the haredim continue to congregate for weddings, brits etc as if the pandemic wasn’t happening

Introducing Ya’akov Litzman, Minister of Health:

Israeli Health Minister’s Cure for COVID-19? The Messiah
Netta Ahituv, Haaretz, Mar 26 2020

Gantz, Litzman, Netanyahu

We are praying and hoping that Moschiach will arrive before Pesach, the time of our redemption. I am sure that Moschiach will come and bring us out, as Hashem brought us out of Egypt. Soon we will go out in freedom and Moschiach will come and redeem us from all the troubles of the world.

This remark was made by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman last week, after Yaniv Kalif of the Hebrew-language news website Hamal asked him whether Israelis will be forced to remain under lockdown until the holiday, which begins Apr 8. Litzman’s ignorant answer was not met with uproar. Is it reasonable for a religious man, a member of the Gurer Hasidim, one of the most conservative Jewish communities in the world, should head the Health Ministry as it faces the biggest crisis Israel has ever known? It goes without saying that the solution to this crisis will, of necessity, come from science, an area of human knowledge to which Gurer Hasidim are less than sympathetic. The truth is that Litzman’s unfortunate comment flew under the radar because Israel has always followed a twisted hierarchy. Religion is superior to secularism, and religious actions are more important than secular ones. In normal times, this narrative leads to infuriating nationwide directives. We are subordinate to kashrut laws that raise the cost of living and make us captive to corrupt moschgiachim. Two parties prohibit half of the population from running for the Knesset on their slates, and not even the High Court of Justice has been able to force them to do so. For these same religious reasons, civil marriages are prohibited in Israel. Even in times of crisis, religion rules. Secular group activities, including those with fewer than 10 participants, are shut down without a second thought and without asking too many questions. No studies, no extra-curricular activities, no public readings, no foreign-language courses, no cultural events. But group worship is still kosher. Not even data showing that over a third of the coronavirus patients who were diagnosed with the illness last weekend had visited synagogues made a difference. In Israel today, Jewish collective prayer outweighs even pikuach nefesh, the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any religious rule. Perhaps it is no surprise that Litzman believes relief will come from the Messiah, but it is surprising to find out that the Israel Police also believe this. According to an internal police document obtained by Haaretz (below – RB), officers had orders to let up to 20 people gather in a synagogue for worship, despite Health Ministry emergency regulations capping public gatherings at 10 people, as long as they are secular, presumably. The police responded that the document was only a draft and stressed that the 20-person clause refers to religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals rather than regular services. In one of the last speeches he gave before his death, Douglas Adams, author of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” said:

Religion has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. We are used to not challenging religious ideas, yet when you look at it rationally, there is no reason why those ideas shouldn’t be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn’t be.

Now, more than ever, we have an opportunity to challenge religious assumptions and open them up to debate, just as we do with secular activities. These are matters of life and death, as well as intolerable discrimination that has gone on for too long. Unfortunately, the likelihood of this happening is less than that of the Messiah coming to save us from the coronavirus before the start of Passover.

Coronavirus Cases Traced Back to Synagogues, but Israel Won’t Enforce Regulations
Josh Breiner, Ido Efrati, Haaretz, Mar 22 2020

