Organizers of mass Jerusalem funerals said summoned for police questioning

Virus czar condemns mass violations of lockdown rules at burial of rabbis Yitzchok Scheiner and Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, urges police to bring violators to justice

Police on Monday summoned for questioning the apparent organizers of two mass funerals of ultra-Orthodox rabbis that took place in Jerusalem the previous day, according to a television report.

The funerals, which were each attended by thousands of people, took place in defiance of the lockdown rules aimed at stemming the spread of COVID-19. Both rabbis had died of the coronavirus.

Following intense criticism of police’s failure to prevent the mass crowds, the force is now making a specific effort to investigate the people behind the call for thousands of the rabbis’ followers to attend the funeral processions, Channel 12 News reported.

It was unclear whether family members were to be interrogated, the report said.

According to media estimates, some 8,000 people showed up to Jerusalem’s Bukharim neighborhood Sunday night for the funeral of the Kamenitz yeshiva head, Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner, who died of COVID-19 at age 98 earlier in the day.

His death was announced during the earlier funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, the head of the Brisk Yeshiva in Jerusalem and scion of the Soloveitchik rabbinical dynasty, who had died early Sunday morning at the age of 99. His funeral was attended by an estimated 10,000 people.

Speaking Monday, coronavirus czar Nachman Ash urged police to bring the organizers to justice.

“Yesterday there were two mass funeral events… I strongly condemn these mass violations of the lockdown,” Ash said during a briefing with journalists.

“I call on leaders to prevent such incidents, I call on the police to act to prevent such gatherings. The lockdown continues, and every day of adherence to all guidelines and procedures is extremely important,” he stressed.

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

Sunday’s funerals, and the absence of any attempt by police to intervene, drew public criticism of the government’s selective enforcement of health regulations.

Ofer Shumer, a senior Jerusalem police officer, defended the force’s decision to not enforce the lockdown and prevent mass participation, telling Channel 12 that “there would certainly have been bloodshed” had police tried to disperse the crowds there.

“We prevented bloodshed,” he said. “If we had acted with force… there would certainly have been bloodshed. I personally saw 1,000 young kids aged 10-14 [at the funeral].”

Business leaders and independent workers also fumed over the funerals, as the lockdown, Israel’s third, has kept most businesses shuttered. The restrictions in the past year have devastated the economy and have hit business owners especially hard.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, with Defense Minister Naftali Bennett of Yamina, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism at a meeting of the heads of the right-religious bloc, at the Knesset, March 4, 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 been 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.

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