'We won't spill blood to enforce virus restrictions'

Police say they were helpless to stop funeral of rabbi that drew 10,000

Officials say dispersing gathering would have caused bloodshed; businesses decry selective enforcement of rules; another funeral for ultra-Orthodox rabbi scheduled for Sunday night

Illustrative: Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, following his passing aged 99, due to months-long illness compounded by the coronavirus. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Illustrative: Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a funeral procession for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem on January 31, 2021, following his passing aged 99, due to months-long illness compounded by the coronavirus. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The funeral of a prominent rabbi in Jerusalem that was attended by thousands sparked backlash from the public, politicians and business owners on Sunday as the police said they were helpless to prevent the mass violation of lockdown rules.

Some 10,000 people attended the funeral and procession of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, who died overnight after battling COVID-19 for several months. Lockdown rules cap outdoor gatherings at 10 people.

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

A second funeral of a top ultra-Orthodox rabbi was expected later Sunday night, with authorities bracing for the possibility of thousands showing up again in violation of lockdown rules. Rabbi Yitzhok Scheiner, 98, head of Jerusalem’s Kamenitz yeshiva, died Sunday of the coronavirus.

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

The issue of lockdown enforcement in ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, 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.

Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik attends an event in Jerusalem on August 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police sources told Hebrew media Sunday that it was not possible to disperse the mass funeral because any attempt to intervene would have resulted in “bloodshed.”

“There’s no doubt that this was a mass violation that would have required thousands of police officers to stop it,” a police source said. “In the period of time between the announcement of the funeral and it starting, there were no options for taking action.”

Rabbi Yitzchok Scheiner attends an event in Jerusalem on June 13, 2019. (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

A police source told Channel 13 that young children attended the funeral, preventing officers from using horses and water cannons to disperse the crowd.

A senior police official told Walla news, “What did you expect? That we’ll use force and cause casualties?”

Ofer Shumer, a senior Jerusalem police official, told Channel 12 officers had stopped about 60 buses heading to the funeral and turned them back and issued around 100 fines.

“Yes, the funeral was large… but remember the people have a responsibility. Their leaders have a responsibility,” Shumer said. “Ultimately, the police can’t tackle everybody who breaks the restrictions.”

“I personally saw 1,000 kids aged 10-14. The ultra-Orthodox are not our enemies. They are citizens of Israel,” Shumer said. “I won’t spill blood in order to enforce the coronavirus restrictions. We won’t spill blood. the police won’t do it.”

Police used water cannons to disperse anti-corruption protesters outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence on Saturday night, sending one person to the hospital. Asked about the apparent inconsistency, Shumer said, “Every sector of the populace has its own characteristics… This is not simple work.”

An unnamed senior police official told Channel 12 after the first funeral on Sunday, “Anything can be dispersed. The question is at what cost.”

“If the police had forcefully dispersed the funeral, including by using tear gas, water cannons and clubs, it would have ended with hundreds injured among the protesters and the police,” he said. “We are alone in this effort. don’t expect us, and only us, to do the dirty work — at the price of bloodshed.”

Before the funeral, police had called on the public not to join in the procession or the burial and said they were in “negotiations” with community leaders to prevent the mass gatherings.

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

Business leaders and independent workers also fumed over the funeral, 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.

The influential “I am Shulman” protest group representing independent business owners lashed out at authorities for standing by while thousands massed at the funeral in the capital.

“Enforcement is selective,” said Avi Haimov, a group member who owns a shnitzel restaurant. “There is no governance and no management. The lockdown is not a lockdown, and when it’s not a lockdown everyone starts to interpret it how they want.”

“Logic has left the building, gone bankrupt, and these are the pictures of it. The public has lost faith,” he told Channel 12.

Roy Cohen, head of Lahav, the Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses, said, “Again, the government proves it is enforcing the lockdown selectively, and the public, independent workers, and small businesses are paying the price.”

Police officers check cars at a checkpoint during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Tel Aviv, January 10, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

Shai Berman, head of the Israel Restaurant Association, said, “This lockdown, like all of the management of the coronavirus crisis, is a resounding failure for the Israeli government. Who pays the price for selective enforcement is the business sector in general and the restaurant industry in particular.”

Eliran Bardogo, who heads a group pushing to open cultural events, said, “The images from Jerusalem today are beyond belief. For a year, the world of culture and events has been closed, and even after a meeting with the prime minister, there’s no expectation for when it will reopen.”

Residents of Tel Aviv also blasted police for enforcing minor infractions in the secular city, including by checking drivers at checkpoints and demanding that individuals clear the city’s central Dizengoff Square.

“When I saw the gatherings in Jerusalem I felt like they were laughing in my face,” one Tel Aviv resident told Ynet. “For a few weeks already, the police won’t let people who live here sit in the square when it’s totally empty, and on the other side, thousands are gathering in Jerusalem without any enforcement at all.”

Police officers seen during clashes with ultra-Orthodox men over coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Leaders of extremist ultra-Orthodox groups in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood told followers to stop their work and studies to attend the funeral, and transportation from the neighborhood ferried people to the event, the Ynet news site reported.

An announcer at the event told participants, nonsensically, to “adhere to Health Ministry rules.”

Some participants told Ynet, “We already had the coronavirus. The virus only remains now among you [secular Israelis].”

Nathan Rozenblum, who attended the funeral, told Channel 12, “Sadly, I have had to attend many such funerals recently, because of the coronavirus, and lessons have been learned.”

But the rabbi was “head of a yeshiva for 75 years who taught tens of thousands,” he said.

Rozenblum said that the fact that only 4,000 attended the funeral showed restraint by the community. Most reports put the number of participants at 10,000.

Walla also reported that schools opened Sunday morning in several Jerusalem neighborhoods in violation of the lockdown.

Politicians, including some of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allies on the right, also blasted the funeral. Netanyahu is closely allied with ultra-Orthodox parties who have consistently pushed against lockdown rules.

People wearing face masks walk in the Jerusalem city center on January 31, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/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.

The cabinet was meeting on extending the lockdown on Sunday evening, following the approval of a law raising fines against violators. 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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