Under ultra-Orthodox Pressure, Netanyahu Backs Off Coronavirus Lockdown for ‘Red’ Cities

Move comes after mayors of four predominantly ultra-Orthodox municipalities send Netanyahu a letter, informing him that they plan to cease cooperation with government authorities

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Shas leader Arye Dery in the Knesset, July 7, 2020.
Shas leader Arye Dery in the Knesset, July 7, 2020.Credit: Adina Waldman / Knesset Spokesperson

The ministerial committee for determining restricted areas in Israel approved a nighttime curfew on “red” cities – those with a high coronavirus infection rate – on Sunday night. 

The list of cities to be affected by the curfew was expected to be approved late Sunday via teleconference.

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The move followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision earlier in the day to postpone a ministerial committee discussion on whether to impose lockdowns on communities where infection rates are extremely high, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox mayors.
Netanyahu told ultra-Orthodox ministers, including Interior Minister Arye Dery and Yaakov Litzman, that synagogues will remain open during the upcoming Jewish holidays even if a lockdown is imposed.

Meretz chairwoman Tamar Zandberg said “surrender to the ultra-Orthodox is much more than political. The farce of the ‘red’ cities is further proof that a prime minister accused of bribery is incapable of fulfilling his role.” Zandberg added that “Netanyahu needs this alliance [with the ultra-Orthodox parties] to gain immunity from justice, and we will all pay the price in health and life.”

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Avigdor Lieberman, chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, tweeted that Israelis are “all hostages,” adding that “due to the anger of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu’s alternative will still be a general lockdown” during the holidays. “Netanyahu is not afraid of God but of his representatives in the Knesset.”

Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelach, the former chairman of the coronavirus committee, called on the government to “take calculated action – and to take into account the special situation of a city of 200,000 people, and the behavioral characteristics of the ultra-Orthodox population,” referring to Bnei Brak, after a meeting with the city’s mayor. “The worst thing is the hesitation, indecision, and action out of political pressure that characterizes Netanyahu’s default government in every matter, and in this matter as well.”

Telem leader MK Moshe Ya’alon wrote on his Facebook page, “The fact that the citizens do not believe in the government and its policy in dealing with coronavirus stems from mismanagement in general, and failure to tell the truth in particular.” Also Sunday, coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu was supposed to ask the coronavirus cabinet to approve a seven-day lockdown on eight to 10 towns – most of them ultra-Orthodox or Arab. 

These localities are considered “bright red” according to Gamzu’s traffic-light plan, meaning that the coronavirus infection rates there are particularly high.

Earlier, the mayors of four predominantly Haredi municipalities sent Netanyahu a letter, informing him that they plan to cease cooperation with government authorities in the fight against the coronavirus due to an expected decision to impose a lockdown on their cities.

Interior Minister Arye Dery demanded in a meeting with Netanyahu that instead of a targeted closure of “red” cities, that the entire country be locked down ahead of Rosh Hashanah. 

According to Dery, who represented the ultra-Orthodox mayors in the discussion, if the infection rate remains high, the cabinet should convene on Thursday, the day before the holiday is set to begin, and approve a lockdown on all of Israel. 

The mayors of Bnei Brak, Elad, Betar Illit and the council head of Emmanuel blamed Netanyahu in their letter for failing to understand their distress, calling on him to examine alternatives they had proposed, and charging that he has intentionally led Israel down a path that will result in a lockdown of Haredi cities during the High Holy Days. 

The mayors wrote that since the start of the outbreak, they have been “at the forefront of the battle and leading the fight” against the virus. “We have all faced difficult struggles, at home and abroad, to take various steps to get patients out of our cities, to perform as many tests as possible, to maintain social distancing, to locate and close places with potential for infection. We were able to change the equation by a considerable percentage, with personal initiative and a delicate fabric of rebuilding trust, in the face of the national erosion of trust and the implementation of the guidelines,” they wrote.

The mayors concluded their letter by saying they would suspend cooperation with the government on everything related to the lockdown. Addressing Netanyahu, they wrote, “We hereby inform you that the entire ultra-Orthodox public will not forget the injustice done to it. We will not forget who the man was who signed with his own hand, time and time again, on our becoming spreaders of diseases and enemies of the people, in the selective punishment of tens of thousands of families, members of the ultra-Orthodox sector.”

The letter added, “The decisions you have made, time and time again, have been made in the absence of logic and health considerations  and are sharply and clearly directed against the ultra-Orthodox public. We see you as the sole culprit for these punitive measures, for humiliating the dignity of tradition and our dignity as legitimate citizens of this country.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, one of Israel’s coronavirus “red” cities, and reassured its residents and leaders that the defense establishment will “do everything necessary” to curb the spread of the coronavirus in the city and maintain “command and control.”

“There’s no question of ‘politics’ here, there’s a question of ‘pandemics,’” said Gantz.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu announced that he will triple the funding for organizations that distribute food to the needy to 18 million shekels ($5.3 million), after a meeting with the  representatives of these organizations, joined by the finance minister, ahead of the holidays.

The prime minister also announced that he will allocate 9 million shekels for Rosh Hashanah food packages, bringing the funds allocated to food banks to 27 million shekels.

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