TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Following the death of a revered ultra-Orthodox rabbi this week, Israeli police thought they had worked out a deal with his followers to allow for a small and dignified funeral that would comply with public health guidelines under the current blockade of the coronavirus.
But when Monday was the time to bury the rabbi, thousands of people showed up – ignoring the rules of social distancing and clashing with the police who tried to disperse the mass gathering.
Such violations of the blockade rules by segments of the ultra-Orthodox population angered a wider Israeli public who are largely complying with the restrictions imposed to stop a raging coronavirus outbreak.
The challenge on display confused public health experts, tested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu̵
“We have been asked to enter this bloc, with its insane economic cost, which is driving people crazy, due to the increase in coronavirus which occurs mainly in the ultra-Orthodox sector and largely due to criminal negligence”, Wrote media personality Judy Shalom Nir Mozes on Ynet’s news site. “There are two sets of laws here. One for us and one for them.”
The ultra-Orthodox claim to be unfairly targeted by their authorities. They point to large weekly protests, mostly by secular Israelis, against Netanyahu’s handling of the pandemic which has continued throughout the summer. Just last week, the government finally put limits on the extent of the protests, citing violations of public health guidelines.
“We are at the closest point to an explosion in terms of distrust,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama.
A deep chasm has long divided religious and secular Israelis, caused by years of seemingly preferential treatment for ultra-Orthodox who are granted government salaries to study full-time. Ultra-Orthodox support is the lifeblood of Netanyahu’s coalition and has helped him crown the longest-serving Israeli leader.
Israel, with a population of 9 million, is battling one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world on a per capita basis. Its ultra-Orthodox community, which accounts for around 10% of the population, accounts for over a third of coronavirus cases in the country.
In the past week, Israel has recorded peaks of 9,000 new cases of the virus per day. It has recorded over 272,000 confirmed cases and over 1,700 coronavirus deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The current peak comes during Jewish holidays, a time when worshipers usually pack synagogues and hold large family reunions – environments officials feared would increase the already rising infection rates in the country.
Last month Israel imposed a second nationwide lockdown before the Jewish New Year, with the aim of keeping people at home.
But parts of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community have challenged these limits by organizing mass holiday events, moving back and forth between cities and keeping some schools and synagogues open despite orders to close.
Despite calls from some lawmakers and community leaders for compliance, the current Sukkot harvest festival has provided another opportunity to challenge the blockade. After the holiday week that began on Friday, Israeli news broadcasts have aired images of packed synagogues.
“It disturbs us,” Israeli coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said last week of the high morbidity, after revealing that ultra-Orthodox accounted for 40 percent of the country’s total cases.
The ultra-Orthodox have been at the center of the epidemic since it began in the spring. They tend to live in poor, crowded neighborhoods where the disease can spread quickly. The synagogues, the fulcrum of social life, bring men together to pray and socialize in small spaces.
Much of the community adheres to the rules. But some ultra-Orthodox see the restrictions as a greater threat than the virus, fearing the blockade’s restrictions will undermine their lifestyle.
The cloistered community has long been separated from traditional Israeli life, with children studying scriptures but very little math and English. Men are granted exemption from military service, which is mandatory for other Jews, and some shun the workforce as they collect salaries to continue studying full-time.
Community representatives in parliament acted as kings, granting them disproportionate political power.
Netanyahu has been criticized for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, including for imposing restrictions on viruses that critics say favor his ultra-Orthodox partners.
Gamzu had pushed for targeted blockades in early September, focused on areas with troubling outbreaks, including many ultra-Orthodox communities.
But after fierce pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders, Netanyahu decided not to take such measures and instead imposed a national blockade weeks later.
“Netanyahu is so afraid of his Haredi partners that he announced he was shutting down the whole country without the whole country needing a blockade,” opposition leader Yair Lapid told The Associated Press.
Pointing to the continuation of mass marriages and study sessions among clerics, Lapid said that “before they harm the general public, they are hurting themselves.”
Secular Israelis watched with exasperation as police issued tickets to people who wore no masks or opened restaurants in defiance of the rules, while apparently turning a blind eye to ultra-Orthodox transgressions. In recent days, however, the police have begun to crack down on religious taunts as well.
Netanyahu’s opponents also accuse him of attempting to suppress persistent protests against him, even outside his home in Jerusalem, under the pretext of a national blockade.
Experts say any progress made in recent years in integrating ultra-Orthodox into Israeli society – a crucial step in ensuring the sustainable growth of the Israeli economy – could be swept away by the renewed bitterness brought about by the virus.
“The coronavirus will disappear at some point,” said Yedidia Stern, a religion and state expert at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank. “But what kind of company will we be after?”