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Anti-Netanyahu Protest Group Attempts to Enlist Ultra-Orthodox Community
A police officer has a few words for an ultra-Orthodox student outside a yeshiva in Bnei Brak on April 2. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Anti-Netanyahu Protest Group Attempts to Enlist Ultra-Orthodox Community

Hundreds in Israeli city of Bnei Brak reportedly join, though some dismiss effort as cynical ploy

One of the groups leading protests against Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is attempting to enlist members of the ultra-Orthodox community to join its nationwide efforts.

For the first time, the Black Flags movement on Sunday opened up an official WhatsApp group for residents of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox bastion located on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

Within hours, hundreds had reportedly joined to protest the Netanyahu government’s decision to keep ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and cities under lockdown amid high coronavirus infection rates.

The movement, which presents itself as non-partisan and originally coalesced around a desire to see Netanyahu step down during his corruption trial, has garnered considerable success in recent months as Israelis around the country express disapproval of his pandemic policies.

The group continues to hold demonstrations on bridges, highway junctions and city squares.

On Saturday evening, weekly protests grew considerably as lockdown restrictions forbidding travel farther than half a mile from home were lifted. According to Black Flags, roughly 260,000 protesters in 1,275 locations around Israel took part.

“Our protest unites all the people of Israel who are fed up with the criminal defendant who is destroying the country,” Roee Neuman, a Black Flags spokesperson, told The Media Line. “In recent weeks there have been protests in Tel Aviv, Ashkelon, Efrat, Alfei Menashe, Kiryat Shmona and other places.”

Our protest unites all the people of Israel who are fed up with the criminal defendant who is destroying the country

Efrat and Alfei Menashe are settlements in the West Bank, traditionally seen as bastions of the Right – if not of Netanyahu himself.

Neuman insists that the new chapter in Bnei Brak arose without any recruitment efforts.

“We are happy for every person who joins the protest,” he noted.

“The goal of the Black Flags movement is to replace the current Israeli government with one that works for its citizens, and not for luxury flights, tax benefits and incitement. Whoever joins with this goal is welcome,” he stated.

Aside from lifting distance limitations on Israelis, the government also allowed preschools and kindergartens to reopen on Sunday as new coronavirus infections continued a downward trend. But Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the prominent leader of the Lithuanian Hasidic stream of ultra-Orthodox Judaism – and himself a resident of Bnei Brak – ordered all the stream’s boys’ schools to reopen on Sunday in defiance of the new directives.

Members of Israel’s wide and varied ultra-Orthodox communities have come under intense scrutiny in recent weeks for repeatedly disregarding pandemic restrictions. They make up roughly 11% of Israel’s population but have accounted for about 40% of the new cases in recent weeks. (Kanievsky himself, at 92, recently tested positive.)

In response, Netanyahu called on ultra-Orthodox leaders not to “violate the rules” of the slowly lifting lockdown.

“The Torah sanctifies life, and this endangers life,” the prime minister said in a televised briefing, adding that authorities would enforce the restrictions wherever necessary.

According to Black Flags, there are currently 11 different WhatsApp groups in Bnei Brak with hundreds of members. Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis frown on the use of smartphones that support WhatsApp.

However, it remains unclear whether Black Flags’ grassroots efforts will gain significant traction in the ultra-Orthodox community. A video circulating on Twitter shows black flags and other protest materials awaiting distribution in Bnei Brak, claiming that no residents had shown up to take them.

The Media Line asked the movement to confirm or deny the report but has yet to receive a response.

Eliyahu Goldshmid, a Kanievsky follower who lives in the ultra-Orthodox town of Modi’in Ilit, about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, says that while he does not view lockdowns as effective, he is not prepared to join a movement that views his community as “easy prey” to punish Netanyahu.

“I don’t want to be used as an instrument to harm the prime minister [alongside] hateful people who have never cared about or helped our community. They will dump us at the first opportunity,” Goldshmid told The Media Line.

I don’t want to be used as an instrument to harm the prime minister [alongside] hateful people who have never cared about or helped our community. They will dump us at the first opportunity

“They came to hand out flags and only a few [people] took them, which shows that the [ultra-Orthodox] public is not stupid,” he added.

According to Goldshmid, ultra-Orthodox Jews will never take to the streets without the backing of their rabbis or of parliamentarians in United Torah Judaism (UTJ) or Shas, religious parties that are members of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.

“I don’t see the members of UTJ or Shas backing a protest with the Black Flags,” he explained. “It would not be worth it to break up the government over a fake lockdown in Bnei Brak.”

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