Ultra-Orthodox funeral in Jerusalem draws thousands, flouting Covid rules

Funeral of prominent rabbi is latest display of disregard for coronavirus restrictions

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Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Israelis on Sunday attended the funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem, flouting the country’s ban on large public gatherings during the lockdown.

The funeral procession for Rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik, who died at the age of 99, wound its way through the streets of Jerusalem in the latest display of ultra-Orthodox Israelis’ refusal to obey coronavirus restrictions.

The phenomenon has undermined Israel’s aggressive vaccination campaign to bring an outbreak under control and threatened to hurt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March elections.

Two challengers accused Mr Netanyahu of failing to enforce the law because of pressure from his ultra-Orthodox political allies.

Densely packed throngs of people gathered outside the rabbi’s home, ignoring restrictions on outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people. Many did not wear masks.

Thousands of black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Israelis coursed past the city’s main entrance towards the cemetery where Soloveitchik was to be buried.

A handful of police officers blocked junctions to allow participants to pass, but appeared to take no action to prevent the illegal assembly.

Israeli media said Soloveitchik, a leading religious scholar who led well-known seminaries, recently suffered from Covid-19.

Police had little choice but to allow the massive procession to proceed, Alon Halfon, a Jerusalem police official, told Channel 13 TV.

Mr Halfon said police action helped to reduce the crowd size and that some 100 tickets were issued for health breaches.

But in such a densely packed environment, with children among the crowd, trying to disperse it would have been “unwise and dangerous".

Israel’s Health Ministry has recorded more than 640,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and at least 4,745 deaths.

The country has recently been averaging more than 6,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus each day, one of the highest infection rates in the developing world.

At the same time, Israel has vaccinated more than 3 million of its citizens, also one of the highest rates per capita in the world.

Health experts say it could take several weeks for the vaccination campaign to have an effect on infections and hospital admission rates.

The Israeli Cabinet was meeting on Sunday and expected to extend a nationwide lockdown for another week.

The government imposed the movement restrictions and closure of schools and non-essential businesses last month to try to curb Israel’s infections.

A disproportionate number of Israel’s coronavirus cases are within the ultra-Orthodox minority.

The strictly religious community, which makes up about 11 per cent of Israel’s 9.2 million people, has suffered about 40 per cent of new cases.

Many ultra-Orthodox sects have kept schools, seminaries and synagogues open, and held mass weddings and funerals in breach of lockdown restrictions that closed schools and businesses in other parts of the country.

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 that the country’s secular public does not understand the importance of public prayers and religious studies.

They claim those breaking the law 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 anger his allies before critical elections.

Without ultra-Orthodox support, it will be extremely difficult for him to cobble together a governing coalition, especially as he seeks immunity from a corruption trial.

But there are signs that this alliance could become a liability because of widespread public anger over ultra-Orthodox behaviour during the pandemic.

A poll last week suggested that more than 60 per cent of Israelis do not want ultra-Orthodox parties to serve in the next coalition.

Sunday’s funeral came a day after police used a water cannon to disperse anti-Netanyahu protesters near the prime minister’s residence.

And Israeli media showed police aggressively handing out fines to people breaching the lockdown in Tel Aviv, drawing accusations of double standards.

Gideon Saar, a right-wing Israeli politician challenging Mr Netanyahu in the elections, criticised the prime minister on Twitter.

“The pictures from Jerusalem prove that Mr Netanyahu has given up on enforcing the law for political reasons," Mr Saar said.

"This won’t happen in a government headed by me. There will be one law for all and it will be enforced.”

Another challenger, Yair Lapid, leader of a centrist party appealing to middle-class secular voters, told Parliament that he had nothing against the ultra-Orthodox or their parties.

“I have a big problem with someone who thinks the law doesn’t apply to him,” he said. “The law is for everyone.”