Far-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich argued Wednesday, without any evidence to support his claim, that Tel Aviv Pride in late June led to a surge in coronavirus infections across Israel, as the government mulls stricter measures to curb the spread of the delta variant.
"There was a massive infection party that started this outbreak," Smotrich, leader of the opposition Religious Zionism party, told the Knesset. "The Pride march, this unruly behavior in Tel Aviv, started this outbreak."
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He claimed "no one has the courage to say it, because it's not politically correct."
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, one of only a handful of openly gay cabinet members in Israel's history, called the remarks "shameful" and stressed on Twitter that "there is no connection between the delta outbreak and the Pride marches."
"In case you forgot what the dangerous combination of ignorance, populism, frustration and hatred, Smotrich gave us… another excellent reminder," Horowitz said. "The man who made a career of homophobia never misses a shot at inciting and spreading hatred."
The ministry's director-general, Prof. Nachman Ash, told Army Radio he "can't confirm" Smotrich's claim, "and I have no data to support that. The outbreak began even earlier and can be attributed to many events that happened over that time."
The Health Ministry also issued a statement, saying the current outbreak "began due to infections by travelers returning from abroad and not abiding by quarantine regulations. The hotspots of the outbreak were in Binyamina and Modi'in, which have nothing to do with the Pride march."
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Tens of thousands of people participated in the Tel Aviv march, which was held when Israel had no restrictions on outdoor activities.
Smotrich, a staunch opponent of LGBTQ rights and self-proclaimed "proud homophobe," also claimed the government is trying to avoid imposing restrictions that would affect Muslim holidays, but isn't doing the same when it comes to Jewish ones, echoing controversial remarks by members of the opposition to the Bennett-Lapid government, particularly from ultra-Orthodox parties.
"They don't want to harm Eid al-Adha, so people go to Turkey, a glaring 'red' country," he said. "Thousands fly, return and infect [others]… well, with Jewish holidays it's not that bad, so we won't pray at a synagogue… and we won't celebrate with our family."
Eid al-Adha was celebrated by Muslims last month, whereas the Jewish holidays Smotrich was referring to will be marked starting in early September.
In a statement issued by his office, Smotrich said on Thursday that his Knesset speech was "important and excellent," reiterating his claim that mass gatherings, including anti-Netanyahu demonstrations in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv Pride, as well as trips to COVID-hit Turkey made another lockdown over the Jewish High Holy Days unavoidable. "I hope everyone sees this and recognize the government's failures," he added.