Chabadniks dancing at 770 before its closure

The latest emergency regulations issued by the Israeli Health Ministry to contain the coronavirus outbreak dictate limits to public gatherings, but a police document obtained by Haaretz shows that officers were ordered not to enforce them in synagogues. This is despite the fact that more than one-third of the coronavirus patients diagnosed over the weekend visited synagogues during the period they were presumably infectious. Government orders prohibit gatherings of over 10 people, but the police document pus the maximum number of people allowed to pray together at 20. The Israel Police said on Sunday the document obtained by Haaretz was only a draft, stressing that the 20-person clause refers to religious ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, rather than regular services. The government’s emergency measures allow Israelis to leave home only in specific cases, including to attend religious ceremonies, but Health Ministry orders strictly prohibit gatherings of over 10 people. According to the police document, officers were instructed that except for business opening regulations, other measures have not been set as criminal offenses and they are not to strictly enforce them. The document states that police can work to close businesses according to the new regulations, including malls and retail markets to the general public, but because internal police procedures have not yet been formulated and the system for issuing reports is still inactive, fines will not be currently imposed. The Health Ministry published information on the movements of 95 patients. At least 32 of them had visited synagogues, yeshivot or Chabad houses in the days preceding their diagnosis. Some of the patients are related. The number of patients who visited synagogues may actually be higher, as full epidemiological histories and movement records have not yet been published for all the affected individuals. The most recent patients whose movements were published visited synagogues between 7 and 10 days ago. During this period, worship and study continued in synagogues and yeshivas, and weddings and other events with large numbers of participants were held in at least some haredi communities. The fear is that the latest reports signal the start of a wave of infections resulting from religious gatherings. The Health Ministry’s prohibition on gatherings that exceed 10 people allows for the minyan of 10 adults required for a Jewish prayer quorum. Prof Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the ministry, has admitted that group worship is inadvisable from a medical perspective. The government directives issued Friday, prohibiting Israelis from leaving home except for essential needs, permit “going out for religious ceremony, including worship.” Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Litvak Haredi community, called for yeshiva studies to continue in violation of the directives, but most yeshivot have in fact closed. Public health officials view the haredi community as a weak and particularly sensitive link in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus, because its members are less likely to be exposed to media outlets and to social media, and thus less likely to have heard or read the Health Ministry’s directives. This fact is compounded by the high population density in most ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the fact that until recently the community continued the community continues with its daily routines, including large gatherings.

How Israelis fleeing the coronavirus in New York met contagion in the skies
Shimona Weinglass, Times of Israel, Mar 29 2020

Around midday on Wednesday Mar 18, Adi Israel, a 22-year-old acting student, was waiting. to get on an El Al flight to Israel to return from her studies at NYC’s Lee Strasberg Institute, when boarding was inexplicably delayed. A text message she received said:

Dear passenger, Flight LY 002 from New York to Tel Aviv will take off at 13:30 instead of at 12:30 as originally scheduled.

Explaining why she had decided to fly back that day, Israel said:

The coronavirus was spreading in New York. Our studies had gone online. My mother wanted me to come home. I thought it would be better to be in the Israeli health system. I have better insurance in Israel than in Pindostan.

But as she waited to board, the young acting student could see El Al staff urgently consulting with security personnel. The staff told passengers:

Please sit down, please sit down. We’re not boarding yet.

As she waited, she received a video clip from her mother in Dimona, who had just filmed a news report directly from the television screen in their living room. Next to a chilling headline “The Corona Plane,” Channel 12 news reporter Amalia Douek told viewers that boarding on an El Al flight at JFK airport had been stopped due to fears that some of the passengers had been in contact with coronavirus carriers. Douek reported:

There has been massive infection in haredi Jewish communities in New York. There were synagogues in New York that went into lockdown. The purpose is to prevent these people from coming to Israel, to the haredi communities here. We have previously reported that in meetings in the PMO, the Haredi and Arab communities are mentioned as communities that are not adhering to guidelines, and so the idea here is to take preventative measures and to prevent these people from coming to Israel.

Adi Israel is one of six passengers interviewed by the Times of Israel who flew from New York to Israel on Mar 18-19 and who all tell a similar story. Amid media reports of widespread infection in Haredi neighborhoods of Brooklyn, well over 100 students from the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, all of them Israeli citizens, boarded several El Al planes on those two days and were whisked away to hotel quarantine as soon as they landed. Many if not most of these students tested positive for COVID-19 once they arrived. Among these students’ fellow passengers were elderly and sick Israelis who had no idea they were sharing an aircraft with dozens of likely contagious patients. Did El Al and Israel’s Health Ministry suspect these students were infected and let them on the plane anyway? What about the students themselves, who had signed a declaration that they were not sick and had had no contact with anyone who had the disease? Did some of them lie on their declarations? And what responsibility is borne by the yeshiva itself, which reportedly closed its doors and encouraged students to fly back to Israel, as opposed to instructing them to quarantine themselves in New York? A Chabad spox told The Times of Israel that the students had no idea they were infected when they flew. But other passengers on the planes, who are in the midst of a 14-day home quarantine, are skeptical and demanding answers. Behind the scenes, El Al was urgently consulting with Israel’s Health Ministry and trying to decide what to about dozens of yeshiva students from the central yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch in Crown Heights, spokespeople for El Al and the ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel. Crown Heights, along with other Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Brooklyn, had been hit by coronavirus suddenly and ferociously. On Mar 9, a single case had been reported in a nursing home in southern Brooklyn. On Mar 13, Haredi schools in Crown Heights closed following reports of three confirmed cases within the close-knit Chabad community of some 15,000. On Mar 15, rabbinic and medical leaders wrote in a letter to the community:

