Thousands of people on Sunday night joined the funeral procession of a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi in Jerusalem who died of the coronavirus, in defiance of the lockdown rules, hours after another burial in the capital drew a massive crowd.
Though officials said earlier that fewer people were expected to attend Rabbi Yitzhok Scheiner’s funeral than the 10,000 who packed the earlier funeral of another top ultra-Orthodox rabbi, footage from Jerusalem showed thousands crowding the second burial.
According to Channel 13 news, some 8,000 people showed up in the capital’s Bukharim neighborhood where Scheiner, 98, was head of the Kamenitz yeshiva.
The day’s second mass funeral came despite Scheiner himself having discouraged large gatherings and urged adherence to government-ordered measures aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak in the country, including in a recent edict.
The day’s first such funeral was for Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem and scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, who died early Sunday morning at the age of 99.
Both Scheiner and Soloveitchik died of COVID-19.
The issue of lockdown enforcement in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, communities has repeatedly made headlines recently, amid reports of flagrant violations, accusations of poor enforcement, and violent protests against police who try to ensure that the closure is being obeyed. Soloveitchik’s funeral, and the absence of any attempt by police to intervene, drew public criticism of the government’s selective enforcement of the health regulations.
Ofer Shumer, a senior Jerusalem police officer, defended the force’s decision to not enforce the lockdown and prevent mass participation at Soloveitchik’s funeral, telling Channel 12, “There would certainly have been bloodshed” had police tried to disperse the crowds there.
“Yes, the funeral was large, unwantedly so,” he said during the hours between the two funeral events. “But remember, the people have a responsibility; their leaders have a responsibility… Ultimately, the police can’t tackle everybody who breaks the restrictions.”
“We prevented bloodshed today,” he said. “If we had acted with force… there would certainly have been bloodshed. I personally saw 1,000 young kids aged 10-14 [at the funeral].”
Police used water cannons to disperse anti-corruption protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence on Saturday night, sending one person to the hospital. Asked about the apparent inconsistency, Shumer said, “Every sector of the populace has its own characteristics… This is not simple work.”
Business leaders and independent workers also fumed over the earlier funeral, as the lockdown, Israel’s third, has kept most businesses shuttered. The restrictions in the past year have devastated the economy and have hit business owners especially hard.
Politicians, including some of Netanyahu’s allies on the right, also blasted the funeral. Netanyahu is closely allied with ultra-Orthodox parties, which have consistently pushed against lockdown rules.
Israel is several weeks into its third nationwide lockdown to combat the virus, but infection rates remain high, with thousands of new cases diagnosed each day.
There are violations of the rules in all areas of the country, but there have been repeated reports of flagrant rule-breaking in some ultra-Orthodox communities, including by opening schools, holding holiday events and celebrating weddings.
Infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox community are disproportionately high, likely due to lockdown infractions as well as crowded living conditions and other factors.
Police attempting to enforce regulations in some ultra-Orthodox areas have met with violent resistance including outright rioting and attacks on officers, especially in Bnei Brak, next to Tel Aviv. Ultra-Orthodox community leaders have accused the police of using excessive force.
The cabinet was meeting on extending the lockdown on Sunday evening, following the approval of a law raising fines against violators. Ministers are also expected to extend the shutdown of Ben Gurion Airport for another two weeks. Health officials want to extend the lockdown for another week as virus infection rates remain high, despite three weeks of lockdown and a rapid mass vaccination program.
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel, an Israeli based online newspaper.