JERUSALEM – Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis crowded to the funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem on Sunday, violating the ban on large public gatherings during the pandemic.
The funeral procession for Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik, who died at the age of 99, went through the streets of Jerusalem to demonstrate the refusal of ultra-Orthodox Israelis to comply with coronavirus restrictions. Police estimated that more than 10,000 people had joined the procession and issued dozens of tickets for disregarding the blocking rules.
The phenomenon has undermined the country’s aggressive vaccination campaign to control an angry outbreak and threatened to injure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the March elections. One challenger accused Netanyahu of failing to enforce the law due to political pressure from his ultra-Orthodox political allies.
A crowded crowd gathered in front of the rabbi’s home, ignoring the restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Many did not wear masks. Thousands of black-clad ultra-Orthodox undertakers walked past the main entrance to the city to the cemetery where Soloveitchik was to be buried. A handful of police officers blocked intersections from traffic to allow attendees to pass, but did not appear to be taking any steps to prevent the illegal gathering.
According to Israeli media, Soloveitchik, a leading religious scholar who led a number of well-known seminars, had recently suffered from Covid-19.
The Israeli Ministry of Health has recorded over 640,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and at least 4,745 deaths since the pandemic began.
Israel recently reported an average of more than 6,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus per day, one of the highest rates of infection in developing countries. At the same time, Israel has vaccinated over 3 million of its citizens, which is also one of the highest per capita rates in the world.
Health experts say it will take several weeks for the vaccination campaign to impact infection and hospitalization rates. But major public funerals like these for Soloveitchik in Jerusalem and for a prominent Arab sheikh who was killed in Jaffa last week have disrupted efforts to prevent the disease from spreading.
A disproportionate number of Israel’s coronavirus cases belong to the country’s ultra-Orthodox minority. The strictly religious community, which makes up around 11% of Israel’s 9.2 million residents, has caused around 40% of the new cases.
Many ultra-Orthodox sects have kept schools, seminars, and synagogues open, and held mass weddings and funerals, in violation of lockdown restrictions that have closed schools and many businesses in other parts of the country. In the past few weeks there have been violent clashes between members of the ultra-Orthodox community who broke the rules and police officers who tried to enforce them.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders say they have been wrongly singled out, arguing that the country’s secular public does not understand the importance of public prayer and religious study in their community. They claim the scoffers are a small part of their diverse community and blame the overcrowded living conditions for the outbreak.
Netanyahu has long relied on ultra-Orthodox parties for support, and critics say he refused to fight his allies before critical elections. Without ultra-Orthodox support, it will be extremely difficult for Netanyahu to cobble together a ruling coalition – especially as he seeks immunity from an ongoing corruption process.
However, there are signs that this alliance could become liable due to widespread public anger over ultra-Orthodox behavior during the pandemic. A poll last week found that over 60% of Israelis do not want ultra-Orthodox parties to serve in the next coalition.
Gideon Saar, a right-wing Israeli politician who challenged Netanyahu in the elections, criticized the prime minister on Twitter, saying, “The photos from Jerusalem show that Netanyahu gave up enforcing the law for political reasons. This will not happen in a government I lead. There will be a law for everyone and it will be enforced. “
The Israeli cabinet should extend the country’s general lockdown for another week on Sunday evening as the infection rate remained high.
The government last month imposed restrictions on movement and the closure of schools and non-essential businesses to contain Israel’s runaway pandemic.