Police roadblocks Tuesday, March 21 closed the small town of Bnei Barak after one out of three of its 200,00 residents tested positive for coronavirus. The police operation, backed by IDF Home Command soldiers, barred entry to non-residents and clamped down on compliance with Ministry of Health emergency regulations for combating the virus. The streets were quickly emptied and fines imposed on offenders against social distancing restrictions.
Compliance was also enforced in Beit Shemesh outside Jerusalem and Meah Shearim in the capital. All three places have become hotbeds of covid-19 infection and all three are centers of the Haredi (ultra-religious) communities. Bnei Brak with 571 cases came second to Jerusalem on the national chart of affected towns, following which the Minister of Health, Yakov Litzman – himself a local resident – demanded that the small town which lies adjacent to Tel Aviv be placed in full lockdown. Special teams went into the town on Tuesday to remove people who were in contact with victims to enforced quarantine outside their crowded homes and the town. Except for the Pardes Katz neighborhood, Bnei Brak is populated by haredi communities. The overcrowded housing conditions in which their large families live, as well as the preponderance of communal religious activities in keeping with their traditions, are major factors in the out-of-control spread of covid-10.
Some fringe groups in all three haredi centers have made a point of flouting the directives of the government and the health ministry. They only respect orders handed down by their own rabbis and accuse the authorities of not respecting their traditional way of life or Jewish values. In a case in point on Tuesday, the posting of female soldiers to oversee the closure of synagogues, yeshiva classes and ritual baths sparked more defiance.
Bnei Brak is the first Israeli town to be placed in near lockdown to stem the outbreak of coronavirus. Full closure is not feasible in a town hemmed in on all sides by contiguous urban areas. The police are wearing gloves for protection against infection but those gloves are also made of kid leather. Law enforcement must not be seen to be persecuting the ultra-religious community while bringing it in line with the rest of the country, which has exercised commendable self-discipline for beating covid-10.