At this time, COVID-19 has reached epidemic proportions in our community.

On Mar 17, a report on Hamodia said:

A Crown Heights Hatzalah member told Hamodia that there are so many cases there that just about the entire community is considered to have been exposed.

Another article that same day on the Chabad website Anash.org reported that the student dormitory and cafeteria of the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva in Crown Heights was being closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, that no alternative accommodations would be available, and that administrators were encouraging students from abroad to return home. The yeshiva has about 250 students. the article noted:

It is reported that over 50 bochurim have mild symptoms.

According to El Al spokesman Ashi Am Shalom, on the afternoon of Wednesday March 18, dozens of students from the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva had already boarded flight LY002 when they were asked to get off again. This was because Israel’s Health Ministry had received a tip that many of them were sick, he said. Am Shalom said:

There were rumors, so the Health Ministry requested that we have people sign a form saying that they had not met a coronavirus patient in the last 14 days and that therefore they didn’t need to be in quarantine. We took people off the plane, we prepared the form, and we had people sign. These were the precise instructions of the Health Ministry. If they had said, ‘Don’t put such-and-such person on the plane,’ or they had said not to let the plane fly, we would have complied.

Meanwhile, most of the other El Al passengers were in the dark. Adi Israel, the acting student, did not fully understand why her Wednesday afternoon plane, LY002, was not boarding on time. She said:

We waited and waited. I was afraid. Finally, someone got on the loudspeaker and said that anyone who wants to board the plane has to sign a release form. You had to declare that you hadn’t come into contact with anyone who had the coronavirus in the last two weeks and you had to declare that you hadn’t experienced any symptoms, like fever, cough or shortness of breath. Staff began handing out forms, shouting at passengers to sit down. At one point they ran out of forms and rushed away to print more. I signed the form in good faith, but it occurred to me that the temptation for some passengers to lie would be strong. We were already boarding. People just wanted to get on the plane and get home. On the flight, I wore gloves. I wiped down my seat, armrests and tray table. To the extent that I could, I kept my distance from the other passengers. I knew that most of the time the disease affects older people, but my parents are older and I was going home and I didn’t want to endanger them. The rest of the flight was almost normal. The flight attendants wore masks and gloves but served hot meals as usual. I noticed people coughing on the flight, but not in a way that seemed out of the ordinary. We landed at about 6:15 am Israel time. One of the flight attendants got onto the loudspeaker and said that students from the 770 Yeshiva in Crown Heights should get off the plane first. About half the people on the plane got up and disembarked. Once they had gotten off, the plane seemed kind of empty.

Videos circulating online as well as news reports in the Haredi and mainstream Israeli media describe what happened next (see above – RB). A bus with seats covered in plastic and whose driver sat behind a protective shield drove onto the tarmac. The young men boarded the bus without appearing to go through passport control. A man in a mask who appeared to be in a position of authority spoke to them. The man said:

The Health Ministry has consulted with Chabad rabbis. According to the information they have about what is happening in Crown Heights, they view each and every one of you as effectively having the coronavirus until proven otherwise. From their point of view, every person on this bus has the coronavirus. For this reason, and in coordination with the rabbis and yeshiva heads, it has been decided to take all of you straight to quarantine at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem.

