Jerusalem (AFP) – Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered on Sunday for the funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, violating the country’s ban on large public gatherings during the outbreak.
The funeral procession of Rabbi Meshulam Solovitchik, who died at the age of 99, made its way through the streets of Jerusalem in the latest display of ultra-Orthodox Israelis refusing to respect coronavirus restrictions.
This phenomenon undermined the country’s aggressive vaccination campaign to control the outbreak and threatened to harm Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the March elections. Netanyahu’s rivals have accused him of failing to enforce the law due to political pressure from his hard-line political allies.
Crowds of people gathered outside the rabbi’s home, ignoring restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Many of them did not wear masks. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox funeral goers marched in black in front of the main entrance to the city towards the cemetery where Solovicek was to be buried. A few police officers blocked traffic junctions to allow participants to pass, but it appeared that they took no action to prevent the illegal gathering.
Israeli media have said that Solovitchik, a prominent religious scholar who has headed a number of well-known religious schools, has recently suffered from COVID-19.
Alon Halfon, a Jerusalem police official, told Channel 13 TV that the police had no choice but to allow the massive motorcade to proceed. He said police measures helped reduce the size of the crowd and around 100 tickets were issued for health violations. But in such a crowded environment, with children in the crowd, trying to disperse the crowd would be “unwise and dangerous”.
The Israeli Ministry of Health has recorded more than 640,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 4,745 deaths since the start of the epidemic.
Israel recently recorded more than 6,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus every day, one of the highest rates of infection in the developing world. At the same time, Israel vaccinated more than 3 million of its citizens, which is also one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
Health experts say that a vaccination campaign may take several weeks to have an impact on infection rates and hospitalization. The Israeli cabinet meets on Sunday and is expected to extend the nationwide lockdown for another week. The government imposed movement restrictions and closed schools and non-essential businesses last month in an effort to clamp down on Israel’s runaway pandemic.
There is a disproportionate number of coronavirus cases in Israel among the country’s ultra-Orthodox minority. The purely religious community, which makes up about 11% of Israel’s population of 9.2 million, accounts for about 40% of the new cases.
Many ultra-Orthodox denominations have kept schools, seminaries, and synagogues open, and have held mass weddings and funerals in violation of lockdown restrictions that have closed schools and many businesses in other parts of the country. Recent weeks have seen violent clashes between members of the ultra-Orthodox community, who break the rules and police officers trying to enforce them.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders say they have been unfairly discriminated against and argue that the country’s secular public does not understand the importance of public prayer and religious studies in their community. They claim the lawbreakers are a small part of their diverse community, and they blame the crowded living conditions for the outbreak.
Netanyahu has long relied on ultra-Orthodox parties for support, and critics say he refused to antagonize his allies before crucial elections are held. Without hard-line Orthodox support, it would be extremely difficult for Netanyahu to form a governing coalition – especially as he seeks immunity from the ongoing corruption trial.
But there are signs that this alliance could become a hindrance due to widespread public outrage over ultra-Orthodox behavior during the pandemic. A poll last week showed that more than 60% of Israelis do not want the ultra-Orthodox parties to serve in the next coalition.
Sunday’s funeral came a day after police used water cannons to disperse anti-Netanyahu protesters near the prime minister’s home. Israeli media showed police strictly distributing fines to people who violate the closure in Tel Aviv, prompting accusations that the police follow double standards.
Gideon Saar, a right-wing Israeli politician who challenges Netanyahu in the elections, criticized the prime minister on Twitter, saying, “The pictures from Jerusalem prove that Netanyahu has abandoned the implementation of the law for political reasons. This will not happen in my government. There will be one law for everyone and it will be implemented.”
Another rival, Yair Lapid, the leader of a centrist party appealing to secular middle-class voters, said in a speech in Parliament that he had nothing against ultra-Orthodox Jews or their parties.
He said, “I have a big problem with someone who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him.” “Law is for everyone.”