Government Dispute May Lift Lockdown Early

As Israel grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, a significant dispute within the government may prevent the current lockdown from being extended past this weekend.

Benny Gantz’s office has released a statement saying that there would be no meeting to confirm extension of the lockdown if enforcement efforts are not increased.

That statement refers to a bill that would significantly increase fines for violations of coronavirus rules, which passed its first reading in the Knesset on Monday. However, ultra-Orthodox parties oppose the move and pressed Benjamin Netanyahu to compromise on the increase.

Understandably, Benny Gantz insists that coronavirus regulations are enforced equally across all sections of Israel’s population. But that is a problem for ultra-Orthodox politicians because their communities are the ones most strongly opposed to restrictions.

Consequently, Benjamin Netanyahu has agreed with his ultra-Orthodox allies to pass the bill to the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee. That committee is led by a member of the United Torah Judaism party, and would delay its progress.

The scale of ultra-Orthodox opposition to restrictions surprises many. It has led to frequent riots in Israel over recent weeks as the police have sought to disperse large gatherings that violated the lockdown.

Haredi Jews in the Mea Shearim neighbourhood of Jerusalem rioted on Tuesday morning, throwing rocks at moving vehicles, blocking roads with rubbish bins and damaging a bus. Similar clashes have been reported on an almost daily basis in Bnei Brak, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh, as well as Jerusalem.

Clashes on Sunday led to rioters attacking police, burning a passenger bus and damaging a light rail passenger train. Those actions prompted the Chief Rabbi of Israel to make an exceptional public statement on Monday, saying there was no justification for the violence and that it was ‘a blasphemy against God.’

An opinion article in the Jewish Chronicle seeks to explain why ultra-Orthodox Jews are so strongly opposed to any restrictions upon their way of life. Dr Natan Slifkin writes:

‘… as astounding as it may seem to us, they genuinely see no connection between flouting the restrictions and people dying from Covid. They have a worldview which has little room for modern science and much room for conspiracy theories and superstitious thinking. Even if they accept that Covid is something more than just a severe flu, they have not internalised how it can be countered with masks and social distancing.’

The problem is not restricted to Israel. It is a significant challenge in all countries where groups are strongly opposed to coronavirus restrictions. But it is especially difficult for Israel at the present time. Their battle against the virus has reached a crucial stage, with doctors reporting a particularly high proportion of critically ill patients.

Any flouting of restrictions simply accelerates the spread of new, more dangerous variants of the virus.