One of the young men in the video protested:

If we all have coronavirus, why aren’t you taking the rest of the people on the plane, why just us?

The man replied:

It’s not my decision. I’m not a doctor. Ask the Health Ministry.

Several days later, on Mar 23, Channel 12 reported that 65 of the 114 Crown Heights yeshiva students then quarantined at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem had been found to be infected with coronavirus. The Health Ministry has confirmed to The Times of Israel that the number of yeshiva students infected is probably higher than the 65 cases initially reported. Adi Israel has spent the last week quarantined at her family’s house in Dimona. She has started to develop a fever and cough, she said, and is awaiting the results of a test. she said:

I feel stressed and disappointed. They knew there were sick people in Crown Heights. If there was even a small worry, they should have found a solution, maybe a dedicated plane for all the people from Crown Heights. I feel like they were hiding something from us. When the news first came out that there were sick yeshiva students on that plane, El Al said they would contact the other passengers. But I haven’t heard from them.

Shlomi Am Shalom of El Al said the airline had had no choice but to let the yeshiva students board the plane. he said:

We followed the instructions of the Health Ministry. To discriminate among passengers or prevent someone from flying just because they belong to a particular religious sect or attend a particular yeshiva would be against the law. I can’t decide that someone wearing a suit and hat can’t get on the plane. It would be anti-Semitic to do that. And I don’t know even who is from a particular yeshiva. It is not written on their ticket.

According to passengers that the Times of Israel spoke to, more students from the same yeshiva boarded additional flights as well, without the other passengers being informed of the risks or the behind-the-scenes deliberations of El Al and the Health Ministry. Motti Ben Yitzhack and his wife Suzy, both in their 60s from Ashkelon, were among the passengers on flight LY0026 from Newark to Tel Aviv, which took off at 8:30 pm on Mar 18, a few hours after the flight from JFK. The Ben Yitzhacks had been visiting their children and grandchildren in Monsey, NY, when their son-in-law, an emergency room doctor in Westchester, advised them to cut their visit short due to spreading coronavirus in Pindostan. Motti said:

I have COPD, a lung disease. My wife and I were very fearful of contagion.

Before getting on the plane, all passengers were asked to fill out the same kind of declaration that they had no symptoms of coronavirus and no contact with someone known to be a carrier, Ben Yitzhack told The Times of Israel. Several hours into the flight, an announcement came over the loudspeaker:

Is there a doctor on board?

The flight attendants brought a middle-aged Haredi man into the Economy Plus cabin where the Ben Yitzhacks sat, and put an oxygen mask over his face. Rami Schwartz, 33, of Jerusalem, was also on the Newark-Tel Aviv flight with his wife, children and his wife’s 93-year-old grandmother. The family were on their way home from a wedding in Faschingstein that had been canceled at the last minute. He said:

The flight attendants suddenly asked if there was a doctor on board. We asked what happened, and they said a man was having a diabetic attack. I think this was a white lie, told so as not to panic passengers. A medical professional who had gotten up to help the sick man told Schwartz that in reality the man had shortness of breath and a fever. He said: “We’re going to have to go into really, really thorough quarantine after this.” Then I heard one of the flight attendants speaking on the phone. We must have been over Turkey at that point. She was talking to someone and said that under no circumstances are we doing an emergency landing, because then we’ll be quarantined wherever we land. When we landed in Tel Aviv, the sick man was taken off first. Then there was an announcement that everyone should stay in their seats, but that anyone from the 770 Yeshiva in Crown Heights was invited to leave the plane. I remember they used the word ‘invited.’ About 20 to 30 people got up and disembarked. When I learned later that people on the flight had tested positive for the virus, I was upset. If we had known there was a group of people on board who were at high risk of having coronavirus, we would not have gotten on the flight. Right now we’re just waiting to see if we have been infected. Every tickle in the throat, every cough, we wonder is this it? Is this what we might have caught on the plane? We knew there had been an outbreak in places like Crown Heights, but we trusted the authorities not to put us in danger. Was this a deliberate decision, to put us at risk for the greater good, or was this an oversight?

