'This is total chaos, real disaster, total lack of control'

Flouting rules, hundreds gather for Bnei Brak funeral as police look on

Officials reportedly allow procession for leading figure of Haredi sect to go ahead with little attempt to enforce social distancing, as fears grow of community outbreak

Attendees at a Bnei Brak funeral on March 29, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)
Attendees at a Bnei Brak funeral on March 29, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)

Hundreds of people took part in a funeral procession in the ultra-Orthodox town on Bnei Brak early Sunday, jamming closely together in contravention of social distancing rules as police reportedly looked on without taking action.

Between 300 and 400 people attended the midnight funeral of Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar in the Tel Aviv suburb, amid worries that reluctance to adhere to social distancing rules in the Haredi community could lead to swiftly spreading and deadly outbreaks of the novel coronavirus.

Israel allows up to 20 people to attend a funeral, provided they maintain a distance of at least 2 meters (6.5 feet) between each other.

However, videos of the funeral shared on social media showed attendees walking closely together as they accompanied an ambulance carrying Shenkar’s body through the city’s streets.

At the cemetery, members of the crowd managed to get past burial society members trying to keep them out, according to the Ynet news site.

Shenkar was a leading figure in the so-called Jerusalem Faction, a hardline group known mainly for holding large protests against mandatory military service.

Police were on hand to oversee and secure the funeral, but did not step in to enforce social distancing rules, according to the Haaretz daily.

According to the report, police had initially tried to limit the size of the funeral, but later reached a deal with organizers to allow more than 10 people, so long as they did not bunch together. Health officials later criticized the police’s lack of action, Haaretz said.

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

Israeli police officers stand guard in the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem on March 25, 2020, as they arrive to close shops in the area following a state order. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A police source told the paper that normally thousands would have shown up to the funeral, meaning most people were staying indoors. “Some listen, some listen less,” the source said.

An area resident told Ynet 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.”

There was no official response from police.

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.

In Jerusalem as well, video broadcast by Channel 12 news Saturday showed dozens of followers of Hasidic leader Eliezer Berland, a convicted sex criminal, holding hands as they danced in a courtyard, the latest in a series of events held by members of the group that ignored government-mandated restrictions on movement.

Magen David Adom paramedics, wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus leave the scene of an emergency call in Jerusalem on March 28, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Bnei Brak, a Haredi enclave 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.

Ultra Orthodox Jewish men look at a “Pashkvil”- information poster about the Coronavirus in Jerusalem on March 18, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90 )

On several occasions clashes have been reported between members of the communities and police forces attempting to enforce lockdown and distancing orders.

Similar scenes have been reported in the United States.

Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, himself currently quarantined for fear of exposure, urged residents Friday to “wake up!” He said the city was seeing the highest infection rate in the country, with “the forecast far more frightening.”

Ultra Orthodox Jews outside a supermarket in Bnei Brak on March 25, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Carmel Shama Hacohen, a former MK who is now the mayor of neighboring Ramat Gan, indicated on Facebook late Saturday that he was being bombarded with requests to build a wall or block off his city from Bnei Brak, something he said was not in his hands to do.

“The best defensive wall against the coronavirus is the walls of your home,” he wrote, noting that city walls went out of style with the Middle Ages.

According to Haaretz, internal Health Ministry data has shown the rate of infection in Bnei Brak has been several times higher than the average in the country, with the number of patients increasing eightfold every three days (compared to a twofold national average). In Jerusalem, which also has a high ultra-Orthodox population, the cases have quadrupled in the same period.

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