let people in and they aren’t letting people out. We have to bring in merchandise but there’s a lot of confusion.”

Obtaining medicine has also become a problem, after some of the HMOs reduced their activity in the city and most of the burden has fallen on private pharmacies, which are struggling to meet the demand. Many of the city’s delivery services have collapsed under the strain, so that instead of people remaining at home and getting what they need delivered, they are forced to go out to buy basic items, putting themselves and others at risk.

“If the lockdown continues this way and there are no solutions, in the end there will be a revolt,” said a city resident, who added that many people are worried about a shortage of food and drugs. “People are prepared to do a lot to feed their children.”

The municipality is trying to control the damage. It recently drew up a list of thousands of elderly people and others who will receive food parcels, hot meals and other aid. But even on this matter there’s a lot of work to be done. There have been numerous reports of elderly people who live alone and can’t go out to buy food.

“Since yesterday I’m trying to find someone to help get Passover food to four elderly couples that I’ve been taking care of for three weeks, and there’s no one to turn to,” said a city resident. “I tried everyone I know, and I know a lot of people. There’s no response from the municipality, all those getting paid by the city don’t want to deal with me. The police send me to the municipality, and from there they send me to the Home Front Command, which sends me back to the municipality.”

A municipal official told Haaretz that as time passes, things are slowly being brought under control. “There are a lot of challenges to overcome, but we’re starting to see progress,” he said, citing the considerable assistance that the army began providing on Sunday morning. “You see them everywhere,” he said.

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