Hundreds of residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim crowded the city’s streets Monday night to mark the Lag B’Omer holiday, ignoring a government ban on celebrations meant to stave off a fresh outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Bonfires and gatherings were also reported in Beit Shemesh and the incidents drew an angry rebuke from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ordered a police crackdown on the illegal celebrations.
Footage showed adults and children dancing and congregating in close quarters, despite social distancing restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Police were reported to be working to disperse gatherings at several bonfires in the neighborhood.
Hebrew media estimates said Tuesday that a total of about 1,000 ultra-Orthodox residents of Mea Shearim had flouted the ban on gatherings.
In the city of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, officers dispersed groups at a number of illegal bonfires, where dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews had congregated.
Several extremists verbally and physically harassed a Channel 13 correspondent and his cameraman, as they reported from near a bonfire. At least one rock was thrown at them and appeared to hit reporter Yossi Eli, as he broadcast live.
There were no immediate reports of arrests.
“I strongly condemn all violence and denounce all the extremists who stain the name of Beit Shemesh. The vast majority of the city’s residents are celebrating this evening at home and adhering to the directives,” Mayor Aliza Bloch said.
In a midnight statement, Netanyahu’s office said he spoke to outgoing Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, acting Police Commissioner Moti Cohen and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat to order that police “step up enforcement immediately and disperse the gatherings.”
Ben-Shabbat warned that the celebrations could lead to a fresh outbreak of the coronavirus, according to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Dedy Simhi, head of the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, told Channel 13 in an interview that the majority of Israelis were following the guidelines.
Ministers decided last week to ban bonfires and entry to Mount Meron in northern Israel, which usually draws hundreds of thousands for the Jewish mystical holiday, but stopped short of reimposing a full curfew.
The country in recent weeks has begun to rollback restrictions on movement as infection rates have dropped to a few dozen new cases a day.
Both Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh saw major outbreaks of the disease last month, mostly tied to the ultra-Orthodox community, which initially resisted social distancing measures.
In Bnei Brak, another virus hotspot, scattered fires were reported but no major disturbances. A truck with a fake bonfire blasting Hassidish music traversed the ultra-Orthodox city’s streets in an attempt to bring some holiday cheer to would-be celebrants.
At the grave of second century CE sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, on Mount Meron — the center of the holiday’s religious rites — the festivities were highly subdued, with attendance limited to 150 people. Exemptions were granted to have three bonfires at the site.
At least one MK, United Torah Judaism’s Yaakov Eichler, was at the grave site, bucking a call from his fellow party member Moshe Gafni for lawmakers to set an example for the public and stay away.
Shas, another ultra-Orthodox party, also called on its lawmakers not to travel to Meron.
Hundreds of police were deployed to the area to prevent people from trying to sneak into the site, with Channel 12 news reporting that officers arrested 30 people trying to make their way to Mount Meron.
Besides the officers patrolling on the ground, police also used drones and observation balloons to enforce the ban on traveling to the site.
The government last week approved emergency ordinances for Lag B’Omer, banning bonfires and gatherings across the country to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
Violators of the ordinances, which came into effect over the weekend and will be in place until Wednesday, can be hit with a NIS 500 ($142) fine.
Lag B’Omer has become a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Bar Yochai, and also marking the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar.
The decision to impose restrictions during Lag B’Omer came as containment measures introduced to stem the outbreak have successfully brought the number of daily cases down to dozens.
Lockdown measures were introduced over Passover, Memorial Day, and Independence Day to prevent the pathogen’s spread, and continue to be in effect in some areas for the month-long Ramadan Muslim holiday and fast.
In recent weeks, in the rest of the country, the government has rescinded many restrictions on movement and allowed most stores and businesses to reopen.
By Toi Staff – The Times of Israel