Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis participated in the funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, flouting the country’s ban on large public gatherings amid the pandemic.
The funeral procession for Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik, who died aged 99, wended its way through the streets of the city in the latest display of ultra-Orthodox Israelis’ refusal to observe coronavirus restrictions.
The phenomenon has undermined the country’s aggressive vaccination campaign to bring a raging outbreak under control and threatened to hurt prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March elections.
Densely packed throngs of people gathered outside the rabbi’s home in a public rejection of restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people.
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox funeral-goers, dressed in black, coursed past the city’s main entrance toward the cemetery where the rabbi was to be buried.
Police officers blocked intersections to traffic to allow participants to pass, but appeared to take no action to prevent the illegal assembly.
Israeli media said the rabbi, a leading religious scholar who headed a number of well-known seminaries, had recently suffered with Covid-19.
Alon Halfon, a Jerusalem police official, told Channel 13 TV that officers had little choice but to allow the massive procession to proceed.
He said police action had helped reduce the crowd size and that some 100 tickets were issued for health violations. But in such a densely packed environment, with children among the crowd, attempting to disperse it would have been “unwise and dangerous”.
Israel’s health ministry has recorded over 640,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 4,745 deaths since the start of the pandemic. At the same time, Israel has vaccinated over three million of its citizens, one of the highest rates per capita in the world.
Health experts say it will take several weeks for the vaccination campaign to have an effect on infection and hospitalisation rates.
But large public funerals like that for Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, and for a prominent Arab sheikh killed in Jaffa last week, have confounded efforts to prevent the spread of the disease.
A disproportionate number of Israel’s coronavirus cases are within the country’s ultra-Orthodox minority.
The strictly religious community, which makes up around 11% of Israel’s 9.2 million people, has accounted for around one-third of the confirmed cases of the virus.
Many ultra-Orthodox sects have kept schools, seminaries and synagogues open, and held mass weddings and funerals in violation of the law.
Recent weeks have seen violent clashes between members of the ultra-Orthodox community flouting the rules and police officers trying to enforce them.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders say they have been unfairly singled out and argue the country’s secular public does not understand the importance of public prayers and religious studies in their community.
They claim those ignoring the restrictions are a small part of their diverse community, and blame crowded living conditions for the outbreak.
Mr Netanyahu has long relied on ultra-Orthodox parties for support, and critics say he has refused to antagonise his allies ahead of critical elections. Without ultra-Orthodox support, it will be extremely difficult for Mr Netanyahu to cobble together a governing coalition — especially as he seeks immunity from an ongoing corruption trial.
But there are signs that this alliance could become a liability due to widespread public anger over ultra-Orthodox behaviour during the pandemic. A poll last week indicated that over 60% of Israelis do not want ultra-Orthodox parties to serve in the next coalition.
Gideon Saar, a right-wing Israeli politician challenging Mr Netanyahu in upcoming parliamentary elections, criticised the prime minister on Twitter, saying “the pictures from Jerusalem prove that Netanyahu has given up on enforcing the law for political reasons. This won’t happen in a government headed by me. There will be one law for all and it will be enforced”.
Israel’s Cabinet was set to extend the country’s general lockdown for an additional week on Sunday as the infection rate remained high.
The government imposed the movement restrictions and closure of schools and non-essential businesses last month in an effort to clamp down on Israel’s runaway pandemic.