300 Israelis arrested for defying coronavirus ban on Jewish holiday

Hundreds of people in Israel's ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods ignored a ban on large gatherings to celebrate a minor Jewish holiday known as Lag B’Omer.

al-monitor Ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the festival of Lag b'Omer May 15, 2006 in the neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, Israel. Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

May 13, 2020

Police in Israel have arrested more than 300 people who defied a ban on large gatherings to celebrate a minor Jewish holiday Monday night. 

Those arrested were observing Lag B’Omer, which ulta-Orthadox Jews customarily celebrate with bonfires, parades and potato roasting. 

Videos circulated on social media showing packed crowds dancing shoulder-to-shoulder Monday night despite a government ban on gatherings of more than 20 people. Israeli news outlets reported that as many as 1,000 residents of the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim ignored the restrictions to celebrate outdoors. 

Police in northern Israel also arrested dozens attempting to enter the Mount Meron tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage who is honored during the holiday. 

Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community of some 1.1 million has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. The Jewish town of Bnei Brak has the second highest rate of infections in the country, trailing only the capital Jerusalem.

Stories of residents flouting restrictions in Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods emerged in the early days of Israel’s partial lockdown. A video surfaced in April revealing hundreds of residents crammed together at a late night funeral procession, and another showed worshippers holding hands while dancing in Jerusalem.

Israel has registered 16,539 cases of the coronavirus and 262 deaths, the Health Ministry said Wednesday.

Amid a slowed rate of infections, the government has begun loosening restrictions meant to curb the virus, including the reopening of child care centers, malls and markets. Weddings and funerals with 50 guests or fewer are also now permitted. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz met with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his short visit to Israel Wednesday to discuss coronavirus cooperation as well as annexation plans for the West Bank.

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