Failure to stop mass Haredi funeral reveals distancing’s fatal flaw: Enforcement
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Failure to stop mass Haredi funeral reveals distancing’s fatal flaw: Enforcement

Police say they decided to allow hundreds of ultra-Orthodox to attend burial for important rabbi to avoid clashing with participants, tout victory that ‘only 400 people’ took part

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Mourners at a funeral in Bnai Brak, March 28, 2020 (Twitter)
Mourners at a funeral in Bnai Brak, March 28, 2020 (Twitter)

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 hardline 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.

“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,” police wrote.

“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,” police said.

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 meters (6.5 feet) 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.”

“The holding of a mass funeral in Bnei Brak is a very serious event that endangers lives,” Erdan said in a statement.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan at a press conference on January 2, 2019. (Photo by Flash90)

“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,” Erdan wrote.

Last week, police began enforcing stay-at-home orders, giving fines to anyone more than 100 meters from their home except in special circumstances.

An area resident watching the funeral procession told the Ynet news site that “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. “It’s unfortunate that there are people who do not heed [the rules] and put others in actual danger,” he wrote on Twitter.

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.

Officials have attributed the high infection rates in the region to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines (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), 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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