Towns and cities in Israel with large Charedi populations were under lockdown this week after undercover police dispersed prayer meetings, only for the Orthodox worshippers to reconvene an hour later.
Anger and resentment at the Orthodox sector’s disregard for social distancing rules led to the government taking the extraordinary step of “locking down” large parts of the country on Sunday, having already quarantined the city of Bnei Brak.
After experts warned that the number of Orthodox Israelis infected with coronavirus was likely to be far higher than the official figures, the cabinet closed Elad, Modiin Illit, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, Tiberias, Ashkelon, Migdal Haemek and Or Yehuda.
In addition they closed 15 areas of Jerusalem including Har Nof, Mea Shearim, Ramot and Givat Mordechai, with police checkpoints, patrols and surveillance being set up and the IDF Home Front Command providing food to local residents.
It follows an undercover police operation on Friday night in which officers dressed as strictly Orthodox worshippers infiltrated a synagogue before breaking up a large crowd. According to police, “an hour later… people had returned again”.
It follows the full-scale closure around Bnei Brak, which has a population of about 200,000, where religious leaders have refused to tell people to stay indoors. The entire city was last week declared to be “a restricted zone” as the virus spread.
The influential 92-year old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky has only recently called for lone prayer, having spent most of March telling residents that “the Torah protects and saves”. This led to paramedics being pelted with rocks by the rabbi’s followers.
With 8,600 infections and 51 deaths by Monday morning, analysts took heart from the virus’s slowing growth, but some have called for an increase in testing from the current daily average of about 6,000.
Ministers are still considering a fully-enforced lockdown for the entire country for Pesach to make sure no-one travels outside their homes to visit relatives for anything other than essential duties.
Meanwhile there were calls for Health Minister Yaakov Litzman to be sacked just days after he contracted coronavirus.
Calls for his removal follow Israeli media reports that Litzman, who leads the strictly Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, attended a prayer meeting in Bnei Brak, in recent days, flouting his own ministry’s guidelines. The allegations remain unproven.
Critics include a fellow cabinet minister, speaking anonymously, who said Litzman was “knowingly demonstrating contempt” for the rules, adding that he had “put all of our lives in danger”.
They added: “We are all taking the greatest possible care in these days. And yet the health minister, of all people, doesn’t recognise the gravity of the situation, and endangers us all, ultimately harming decision-making.”
Critics also point to the 71-year old’s insistence in cabinet, only ten days ago, that synagogues should be allowed to stay open, while earlier having stalled new health ministry regulations on social distancing until after Purim.