On Thursday Mar 19, a day after the two eventful flights of Mar 18, a similar scene repeated itself. One of the passengers on board flight LY8 from JFK to Tel Aviv was Sheli Bar-Niv, 30, a pastry chef at a Manhattan restaurant whose entire staff had been laid off due to the coronavirus. Bar-Niv had decided that financially and otherwise, it was a good time to return to Israel. She said:

Before passengers were given their boarding passes, we were required to sign the virus declaration. While waiting in line, I spoke to some of the haredi passengers. I heard a few guys saying they were going straight to the Dan Hotel for quarantine, and other people on line said, ‘No, you’re supposed to go home to quarantine. Hotel quarantine is for people who test positive.’ But they seemed to already know they were going to the hotel.

Michal, a social work student at Columbia University who was on board, said:

When the plane landed, some people from the Health Ministry boarded the plane. They were wearing those astronaut suits. One of them took over the loudspeaker and said, ‘Only students from the 770 Yeshiva in Brooklyn can get off.’ Between 10 and 20 passengers did so.

Shachar Halevi, 22, a music student at the New School, was also on the flight. he recalled:

Every 30 seconds, someone on the plane coughed in a way that alarmed me.

A few days later, Halevi’s parents got a call informing them that there had been positive cases of coronavirus on his flight and that the whole family should go into quarantine. Halevi’s father, Yossi Klein Halevi, a writer who often contributes to The Times of Israel, is furious about the situation. He says:

Something outrageous happened on that flight, and I want to know why. I want to know why the Health Ministry allowed this to happen, when they were obviously worried enough about this group of yeshiva students to whisk them away as soon as they landed. I want to know why Chabad in Israel encouraged its students to simply get on the plane, when everyone knew by then that Crown Heights had been severely impacted. And I want to know how El Al allowed the group to board, despite its initial hesitations. This isn’t only a personal matter, though of course it is very personal for me. This is also an urgent question about how our institutions function in a time of life and death emergency. It is about responsibility and accountability.

Motti Seligson, a spokesman for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights, told The Times of Israel:

Your questions are premised on reports that those who flew were symptomatic before departing, but that’s not at all what the people with first-hand knowledge are saying, the bochurim themselves.

Reports in Chabad-related news outlets do in fact suggest that many of the yeshiva students were believed to be sick, but that the Chabad leadership sought to have some of them fly home nevertheless. An article published on Mar 17 on the Israeli Chabad site Col.org.il said that at the behest of the Health Ministry, Israeli Chabad leaders were compiling a list of yeshiva students from Crown Heights who were planning to return to Israel. Meir Ashkenazi, the deputy director of Magen David Adom and Hatzalah for the southern region and a Chabad activist, is quoted in the article saying many of the young men were believed to be sick. Ashkenazi said:

Since the afternoon we have received queries from parents who want their sons to come home. We have contacted Magen David Adom who told the Health Ministry that there are many students planning to return to Israel in the coming days and in light of the situation in Crown Heights there is a fear that some of them have been infected and will arrive in Israel already sick with coronavirus.

Several days later, Haim Steiner, a Chabad politico and member of the Likud Central Committee, gave an interview to the website Col.org.il in which he claimed that the Health Ministry initially did not want to let the students fly back to Israel, but was ultimately persuaded to do so. He said:

I spoke to one of the people involved in the discussions between the Health Ministry and Chabad rabbis. At first the Health Ministry wanted to prohibit airlines from bringing these yeshiva students to Israel, but that would have left them on the street without a bed or food, since the yeshiva had closed the dormitory and cafeteria. After consultation with the rabbis, the Health Ministry decided to send the men directly to the Dan Hotel as soon as they landed in Israel. Now that we know how widespread the virus was among the young men, we realize it was the right thing to do, because we saved Chabad communities throughout Israel.

