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Netanyahu’s challengers, and some allies, seethe over mass funeral of top rabbi

Gantz, Lapid, Sa’ar and Liberman accuse government of selectively enforcing lockdown as 10,000 join ultra-Orthodox burial procession

Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was criticized Sunday for selectively enforcing a national coronavirus lockdown as an estimated 10,000 people attended the Jerusalem funeral of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, with reproval coming from within the government and even Netanyahu’s own Likud party.

Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem and scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, died early Sunday at the age of 99.

Police called on the public to not join the funeral procession or burial but there were no efforts made to enforce the lockdown, aimed at curbing virus infections, and which includes orders limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.

The issue of lockdown enforcement in ultra-Orthodox communities, also known as Haredi, has gained headlines recently amid reports of flagrant violations, accusations of poor enforcement, and violent protests against police who try to ensure the closure is being obeyed.

Thousands of ultra orthodox men attend the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021, (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Responding to the illegal gathering, Defense Minister Benny Gantz underlined his demand that the Knesset approve legislation to double fines for lockdown violators, which was later on Sunday passed into law.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem on January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“This is what unequal enforcement looks like,” he tweeted. “Millions of families and children are closed up in their homes and adhering to the rules while thousands of Haredim crowd together at a funeral, most of them without face masks.”

“We will not agree to continue a fake, ineffective lockdown,” he warned. “Either everyone is closed up — or everything is opened up. The days of indulgence are over.”

Opposition leader MK Yair Lapid tweeted video footage from the funeral showing thousands packed densely together.

Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“One law for all,” he wrote. “What would we do? Send in the police in large numbers.”

Gideon Sa’ar, a former Likud minister who recently left the party to set up his New Hope movement as a direct challenge to Netanyahu in the upcoming March elections, tweeted that images from the capital “prove that Netanyahu has given up on enforcing the law out of political considerations.”

MK Yair Lapid speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, August 24, 2020. (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

MK Avigdor Liberman, a former Netanyahu ally who took his secular Yisrael Beytenu party into the opposition over issues of state and religion, tweeted, “This is what selective enforcement looks like.”

“Where is the prime minister? Where is the public security minister?” Liberman asked, referring to Amir Ohana, whose Public Security Ministry is responsible for the police.

Coalition whip and Likud faction leader Miki Zohar voiced rare criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community, calling footage of the funeral “sad.”

“While the nation is battling the surging morbidity, there is no justification for such gatherings, no matter the circumstances,” Zohar wrote in a tweet. “Determined steps are needed to step up enforcement against gatherings, in all communities.”

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel is several weeks into its third nationwide lockdown to combat the virus, but infection rates remain high, with thousands of new cases diagnosed each day.

There are violations of the rules in all areas of the country, but there have been repeated reports of flagrant rule-breaking in some ultra-Orthodox communities, including by opening schools, holding holiday events and celebrating weddings.

Infection rates in the ultra-Orthodox community are disproportionately high, likely due to lockdown infractions as well as crowded living conditions and other factors.

Police attempting to enforce regulations in some ultra-Orthodox areas have met with violent resistance including outright rioting and attacks on officers, especially in Bnei Brak, next to Tel Aviv. Ultra-Orthodox community leaders have accused the police of using excessive force.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews argue with Israeli border police officers during a protest over the coronavirus lockdown restrictions, in Ashdod, Israel, January. 24, 2021. (AP/Oded Balilty)

The issue of ultra-Orthodox noncompliance has sparked public backlash and political infighting in the governing coalition. Ultra-Orthodox parties allied with Netanyahu’s Likud party opposed the increase of fines for violating lockdown rules, while the Blue and White party led by Gantz says the hikes and other more stringent enforcement measures are necessary.

The political gridlock has stalled government votes on lengthening the lockdown, which is set to expire overnight Sunday-Monday but is expected to be extended.

The cabinet will meet on extending the lockdown on Sunday evening, following the approval of the fines law. Ministers are also expected to extend the shutdown of Ben Gurion Airport for another two weeks.

Health officials want to extend the lockdown for another week as virus infection rates remain high despite three weeks of lockdown and a rapid mass vaccination program.

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