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Haredi protesters in Beit Shemesh don yellow stars to protest synagogue ban

Several ultra-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh protesting against social distancing measures and the ban on holding prayers at synagogues amid the coronavirus pandemic wore Holocaust-era yellow stars.

Protesters appeared to be likening their treatment by Israeli authorities to the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Extreme ultra-Orthodox protesters have on several occasions elicited public outrage for using symbols of the Holocaust, including yellow stars and striped concentration camp uniforms, to protest against perceived injustices.

Hundreds of extremist, ultra-Orthodox residents of Beit Shemesh have held protests against the government’s coronavirus restrictions that have kept synagogues and yeshiva study halls closed, with some even donning yellow Stars of David.

Footage and photos on social media of the protests held Monday showed several of the protesters wearing the badges reminiscent of Holocaust-era Jewish persecution. Others compared the Israeli government to the Soviet Union.
Video showed the large throng of protesters surrounding a vehicle that had attempted to cross through the path of the demonstration, denouncing the “campaign of religious persecution by the Bolshevik-Israeli government.”

The protest came on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Police descended in large numbers on the town’s Heftziba neighborhood where residents were blocking a main road and used riot-dispersal measures to break up the protests. Several of the demonstrators were detained as a result, according to Hebrew media reports.

This is not the first times since the start of the pandemic that radical Haredim have likened their treatment by Israeli authorities to the Nazi persecution of Jews. Footage from protests last month caught demonstrators wearing yellow stars and striped concentration camp uniforms in addition to calling police officers “Nazis.”

There have been several, sometimes violent, demonstrations among Haredi communities against the coronavirus restrictions that saw synagogues, schools and yeshivas closed and prayer quorums banned. There has also been widespread anger after strict closures were imposed on the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Beni Brak and Jerusalem neighborhoods, which were the worst affected by the virus.

Police have also been accused of using excessive force.

A clip of a police officer shoving a Haredi man to the ground in Mea Shearim Jerusalem began circulating in several prominent ultra-Orthodox WhatsApp groups Tuesday under the caption, “this is not Auschwitz, it is Mea Shearim.”

Synagogues and yeshivas, which were found to have been major sources of infection at the start of the crisis, are still closed.

As of Monday evening, Beit Shemesh — where over 50% of the roughly 120,000 residents are ultra-Orthodox — has had 319 confirmed coronavirus cases. Only Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Tel Aviv and Elad have more COVID-19 carriers. Beit Shemesh has seen a 14.7% rise in confirmed cases in the past three days and a 51.2% increase during the past week.

The issue seems to be causing splits within the Haredi leadership too, who have largely followed government restrictions.

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who is arguably the most prominent leader of the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community in Bnei Brak with hundreds of thousands of followers, signed off on a letter Monday that was sent to the United Torah Judaism party-affiliated Yeted Ne’eman Haredi newspaper calling for yeshiva study halls to be re-opened, according to a Tuesday Channel 12 report.

However, under the direction of Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, who is a co-head at the Ponevezh Yeshiva and also a prominent community leader in Bnei Brak, the paper chose not to publish the letter, the report said, calling the move an “unprecedented step” in the ultra-Orthodox world.

Last month, Kanievsy initially defied government calls to close yeshivas, only reversing his stance after two fateful weeks.