JERUSALEM - Across Israel, police clashed Sunday with ultra-Orthodox Jews who violated coronavirus lockdown rules by opening schools and religious seminaries. Despite an impressive vaccine rollout, Israel is in the midst of a third lockdown to try to stop the growing number of cases.
In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Meah Shearim, hundreds of men clashed with police who attempted to shut down a yeshiva, or religious seminary, that had opened illegally. The demonstrators insulted the officers, called them Nazis and threw garbage at them.
In the southern city of Ashdod, similar demonstrations left four officers wounded, when they closed down an ultra-Orthodox elementary school that had reopened. And in the city of Bnei Brak, a mob surrounded a police officer and threw rocks at him. He fired into the air, saying he believed his life was in danger.
According to Israel's lockdown rules, all schools are supposed to be closed and classes held virtually. Synagogues are supposed to be closed as well, and gatherings limited to fewer than 10 people.
Many Israelis are angry that some of the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 12% of the Israeli population, but 40% of the new coronavirus cases, have been flouting the rules. They have kept many of their schools and synagogues open, and even had large gatherings for weddings or funerals.
Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz told Israel Radio that some members of the insular community believe they are being targeted unfairly.
"In the small Haredi communities, many of them just don't know what it's all about. They don't read newspapers, they don't have connections with the internet, they don't have connections with the outside world, and they think that they are being attacked, that people are dying, and they are not being treated properly," said Weisz.
He said that ultra-Orthodox are suffering even more than other Israelis from the current lockdown, as families with 10 or 12 children are confined to small apartments. They cannot do online schooling as most do not have internet connections.
The ultra-Orthodox violations are not new. They happened during the previous lockdowns as well. But media reports said, there was an unspoken agreement that police would not impose the lockdown as long as the ultra-Orthodox did not attack them. But the growing number of cases in the community, as well as the recent violence, have changed the equation.
Many in Israel say that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being lenient on the community for political reasons. Israel is headed to its fourth election in under two years in March, and Netanyahu needs the ultra-Orthodox to help him maintain power.
Netanyahu's disaffected coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, said the favoritism has to stop.
He said there must be equal enforcement of the law and that Israel must give the police the tools to enforce the lockdown.
Outside of the ultra-Orthodox community, Israel's high infection rate is starting to come down. But unless rules are followed, the number of cases in the ultra-Orthodox community is expected to increase. According to Johns Hopkins University, Israel currently has close to 600,000 confirmed infections and more than 4,300 deaths from the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease.