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Israel: Fear of Haredi revolt said to lead ministers to okay school openings in “hotspots”

Ministers voted Friday to allow the reopening of daycares, preschools and kindergartens in virus hotspots — all of which are ultra-Orthodox-majority areas — after officials reportedly warned that failure to do so could cause a “civil revolt.”

Roni Numa, a former general who has led and assisted official efforts to deal with the coronavirus crisis in the ultra-Orthodox community, and Acting Police Chief Motti Cohen, warned ministers Friday that it would not be possible to enforce the school closures and predicted riots and wider unrest if schools were ordered closed, Channel 12 reported.

Numa said that the response to lockdown orders in so-called “red” areas with high infection rates would be determined by decisions about the early childhood education system, the report said.

The government on Thursday decided to lift some restrictions around the country after a month-long lockdown successfully drove down infection rates. Ministers voted Friday to keep virus hotspots under lockdown at least until Wednesday, but allowed the reopening of daycares, preschools and kindergartens in those communities.

“It would help a lot if you give them [the reopening of schools] for ages 0-6,” Numa told ministers during the so-called coronavirus cabinet’s meeting, the TV report said.

Walla news reported that Numa referred to ultra-Orthodox red zones as a “dangerous pressure cooker.” A police official said the areas were “boiling” and there would likely be riots if schools were not allowed to open, the report said.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said, “We expect uniform enforcement of directives in every part of the country,” and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said, “We need to enforce and make sure [elementary schools] do not open,” Walla reported.

Numa, the former head of the army’s Central Command, said that many ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, elementary schools had already opened this week, in violation of existing guidelines, and that ordering preschools closed would likely lead to further violations in the community.

“I fear many others will disobey the government and open in the coming week. We’re talking about tens of thousands of students,” Numa said.

“I am not telling you that I recommend opening the [Haredi elementary schools],” Numa said, according to Channel 12. “I’m telling you that this is what will happen, regardless of government directives.”

“Anyone who thinks that it is possible to act differently… is invited to walk around [these communities] with me and explain to me how it is possible to do otherwise,” he said.

Senior officials in the coronavirus cabinet — a smaller forum of ministers whose portfolios relate to the virus outbreak — told Channel 13 that the decision was made to heed Numa’s advice because some Haredi preschools would have reopened regardless of restrictions, given the refusal in some Haredi communities to adhere to government health guidelines.

“Those children would in any case have been walking the streets or in school,” one of the officials told the network.

Numa explained that allowing preschools to reopen in the hotspots would “relieve some of the pressure” that has been building in ultra-Orthodox locales.

Numa speculated some 60,000 ultra-Orthodox elementary school students would likely go back to classes in violation of lockdown orders, out of 200,000 students in hotspot ultra-Orthodox areas.

Senior health officials pushed back against Numa’s recommendations, warning that reopening schools for young children so quickly would lead to a resurgence of cases.

“There is a serious problem here and an epidemiological risk,” said Sharon Alroy Preis, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, according to Channel 12.

Channel 13 and Ynet both cited health officials, including the government’s coronavirus czar, Ronni Gamzu, who were livid over the coronavirus cabinet’s decision to reopen ultra-Orthodox schools.

One health official told Ynet, however, that in allowing the young children to return to class, they will at least be supervised, as opposed to being allowed to roam the streets.

The virus hotspots that will remain under lockdown include the cities of Bnei Brak, Elad, Beitar Illit, Modiin Illit, Rechasim and several Jerusalem neighborhoods. The continued lockdown will extend at least until Wednesday.

Channel 12 reported that the percentage of positive tests in many of the Haredi “red” areas remained high on Friday. In Beitar Illit, the percentage of positive tests was 17%; in Elad, 15%; in Modiin Illit, 14%; and in Bnei Brak 11%. The national rate stood at 4.5%.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen a disproportionately high number of virus cases. In early October, officials said 40 percent of all new coronavirus infections were coming from the ultra-Orthodox, though they constitute only approximately 12% of the population.

Ultra-Orthodox groups in both Israel and the US sparked widespread public criticism in recent weeks after some communities disregarded lockdown restrictions during the High Holiday season, and pushed back against authorities trying to enforce the guidelines.

Ultra-Orthodox parties are close allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and hold sway in the government.

The decisions to lift some restrictions come a week after the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, prompting concerns an outbreak in ultra-Orthodox areas, where gatherings were common and numerous violations were recorded, may not yet be reflected in the official data.

According to multiple media reports, the government has also agreed on a plan to reopen ultra-Orthodox yeshivas next week according to the previously implemented “capsule” program.

During Friday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, Netanyahu told ministers that the exit from the national lockdown would be a slow process, and that the rollback of restrictions could be halted if infection rates spike again.

According to the Health Ministry, 1,613 new “cases” were diagnosed on Thursday, while the percentage of tests returning positive dipped to 4.5 percent, the lowest rate since mid-July. It said 37,560 tests were conducted Thursday.

Over 300,000 virus “cases” have been diagnosed since the start of the pandemic, 37,249 of which are active. According to the ministry, 714 people are in serious condition, 244 of whom are on ventilators. Another 219 are in moderate condition, with the rest displaying mild or no symptoms. Overall, 1,227 are hospitalized with the disease.

The death toll climbed to 2,141 on Friday evening, with seven more deaths recorded since midnight Thursday.

The latest figures matched the government’s goal of reaching under 2,000 daily cases to ease some lockdown restrictions on Sunday.

Ministers agreed on Thursday to lift the limit on Israelis traveling more than one kilometer from home unless for specific permitted purposes; allow them to visit others’ homes so long as caps on gatherings are adhered to (10 indoors, 20 outdoors); reopen preschools and daycares; allow restaurants to serve takeout; permit businesses that don’t receive customers to open; allow Israelis to visit beaches and national parks; and reopen the Western Wall plaza and Temple Mount compound for worship under certain restrictions.

Restrictions on flights in and out of Ben Gurion Airport were lifted on Thursday night, as per a government decision Wednesday.

The first phase of reopening after a month-long nationwide closure is part of a Health Ministry plan for a gradual, several-month exit based on epidemiological benchmarks.

Source: TOI