Dr Ashi Shalmon, the head of international relations in the Health Ministry, told The Times of Israel:

On the day of the flight, we had no concrete information about anyone being sick. There were only rumors. We tried to talk to Chabad and health care workers in New York, but we did not have verified information about sick people that we shouldn’t put on the plane. It was at the level of gossip. That’s why we decided to do this legal thing, to have passengers sign the declarations, because we are not allowed to stop Israeli citizens from entering Israel based on rumors. We did have concrete information about one sick person booked on the Mar 18 flight, and we did prevent that person from boarding the plane. There were actually six or seven planes where we took yeshiva students to hotel quarantine. Why did we do this? Firstly because most people don’t have proper conditions for a quarantine at home and secondly because there’s a compliance issue. These are young people whom you can’t really trust to quarantine themselves properly.

Although Magen David Adom-Hatzalah official Meir Ashkenazi had said publicly on Mar 17 that many of the yeshiva students preparing to fly to Israel may be sick, Shalmon rejected the suggestion that this had been actionable information, saying:

The first time anyone in the Health Ministry spoke to Meir Ashkenazi was three hours before the flight took off. We asked him for verified information, for a single positive case, and he couldn’t produce one. There are 150,000 people in Crown Heights. Aside from anecdotes we don’t know how much illness there is there till today, because there are very few tests in Pindostan. It was only after we tested the yeshiva students here in Israel that we realized the magnitude of the problem.

Shalmon said that the return of students from Crown Heights was not a coordinated operation, as presented in some Haredi media, but that students bought their own tickets and continue to arrive in Israel on various flights, not just El Al, saying:

We asked Chabad to put out a letter telling them not to come. On every flight after the first one, we tried to locate boys from Crown Heights and take them to hotel quarantine. The situation in Williamsburg and Borough Park is not much better, by the way.

Asked whether the Health Ministry had considered flying the students on a dedicated plane, he said:

It doesn’t work that way. We don’t do planes for a single yeshiva.

Shalmon suggested that the only way to prevent contagion on planes might be to stop all flights from New York, which is gradually happening as world airlines largely shut down. He said:

It’s a big legal question. But I think it would be the right thing to do, I say this as a private citizen, not as a representative of the state. I don’t think there is a single plane coming from New York that doesn’t have sick people on it. Anyone who flies except out of absolute need is putting themselves in danger. At this point every flight is dangerous.

Shalmon was speaking on Mar 26. That same day, El Al announced it had temporarily suspended all of its regular passenger flights to all destinations, in part due to concerns for the health of its passengers and crews.

Israeli doctors demand health minister be replaced by professional
Adir Yanko, Ynet, Mar 30 2020

Israeli doctors on Sunday called on the government to replace Health Minister Yaakov Litzman with a medical professional in the wake of coronavirus crisis in the country. In an open letter some to Netanyahu and Gantz, the heads of hospital departments and senior medical officials expressed their dissatisfaction with Litzman’s conduct during the COVID-19 epidemic and urged to replace him with someone who has the necessary experience. Netanyahu and Gantz are in the midst of unity talks in an effort to agree on a coalition government to address the coronavirus pandemic emergency. Sources familiar with the negotiations told Ynet the replacement of Litzman is not currently on the table. Professor Yoram Kluger, Rambam Hospital’s chief of surgery who was behind the initiative, said:

We have nothing against outgoing Health Minister Litzman and have great respect for him, but in light of the dire state Israel’s healthcare system and an emergency on the scope of a pandemic, health workers can no longer agree to be cast aside by other considerations. The health-care system is judged by the quality of care, which is the work of physicians and medical staff, and not by the infrastructure, staffing or planning. All deficiencies that we have been demanding to be addressed. Despite efforts to deal with the needs, those have only increased with hospitals that are in the country’s periphery, offering inferior care while Israel itself was falling behind the rest of the world in the quality of care, while private medicine was allowed to thrive at the expense of public health services.

The doctors said the current health crisis caught Israeli health-care system at its lowest points due to years of government neglect, and that they will not allow the recent comptroller report, which outlined the problems stemming from government neglect, to be filed away as earlier dossiers had been, but they will continue to demand a better public health system with the best standards possible, and they expect the same from the Health Ministry.

