Top Orthodox minister resigns as backlash against new COVID lockdown mounts in Israel


(JTA) — Israel’s housing minister has resigned from the government to protest a nationwide lockdown aimed at bringing the country’s spiraling coronavirus outbreak under control.

Yaakov Litzman, a top haredi Orthodox lawmaker, stepped down to oppose the closures of synagogues over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, saying that even a policy allowing small-scale prayer services would still impede Israelis’ right to come together during the High Holidays.

Litzman was health minister this spring when the coronavirus pandemic first descended on Israel. He drew criticism for his response then, especially after he contracted the virus at a time when he was attending prayer services that his office had banned. Since July he had been Israel’s housing minister.

Months ago, the country was recording hundreds of new cases each day. Now, six months into the pandemic, Israel is recording thousands of infections daily and has become the global leader in new cases per capita.

After haredi lawmakers opposed efforts to impose restrictions targeting areas with high infection rates, including some predominantly haredi cities, government officials devised a sweeping national plan that would shutter most businesses and communal activity and keep Israelis within a half-mile of their homes for two weeks. (The plan’s start was to be delayed until Friday, in part to allow Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials to travel to the United States for a ceremony on Tuesday marking the normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates.)

Plans for the lockdown were supposed to be finalized on Sunday, but Litzman’s resignation is the latest sign that the path to approval is anything but smooth. In addition to pressure from the haredi sector, advocates of a lockdown — which would also shutter schools for at least a month — are also facing opposition from business owners who say they cannot survive another period without income.

The country’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein, says the full lockdown is needed to reduce the infection rate. But Netanyahu is reportedly considering weakening some elements of the plan, for example reducing the number of workers allowed in offices rather than barring them outright.

The heated debate in Israel’s Cabinet comes hours after the final pre-lockdown protest outside of Netanyahu’s house in Jerusalem on Saturday. A wide array of Netanyahu’s critics have gathered in increasing numbers every Saturday night to protest his handling of the pandemic and other aspects of his leadership. The Times of Israel is reporting that the protests could be another sticking point in negotiations over the lockdown.

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