Politicians, health officials and religious leaders in Israel are embroiled in an extraordinary row over coronavirus as the country’s infection rate becomes the worst, per capita, in the world.
Mayors representing the ultra-orthodox Jewish community, where some of the high infection rates are concentrated, have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of turning them into a “national punching bag”.
“We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people,” the mayors wrote in an open letter.
The government-appointed coronavirus commissioner, Professor Ronni Gamzu, had been urgently trying to persuade the government to impose a series of new lockdowns in so-called “red cities”.
After first signalling that the cabinet would introduce lockdown restitutions in at least 10 cities with high infection rates, Mr Netanyahu announced late on Sunday that the ministerial meeting had been postponed.
It had been expected that restrictions on cities across the country would be imposed by Monday morning but the letter from ultra-orthodox mayors, who oppose any lockdown, forced Mr Netanyahu to call a delay.
The mayors said they would cease cooperation with government and health authorities in the fight against coronavirus if a lockdown was imposed.
The row exposes a complex combination of culture, religion and politics, which now threatens a perfect pandemic storm for Israel.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel was seen as a beacon of how to contain the illness. A strict lockdown was imposed early; people complied and it appeared to work.
But the lockdown was reduced as fast as it was imposed. Few people wore masks properly and social distancing was almost entirely absent.
“The state of sickness in Israel is among the worst and most complicated in the world,” coronavirus commissioner Mr Gamzu warned last month as cases began to rocket.
Since then he has been trying to persuade the complex government coalition to approve his system in which towns and cities are categorised according to a traffic light system depending on their infection rate.
The country currently has just over 26,000 active cases, while 1,010 people have died of the disease. For a small nation of just over eight million people, the figures and the trend are both worrying.
On Friday there were 2,717 new cases diagnosed, a reduction from the high of 3,206 daily infections earlier in the week.
Last week, a preliminary list of “red cities” with high infection rates was drawn up. Most of them were either ultra-orthodox or Arab towns.
The list was released as figures from data compiled by Johns Hopkins University showed that Israel averaged 199.3 new cases a day per one million residents in the week until 2 September, making it the highest per capita rate globally.
September is the Jewish “high holiday” season, when family gatherings and attendance at synagogues are crucial to the faith.
Commenting on the approaching holidays, Professor Gamzu said the “upcoming High Holy Days are terrifying”.
He added that his view was that a nation-wide closure must remain on the table.
Last week, Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-orthodox minister, told Professor Gamzu: “You want a lockdown during the high holidays because you don’t want people praying… we will not let this happen.”
The ultra-orthodox community also argue that their comparatively closed culture makes it less likely that they will spread the disease outside their areas; an argument backed up by figures showing low rates in nearby non-orthodox communities.
However, Professor Gamzu, who is quickly becoming a scapegoat for a situation out of his control, continues to believe strict local lockdowns are the solution.
In a meeting with Israeli-Arab community leaders, he warned of hundreds of deaths within weeks.
“The increase in infections in Arab communities stems from a kind of indifference, a thought that the disease has passed and one can return to normal life,” he said.
“This is a message to all of Israel: No weddings! No mass gatherings! No dismissal [of guidelines] at any restaurant or anywhere! I’m sorry to be emotional. This is a pivotal moment… all of Israel is at war…” he said in an impassioned speech last week.
The professor added: “Anyone who doesn’t put on a mask and who disregards [instructions] is spitting in the face of doctors and nurses who are working 24 hours a day at coronavirus wards.”
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