Ultra-Orthodox Israelis defy lockdown for rabbi's funeral

Jerusalem (AFP) –


Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews defied Israel's coronavirus restrictions to attend a rabi's funeral on Sunday, prompting Defence Minister Benny Gantz to demand the community's repeated breaking of lockdown rules must end.

A huge crowd, many not wearing masks, packed the streets in Jerusalem for the funeral of 99-year-old Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, head of the influential Brisk yeshiva, or religious educational institute.

Soloveitchik died earlier on Sunday.

Israel's ultra-Orthodox, or haredim, have been at the centre of the country's struggles to control the spread of coronavirus, with some groups flagrantly defying lockdown rules, especially concerning school and synagogue closures.

Police seeking to enforce the lockdown have in recent days clashed with haredim in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighbourhood and in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv.

While police were on hand for the rabbi's funeral, they did not act to disperse crowds, an AFP photographer said.

The funeral comes as Israel's government is set to debate the extension of the country's third national lockdown, due to expire at midnight.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supports a lockdown extension, has faced mounting criticism over what his opponents describe as a failure to ensure haredim comply with safety rules.

Netanyahu, a right-winger facing a difficult re-election contest in March, has relied on the loyalty of ultra-Orthodox political leaders to sustain his record 11 years in power.

Gantz, Netanyahu's rival and alternate prime minister in Israel's collapsed unity government, has said he will not support a lockdown extension unless rules are evenly applied.

"This is what unequal enforcement looks like," Gantz said on Twitter.

"Millions of families and children are locked in their homes and abide by the rules while thousands of haredim crowd (a) funeral, most of them even without masks.

"We will not agree to the continuation of an ineffective fake lockdown. Either everyone is locked down -- or everyone opens. The days of indulgence are over," Gantz said.

Israel, a country of about 9 million, has recorded more than 640,000 coronavirus cases, including over 4,700 deaths.

While the Jewish state continues to register several thousand new cases a day, it is also conducting a vaccination campaign widely regarded as the world's fastest per capita, with more than 3 million people having received the first of two required jabs of the Pfizer vaccine.