Thousands of people gathered Monday at a funeral in Ashdod for a Hasidic rabbi who died overnight after contracting COVID-19, despite a national lockdown aimed at curbing infections that forbids such gatherings.
The ceremony ended with clashes between mourners and police seeking to disperse the crowds.
The crowds grew as the event progressed, with Channel 12 and Channel 13 news both estimating that ultimately some 5,000 people were present. Some video clips from the funeral showed many participants wearing face masks, although not keeping to required social distancing. Other clips, apparently from later in the event, showed large, densely packed crowds, with some not wearing masks.
The Pittsburgh Rebbe, Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, 64, died overnight after a two-month battle with the virus. His title stems from the Hasidic dynasty founded in the US steel town some 100 years ago, and which today is centered in Ashdod.
He was buried in Ashdod, areas of which have been declared virus hotspots due to high infection rates.
Police said in a statement that the funeral procession had been approved in smaller numbers, and that attendees were expected to keep distance between each other and wear masks.
Police had permitted around 300-400 to take part in the event, but as far larger numbers of participants arrived, angry confrontations developed between police and participants. Channel 12 said the overcrowding led to eulogies for Leifer to be cut short.
Kan news published a video showing policemen in the midst of the massive crowd, making efforts to tell people to keep their distance from each other.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) October 5, 2020
Opposition lawmaker Avigdor Liberman, who leads Yisrael Beytenu party, blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies for the scenes, writing on Facebook that “the images we are seeing are a spit in the face of the entire country.”
“The ultra-Orthodox sector is trying to reach herd immunity because of surrender by Bibi and [Gantz] to the Orthodox parties,” he wrote, using a nickname for Netanyahu. “No leadership, no budget, no decisions, no policy, no enforcement.”
Later Monday, Netanyahu, while sending “condolences to the followers of the Pittsburgher Rebbe,” castigated the “severe violation of the rules” at the funeral.
“This creates two problems that we have also seen with other gatherings, both an incubator for the coronavirus and the fraying of unity. This is unacceptable,” Netanyahu said. “We also see this in prayer services to my regret and also in the demonstrations. I call on both the ultra-Orthodox and the secular publics, on all citizens of Israel, to honor the rules… We need the cooperation of the citizens of Israel and of public leaders.”
האדמו"ר מפיטסבורג זצ"ל שנסתלק הלילה לבית עולמו – היה מופת של מנהיג אציל נפש, צדיק שהאיר את אשדוד ואת דרום הארץ באלומה ענקית של אהבת ישראל אמיתית לכל יהודי. לצד צדיקותו – נפשו הייתה משתפכת בערגה מתנגנת והיה מלחין שירי נשמה שהפכו לנכסי צאן ברזל בנגינה החסידית.
כואב מאוד. חלל גדול. pic.twitter.com/AyTaHH00Rn
— אריה ארליך A. Erlich (@AryeErlich) October 4, 2020
Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox community has been growing in recent days, with reports showing that a significant number have been disregarding lockdown restrictions during the Sukkot holiday, including by continuing to host mass gatherings.
As police have stepped up enforcement, there has also been increasing anger within the ultra-Orthodox community and accusations of disproportionate force, including against children.
Sunday saw violent clashes between police and ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem and in Bnei Brak, where 13 people were arrested as officers broke up mass gatherings for the holiday. Besides violating the restrictions on gatherings in enclosed spaces, police said most worshipers were not wearing masks or adhering to social distancing rules. After cops started handing out fines, the worshipers “began resisting and disturbing public order,” according to police.
The ultra-Orthodox community has seen high coronavirus infection rates, with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average. The country’s coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said last week that 40 percent of recent virus cases were in the ultra-Orthodox community, which constitutes some 12% of the population.