Police close haredi schools opened in defiance of regulations, fine principals

Schools opened following a ruling by Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, after negotiations with the government broke down.

Y Rabinovitz ,

Haredi boys' school (illustrative)
Haredi boys' school (illustrative)

Following the breakdown of discussions between haredi representatives and the government regarding the resumption of classes for boys between the ages of 6 and 13, several boys’ schools decided to resume studies on Sunday, Kikar Hashabbat reports. Police visited several institutions in the haredi-majority cities of Elad and Beitar Illit over the course of the day, ordering the schools to shut and the students to be sent home. In addition, several principals were issued fines of NIS 5,000 and were summoned to the police station for questioning.

Parallel to the enforcement, city mayors and school principals are in dialogue, with the mayors apparently attempting to persuade the principals to close the schools, despite a ruling from Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, widely perceived as the leading rabbi of the Lithuanian (i.e. non-Chassidic, Ashkenazi) haredi sector, ordering schools to open.

Tensions are running high in haredi neighborhoods, and several journalists who arrived together with police to shut down schools operating on Sunday alleged that they were attacked with eggs and that stones were thrown at their vehicles, resulting in damage. Police have opened an investigation into the incident.

Responding to the news that haredi schools had reopened today in defiance of government regulations, Prof. Gabi Barbash, a former director-general of the Health Minister, said that in his opinion, haredi cities and neighborhoods should be cut off from the outside world and “only ambulances should be permitted to leave.”

Speaking on Kan Reshet Bet, Barbash said that, “The problem with the haredim is very difficult to address. The haredim hold the political echelon captive, and they’re likely to ruin the emergence from the lockdown if they behave in this way.”

When asked what he thought should be done, Barbash said, “Cut them off. Give them supplies, and isolate them. Don’t let them leave [their neighborhoods] to go to their jobs – or for any other reason. Otherwise the virus will spread from them to us.”

When it was pointed out to him that the data show a decrease in contagion in all sectors, including the haredi sector, Barbash responded, “We don’t really know what’s going on there. Maybe part of their rebellion is in [refusing to do] testing as well. But from what I hear from the hospitals, there are more cases among haredim than among others.”

Barbash also alleged that the decision to reopen preschools across the country was politically motivated and flies in the face of professional recommendations, despite a slew of studies that have shown that young children tend to transmit the coronavirus at a far lesser rate than older children and adults. Indeed, his views appeared to be shared by Prof. Motti Ravid, former director of Mayanei Hayeshua hospital in Bnei Brak, who was forced to resign after making public statements that singled out the haredi community for censure. He, too, claimed that resumption of teaching for young children will fuel a new wave of infection.

Meanwhile, Moshe Glasner (of Radio Kol Berama) was interviewed by Kikar Hashabbat in the wake of the recent developments in the haredi educational sector. He admitted that it is not easy to explain the happenings to the secular public, but that with a bit of effort, a measure of understanding could be achieved.

“Consider what happened with the ‘traffic-light’ formula last week,” he said. “At the very last minute, the rules were changed so that haredi neighborhoods that had been green suddenly turned red. This wasn’t some delusional conspiracy theory – mayors of several cities had clear evidence of what happened behind the scenes. This really inflamed the situation, on top of everything else.”

Glasner pointed out that the perception that religious practice is being discriminated against goes back to the imposition of the second lockdown, delayed without apparent reason until just before the High Holidays, a time when it could be (and surely was) predicted that many haredim would rebel against the guidelines after months of packed beaches, restaurants, and cafes, even as the number of coronavirus cases continued to mount. “Think about all that, and then maybe you will understand why many people believe what [former minister Yaakov] Litzman said – that the lockdown was planned months in advance for the Tishrei holidays.”

According to Glasner and other senior haredi sources, the latest scene of conflict – the resumption of elementary studies for boys – could likewise have been avoided with a modicum of effort to reach an understanding. Last week, leading rabbis and representatives from the main hassidic courts met with government representatives including the coronavirus project manager, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, and the project manager for the haredi sector, Ronni Numa, and an outline was developed and approved. However, when it was presented to the government’s coronavirus cabinet, the plan was summarily rejected by members of the Blue & White party along with the Attorney-General.

“Now we’re seeing leading public figures such as Avigdor Liberman [the head of the Yisrael Beytenu party] and Yair Lapid [the head of the opposition] calling for funding to be cut from educational institutions that don’t adhere to the guidelines – exactly the opposite reaction to restaurants that opened in defiance of the guidelines,” he pointed out. Glasner called for the two sides to “listen to each other, try to understand,” but if he would listen to what the “extremist haredim” are saying, as represented by Yoelish Krausz (interviewed several weeks ago by Channel 13 News), he would have little reason to take heart.

“No, the widening gaps between the secular and the haredim don’t concern me,” he replied in answer to a question on perceived discrimination against the haredi community. “On the contrary, I think it’s a good thing; it makes your attempts to change us less likely to succeed.”