Fears of 2nd virus wave rise as 300 arrested in Meron; 2,000 gather in Jerusalem

On Lag B’Omer, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men try to break into northern Israel tomb, and mass event in Mea Shearim in capital apparently goes unnoticed by police

Ultra Orthodox men clash with police officers during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 12, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Ultra Orthodox men clash with police officers during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 12, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke into a sacred compound at Mount Meron in northern Israel Tuesday evening, defying police orders limiting entry to the site due to coronavirus fears and prompting clashes with security forces. Some 300 were arrested.

Meanwhile, thousands of Haredi men reportedly gathered in Jerusalem at the same spot where hundreds of people were dispersed Monday night.

The mass gatherings raised fears of a second wave of infections in the country, after declining rates of new infections in recent days.

The government put strict limitations on the number of people who could visit the Mount Meron site this year for the Lag B’Omer holiday, which began Monday night and ended Tuesday evening. The festivities on Monday night were highly subdued, with attendance limited to 150 people.

But footage published by Hebrew-language media showed many men breaking down the door on Tuesday afternoon and forcing their way into the gravesite of second century CE sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, shortly after police took down many of its checkpoints as the holiday neared its end.

Ultra Orthodox men clash with police officers during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 12, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The footage included often violent clashes between the worshipers and police officers, some of whom had left the area and rushed back to the site. Several people suffered mild injuries, according to reports.

Police said more than a hundred people were arrested for assaulting officers, saying that those detained had “attacked officers, threw rocks toward them and forcibly resisted dispersing.” Hebrew media reports later Tuesday said over 300 were detained.

Additionally, some 200 men took part in a flight organized by the Israir airline over Bar Yochai’s grave, aiming to get as close as possible to the tomb.

Footage from inside the plane broadcast by Channel 12 showed participants blatantly disregarding social distancing rules, gathering near windows and dancing together.

A police source was quoted by Channel 13 as saying most ultra-Orthodox worshipers had come to Mount Meron without face masks or keeping distance from one another, and warned of a second wave of infections.

“Nobody should fall off their chairs if there is a coronavirus outbreak in a week as a result. We warned ahead of time,” the police source said.

Ministers decided last week to ban bonfires and restrict entry to Mount Meron, which usually draws hundreds of thousands for the Jewish mystical holiday, but stopped short of reimposing a full curfew.

Also Tuesday, the Haaretz daily reported that health officials were concerned that some ultra-Orthodox areas would need to be put under lockdown again if celebrations for Lag B’Omer lead to a renewed coronavirus outbreak.

Thousands crowd in Mea Shearim

Despite a ban on large gatherings and bonfires, several areas with large ultra-Orthodox populations saw violations of the emergency ordinances put in place for the holiday.

About 1,000 residents of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim crowded the city’s streets late Monday, ignoring the ban. 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 on Monday night.

Footage showed adults and children dancing and congregating in close quarters, despite social distancing restrictions.

Police eventually dispersed the crowds, but some 2,000 people again gathered together unimpeded Tuesday in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, according to Channel 12.

Police stayed away as participants celebrated “halake,” a traditional ceremonial first haircut for boys who have reached the age of three. The crowd dispersed on its own as the event ended, Channel 12 said.

Haaretz quoted Health Ministry sources saying they were closely following the infection rate in Haredi neighborhoods and cities in case restrictions need to be reimposed there.

One source said that for areas at a heightened risk of a fresh outbreak, the ministry would provide help to the local authorities, conduct outreach with community leaders and if needed declare them “restricted zones.”

Israel in recent weeks has begun to roll back 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 and whose hardline members continue to flout the rules.

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.

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.

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.

It also marks the end of a minor mourning period recognizing the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva in a plague.

JTA contributed to this report.

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