Little enforcement means ultra-Orthodox schools have remained open

Police carry out patrols, but tread lightly when they find a school opened illegally.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews are taught in school.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite hundreds of ultra-Orthodox schools having opened around the country in defiance of government COVID-19 laws, only a few dozen fines have been issued by the police against such institutions.
Although the government permitted grades one to four to restart school at the beginning of November, pupils in grades five and upwards in the general education system remain at home.
Ever since the beginning of the school semester on October 18, tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) pupils of all ages have been attending class, in accordance with the instructions of the sector’s most senior rabbinical leaders.
And despite the fact that the government has still not authorized the reopening of grades five and upwards, ultra-Orthodox pupils in these elementary and equivalent high school grades are still attending school.
But it appears that there has been little enforcement of the coronavirus regulations against these schools.
It is the police who are responsible for the issuance of fines against educational institutions that open in contravention of coronavirus laws, but a police spokesman said that only “several dozen” such fines, amounting to NIS 5,000 each, have been issued since October 18.
The spokesman said that he had no precise numbers however, although Channel 12 News has reported specifically that 68 such fines had been issued.
It now appears that even these fines will not be paid, since the requisite government regulations required by the government COVID-19 legislation have yet to be approved by the Knesset Education Committee.
According to the spokesman, the police simply do not have the requisite manpower to properly enforce the closure of haredi schools, since there are thousands of such institutions around the country.
The ultra-Orthodox city of Beitar Illit in the West Bank – which has a population of 50,000 – has some 200 different communities, many of which have their own schools.
The spokesman said that the police carry out patrols of ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods, but tread lightly when they find a school which has opened illegally.
Police will speak to the school principal, inform him of the violation, issue him with a warning and request that he send the children home.
When necessary, fines are also issued.
The spokesman claimed that the fact that grades one to four have returned to class makes it more difficult to enforce the closure of elementary schools since it is unclear which grades are present.
This difficulty would not however apply to yeshiva ketanas, the equivalent of high schools in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox sector.
The spokesman also acknowledged that there is a phenomenon, albeit on what he described as a small scale, of “pirate schools” where some institutions convene classes in private apartments instead of on school grounds, in order to avoid detection.
He said, however, that the police do not believe this to be particularly widespread due to the logistical problem of finding enough space in private apartments for so many children.
And he also insisted that local municipal authorities also have the authority to close down schools which are operating in violation of the law.
Indeed, Bnei Brak municipal council member Yaakov Veeder of the Likud has asserted that the municipal authority can carry out such enforcement but refrains from doing so.
He noted that in July, the municipal council bolstered its city inspector force and sent security personnel to close down synagogues and other institutions that were violating COVID-19 regulations.
Veeder said, however, that this enforcement is carried out very selectively and against fringe communities such as the radical Jerusalem Faction.
And he argued that such enforcement demonstrates that municipal authorities do indeed have the authority to close down schools if they so wish.
The situation in Bnei Brak is similar to that in other ultra-Orthodox cities where the municipal council has little inclination to carry out such enforcement because they see themselves as subservient to rabbinical orders.
Gedalyahu Ben Shimon, Bnei Brak’s deputy mayor from the Shas Party, said explicitly that the concerns of the leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis were a critical part of the municipal council’s attitude.
“We listen to the rabbis, they are more important than the politicians. They said open up everything – and so we did,” said Ben Shimon, explaining that the rabbis are afraid of delinquency from ultra-Orthodox society if pupils are not in school.
“We fulfil [the precept of] ‘do everything that they tell you,’” he continued, in reference to a verse from the Bible which instructs people to strictly adhere to the words of priests and judges, a verse interpreted to refer to rabbis as well.
He also denied that the municipal council is responsible for enforcement.
“The job of the municipal authority is not to give fines – that’s the job of the police,” he said. When asked if the police in the city are sufficiently enforcing the law, he replied: “I don’t follow after whether there is enforcement.”