Public television showed pictures of a sea of black and furry hats worn by ultra-Orthodox men in the coastal town of Ashdod on Monday, with a small police unit squeezed in the middle, failing in their attempts to control the crowd.
“The images we see are spitting in the face of the whole country,” staunchly secular and far-right politician Avigdor Liberman wrote on Facebook.
The pandemic has exploded deep-rooted grievances between secular and religious elements in Israel that have escalated for decades. Under deals made around the time of the state’s founding, many ultra-Orthodox Israelis shun military service and live off government allowances, factors that have already led to bitterness.
Israel is now facing one of the world’s worst coronavirus epidemics on a per capita basis, and the ultra-Orthodox community is disproportionately affected. The country’s coronavirus ‘czar’ Ronni Gamzu said last week that members of the ultra-Orthodox community accounted for up to 40% of new cases of the virus, while they accounted for around 10% of the 9 million citizens of Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is backed by ultra-Orthodox politicians, has been accused by secular leaders of appeasing the minority at the expense of the rest of the country. Last month, following pressure from ultra-Orthodox mayors, Netanyahu abandoned a localized lockdown plan that allegedly affected religious areas.
Meanwhile, some members of the ultra-Orthodox community see the restrictions as a greater threat to their way of life than the virus, especially as the two lockdowns coincided with Jewish holidays. The aim was to prevent services in crowded synagogues and large family gatherings while easing the economic burden by closing during national holidays.
But the measures have been criticized by more radical sections of the ultra-Orthodox community, who are fiercely anti-state and have long loathed government interference in their traditions, leading to regular divisions with the forces of the order even before the pandemic.
« [The police] hate us, they hate religion. It’s a war on religion, nothing else, ”said Yulish Krois, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and father of 18 children.
Monday’s funeral followed days of clashes in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, with groups of men lighting fires on the road and throwing stones at police in riot gear. In an incident in the occupied West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, a policeman was filmed throw a bucket at a boy.
“We did everything that was asked of us – prayed outside, prayed in capsules. In the end, we found out that almost all of us already had Covid-19, ”Krois said. “The rabbis told us to keep going to the synagogues, to continue our festivities and we do what our rabbis tell us to do.
Many Israeli clerics point out that ultra-Orthodox communities often live in poor and crowded areas where infections can spread quickly. They believe they are being unfairly singled out for a surge in infections which has also been attributed to an over-enthusiastic reopening of the economy.
“The situation is more complicated than you see in these photos and videos,” said Yitzik Crombie, an ultra-Orthodox entrepreneur who studies community relations with the state at the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs.
He said ultra-Orthodox communities have lost confidence in Israel’s fight against the virus because they see how the government has balanced religious freedoms with other issues, such as the reopening of hotels and restaurants. during the summer while limiting attendance at synagogue.
“The community thought, ‘Why are my values less important than others?’ They decided they would decide what was important to them, ”he said. “There is no trust with the government. You cannot fight the pandemic without confidence. “