Failure to stop mass Haredi funeral reveals distancing’s fatal flaw: Enforcement
Judah Ari Gross, Times, Mar 29 2020

The Israel Police on Sunday exposed a fatal flaw in the government’s effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus by forbidding gatherings: It is unwilling to enforce the restrictions if there’s a likelihood of opposition. In the predawn hours of Sunday morning, residents of the overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, held a mass funeral procession and burial for Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar, a leading figure in the so-called Jerusalem Faction, a hard-line group known mainly for holding large protests against mandatory military service. Police made no move to break up the procession, in which thousands of people took part, or the funeral itself, in which hundreds of people gathered at a cemetery in the city, despite Bnei Brak having the second-largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country. Amid an outcry against police inaction, the force issued a statement defending its decision to allow the mass funeral despite government regulations forbidding gatherings of almost any kind, let alone ones with thousands or hundreds of participants.

The police wrote:

We had two options: Cause a clash with the participants, thousands of whom came out of their houses in the span of a few minutes, or wait until the funeral ended quickly and the crowd broke up. These are the types of events that require the careful consideration of commanders and risk management, and it is good that the event ended in this way.

The police said they saw it as a victory that “only 400 people came to the funeral of an important rabbi” instead of tens of thousands.

Israel allows up to 20 people to attend a funeral, provided they maintain a distance of at least 2 m from each other. Police also falsely claimed that the participants kept a distance from one another, something that was clearly disproved by videos from the event showing a dense crowd. In a poignant juxtaposition, around the same time as footage began spreading of the Bnei Brak mass funeral procession, another video made the rounds on Israeli social media showing a police car tearing up the grass in Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park as officers chased down a lone man on a bicycle, who was evidently violating the government’s restrictions. These vastly different responses display a clear, ironic flaw in the government’s regulations. The police are clearly willing to ensure that individuals abide by the restrictions, but are not ready to do the same against crowds, despite crowds being the far more serious way the coronavirus can and has spread.

The police have a point, to an extent. In the immediate term, a physical clash would only increase the amount of direct physical contact between people, potentially endangering the officers involved; and in the long term, such a conflict could also further fuel distrust between members of the Jerusalem Faction and Israeli authorities, making it yet more difficult to enforce government regulations in the future. Yet one case of allowing a mass gathering also potentially serves as a precedent for further violations of these restrictions. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is responsible for the police, ordered an emergency meeting with the police’s top brass and called for enforcement of the government’s orders “without exception.” Erdan said in a statement:

The holding of a mass funeral in Bnei Brak is a very serious event that endangers lives. I have ordered an immediate discussion today by the heads of the police regarding enforcement in the ultra-Orthodox community. The vast majority of the ultra-Orthodox public is abiding by the directives, and the police must prevent the extreme parts of the public from endangering the lives of everyone else. This is their mission, and there cannot be compromises.

Last week, police began enforcing stay-at-home orders, giving fines to anyone more than 100 m from their home except in special circumstances. An area resident watching the funeral procession told Ynet:

There are dozens of cops here not doing anything. This is total chaos, a real disaster. This whole procession shows a total lack of control.

Yehuda Meshi Zahav, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Zaka rescue and recovery group whose ambulance was used in the funeral, said his organization did not support the crowds there he wrote on Twitter:

It’s unfortunate that there are people who pay no heed and put others in actual danger.

Bnei Brak, a Haredi suburb east of Tel Aviv, has seen the second highest number of infections in the country, according to Health Ministry figures, after only Jerusalem, where the coronavirus has also spread through the community. There have been many reports of large gatherings taking place in those communities for weddings, prayer services and other events in spite of announced restrictions. Officials have attributed the high infection rates in the region to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines, the crowdedness of many ultra-Orthodox communities and a lack of access by many to media and communication means. On several occasions clashes have been reported between members of the communities and police forces attempting to enforce lockdown and distancing orders.

One Comment

  1. PB
    Posted March 30, 2020 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    I feel it is their G-d given right to commit suicide by virus, and I encourage it whole-heartedly (in the name of religious freedom…of course).

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