Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police in Jerusalem

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews clash with police in Jerusalem in protest over Israeli government’s Covid lockdown restrictions

  • Anger has built towards the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel who have been unwilling to follow Covid rules
  • In recent weeks, the group has defied restrictions by holding funerals, some attended by more than 10,000 
  • Ultra-Orthodox Jews clashed with police on the streets on Jerusalem on Tuesday following a demonstration
  • Responding to the aggression, Israeli police deployed water cannons and arrested at least one person
  • Among Israelis over 65, the ultra-Orthodox mortality rate is around three times that of the general population

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting coronavirus lockdown restrictions clashed with police officers in Jerusalem on Tuesday night.

Rioters from the insulated community were pictured burning rubbish bins and reportedly threw stones at officers who responded by using water cannons and other heavy-handed tactics to disperse the crowd.

In recent weeks, ultra-Orthodox Jews have defied coronavirus restrictions by holding big funerals for beloved rabbis who died of COVID-19, celebrating large weddings and continuing to send their children to schools. 

The gatherings have led to clashes with police and an unprecedented wave of public anger toward the religious community, that makes up about 12 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million people.

Pictured: Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews gather to protest against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb cases of Covid-19, in Jerusalem’s religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim on February 9

Rioters from the insulated ultra-Orthodox community were pictured burning rubbish bins and reportedly threw stones at officers who responded by using water cannons and other heavy-handed tactics to disperse the crowd

Pictured: ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews gather to protest against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb cases of coronavirus, in West Jerusalem’s Kikar HaShabbat region on February 09

An initial protest was organised with police approval, and saw speeches from leaders from the community (pictured) with hundreds of people attending, tightly packed together with almost none wearing masks

Gilad Malach, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, says ultra-Orthodox believers accounted for over a third of the country’s COVID-19 cases in 2020. Among Israelis over 65, the ultra-Orthodox mortality rate was three times that of the general population, he added. 

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men gathered in Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square to protest lockdown rules that are in place to curb Israel’s high rate of coronavirus restrictions, in particular restrictions keeping schools closed.

An initial protest was organised with police approval, and saw speeches from leaders from the community with hundreds of people attending, tightly packed together with almost none wearing masks.

After the initial demonstration, hundreds of the protesters marched to the nearby Bar Ilan street, which became the scene of violent clashes between the group and police officers.

According to The Times of Israel, some demonstrators blocked traffic, burned rubbish bins, damaged vehicles and threw heavy stones and other objects at police officers.

Responding to the aggression, police deployed water cannons to disperse the protest, and at least one person was reported to have been arrested on suspicion of disturbing public order. 

After the initial demonstration, hundreds of the protesters marched to the nearby Bar Ilan street, which became the scene of violent clashes between the group and police officers (pictured)

Responding to the aggression, police deployed water cannons to disperse the protest, and at least one person was reported to have been arrested on suspicion of disturbing public order. Pictured: A man is taken away by police on Tuesday night

Pictured: A man is arrested by police in Jerusalem on Tuesday night amid a protest against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb cases of Covid-19, in Jerusalem’s religious neighbourhood of Mea Shearim on February 9

Critics of the police have recently called for water cannons to be used to disperse illegal gatherings of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Pictured: Israeli police uses water cannon as they intervene in protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews on February 9 in Jerusalem 

Critics of the police have recently called for water cannons to be used to disperse illegal gatherings of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with some – including opposition leader Yair Lapid – pointing to the police’s use of aggressive tactics against anti-Netanyahu protesters, but not against ultra-Orthodox – or Haredi – gatherings.

Public opinion has turned against the community for its frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules, as well as the government’s perceived reluctance to strongly enforce the rules in the ultra-Orthodox community. 

In recent weeks, there have been several large-scale Haredi funerals held for top rabbis who died of Covid-19 attended by thousands of people, despite the national lockdown in place.

While outdoor gatherings have been restricted to just 10 people, some of the funerals for the group’s leading rabbis drew crowds of more than 10,000 people. 

While outdoor gatherings have been restricted to just 10 people, some of the funerals for the group’s leading rabbis drew crowds of more than 10,000 people. Pictured: Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews participate in funeral for prominent rabbi Meshulam Soloveitchik, in Jerusalem on January 31, 2020

The mass ceremony in January (pictured) took place despite the country’s health regulations banning large public gatherings, during a nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Tuesday warned the Haredi community that such gatherings would further spread the coronavirus in Israel and lead to additional deaths. 

‘It pains the heart to see the photos of mass violations [of the lockdown] at funerals because those funerals will lead to more funerals,’ Ash said, also noting that while the mortality rate among the group is dropping, it ‘is still high and worrying.’

But despite the high death rate among the community, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have rebuked attempts to enforce anti-virus measures on their community, labelling the efforts as discriminatory.

Meanwhile, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has remained quiet on the issue, and appears unwilling to clash with anger his ultra-Orthodox political partners whose support keeps him in power.

But Mendy Moskowits, a member of the ultra-Orthodox Belz Hassidic sect in Jerusalem, doesn’t understand the uproar toward believers like him.

Moskowits, like many other ultra-Orthodox faithful, says Israeli society doesn’t understand their way of life and has turned his community into a scapegoat.

‘The media gives us, in my opinion, a very bad misrepresentation,’ he said.

Public opinion has turned against the community for its frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules, as well as the government’s perceived reluctance to strongly enforce the rules in the ultra-Orthodox community. Pictured: Israeli police move against ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government in Jerusalem, February 9

Israel is currently under its third national lockdown since the start of the pandemic, although some restrictions were rolled back at start of the week as its vaccination efforts continue to out-pace all other nations. Pictured: A rubbish bin is seen on fire in Jerusalem on February 9 amid protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews against coronavirus restrictions

Israeli police stand guard as ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government to curb cases of coronavirus, in West Jerusalem’s Kikar HaShabbat region on February 09

Ultra-Orthodox men are exempt from compulsory military service and often collect welfare payments while continuing to study full time in seminaries throughout adulthood. Their schools enjoy broad autonomy and focus almost entirely on religion while shunning basic subjects like math and science.

These privileges have generated disdain from the general public – resentment that has boiled over into outright hostility during the coronavirus crisis.

Israel is currently under its third national lockdown since the start of the pandemic, although some restrictions were rolled back at start of the week as its vaccination efforts continue to out-pace all other nations.

So far, a fifth of the Israeli population has been vaccinated, with 65 people per 100 receiving at least one dose.

As of Tuesday, February 9, Israel has recorded 703,719 cases of Covid-19, and 5,216 related deaths. The country passed the 700,000 recorded cases milestone on Tuesday.

But Health Ministry data show vaccination rates in ultra-Orthodox areas lag far behind the national average.

Privileges afforded to ultra-Orthodox men – such as military service exemption – have generated disdain from the general public – resentment that has boiled over into outright hostility during the coronavirus crisis. Pictured: Ultra Orthodox Jews protest against the government’s coronavirus disease restrictions in Jerusalem February 9

Despite the high death rate among the community, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers have rebuked attempts to enforce anti-virus measures on their community, labelling the efforts as discriminatory. Pictured: Haredi Jews gather to protest against restrictions imposed by the Israeli government

Pictured: ultra-Orthodox Jews protest against the government’s coronavirus disease restrictions in Jerusalem February 9

Ultra-Orthodox noncompliance, Malach said, stemmed in part from members not believing that they ‘need to obey the rules of the state, especially regarding questions of religious behavior.’ 

Ultra-Orthodox follow a strict interpretation of Judaism, and prominent rabbis are the community’s arbiters in all matters. Many consider secular Israelis a recent aberration from centuries of unaltered Jewish tradition.

‘We have rabbis. We don’t just do what we have in our minds,’ Moskowits said. ‘We have listened to them for a few thousand years. We will listen to them today as well.’

While the ultra-Orthodox community is far from monolithic, many rabbis have either ignored or even intentionally flouted safety rules. The 93-year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the most influential spiritual leaders, has insisted schools remain open throughout the crisis.

On a recent day, scores of ultra-Orthodox girls cascaded from a grade school in the Romema neighborhood that was operating in violation of the law. Few wore masks or maintained distance from others. Classes went on at nearby boys’ elementary schools and yeshivas.

‘We can’t have a generation go bust,’ said Moskowits, who lives in Romema. ‘We are still sending our boys to school because we have rabbis who say Torah study saves and protects.’

In a community that largely shuns the internet, rabbis plaster ‘pashkevils,’ or public notices, on walls in religious neighborhoods to spread their messages.

So far, a fifth of the Israeli population has been vaccinated, with 65 people per 100 receiving at least one dose. Pictured: A woman receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease at a temporary Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation (HMO) centre, in Herzliya, Israel February 3

Pictured: Medical workers, some seen through a window of an observation room, wear personal protective equipment as they work inside an underground ward treating patients with the coronavirus disease at the Critical Care Coronavirus Unit at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, Israel February 8, 2021

Israel is currently under its third national lockdown since the start of the pandemic, although some restrictions were rolled back at start of the week as its vaccination efforts continue to out-pace all other nations

Some notices urged people not to get vaccinated, even using Holocaust imagery to scare people. ‘The vaccine is completely unnecessary! The pandemic is already behind us!’ one read, comparing the rush for vaccinations to boarding a train to the Auschwitz death camp.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders say such views are held by a radical minority. Most people respect safety rules, they say, and the virus is spreading because communities are poor and people live in small apartments with large families.

Moskowits, a 29-year-old father of two, said some families have up to 10 children and just one bathroom. From 14, boys are sent to boarding schools and spend only the sabbath at home.

For many, lockdown ‘technically, physically doesn’t work,’ Moskowits said. He called it a ‘human rights violation.’

Moskowits, who grew up in the U.K., speaks English with a British accent, but his vocabulary is heavily seasoned with Yiddish and Hebrew words. 

He wears the black velvet skullcap, pressed white shirt and black slacks typical of ultra-Orthodox men – but no mask, despite the government requiring them in public. He said he contracted COVID-19 in March and claims a letter from his doctor excuses him from wearing a mask.

A real estate developer, he punctuates his workday with prayers at a neighborhood synagogue, and tries once a week to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can worship. Once a day, he performs ablutions at a mikvah, a Jewish ritual bath, and he regularly studies religious texts with a partner.

The religious community is growing rapidly even though economists have long warned that the system is unsustainable. About 60% of its population is under 19, according to the Israel Democracy Institute.

Protecting the ultra-Orthodox way of life – or Yiddishkeit – is the community’s ultimate aim. If that means infections spread, that’s a price some members are willing to pay.

Ultra-Orthodox people ‘sacrifice most of their lives for the next generation and for preserving Yiddishkeit. We give away everything,’ Moskowits said.

This view is hardly universal.


Pictured: Graphs showing the number of new coronavirus cases (left) and deaths (right) per day in Israel (7 day rolling average). As of Tuesday, February 9, Israel has recorded 703,719 cases of Covid-19, and 5,216 related deaths. The country passed the 700,000 recorded cases milestone on Tuesday

So far, a fifth of the Israeli population has been vaccinated, with over 65 people per 100 receiving at least one dose

Nathan Slifkin, an Orthodox rabbi living in Israel, complained in a recent op-ed in the Jewish Chronicle that members of the Haredi community ‘genuinely see no connection between flouting the restrictions and people dying from COVID.’

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, head of an ultra-Orthodox ambulance service called ZAKA, lost both his parents to the virus in January. He says rabbis urging followers to violate coronavirus regulations have ‘blood on their hands.’

Funerals play a central role in traditional Jewish life, and the pandemic has made them all too common. Cars with megaphones drive through religious neighborhoods announcing deaths and funeral details. Pashkevils notify communities when a prominent rabbi dies.

Shmuel Gelbstein, deputy director of a Jerusalem funeral society for the ultra-Orthodox community, said this year has been ‘very busy, very difficult regarding mortality, both when it comes to ordinary deaths, plus of course coronavirus, which is certainly an amount that adds to the load.’

Funerals for two leading Haredi rabbis who died of COVID-19 each drew an estimated 10,000 mourners last week.

Israel’s non-Orthodox majority was outraged at what they saw as contempt for the rules and selective enforcement by authorities.

But the ultra-Orthodox claim they are being unfairly singled out, noting that demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – protected under free speech laws – have been permitted to continue during the pandemic.

Moskowits explained that for the young men who flocked to these funerals, prominent rabbis are ‘a huge part of your life. When these younger guys go to a funeral, they feel that their father died,’ he said. ‘Nothing stands in the way. He will go to the funeral anyway.’

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