Israel Tightens Holiday Lockdown, Restricting Prayers and Protests

Israel now has one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the coronavirus, but the government’s response has gotten mired in political and cultural wars.

Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

JERUSALEM — Warning that his country could be approaching “the edge of the abyss,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed an even tighter lockdown than the one he announced last week to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Israel, which now has the highest rate of new cases per capita in the world.

The new measures mean that, starting Friday, in the midst of the Jewish High Holy Days, everyone except essential workers must stay home from work. The only gatherings allowed will be outdoors and include a maximum of 20 people — all of whom must have traveled no further than 1,000 meters from their homes.

“We have heard from the experts that if we do not take tough and immediate measures, we will reach the edge of the abyss,” Mr. Netanyahu told his cabinet, which met through the night to decide on lockdown restrictions after the number of new cases per day had risen to about 7,000.

But the intense haggling in recent weeks over the lockdown has exposed the extent to which Israel’s response to the coronavirus has gotten bogged down in its political and culture wars.

The battle pitted the generally pro-Netanyahu ultra-Orthodox against the sturdy contingent of anti-Netanyahu protesters. The ultra-Orthodox leaders argued that they should be allowed to pray without restrictions as long as the protesters were allowed to protest en masse, and the protesters argued that the situations were not comparable because the protests were outside and that the government was seeking to use the virus as an excuse to shut down the opposition.

The rules announced Thursday effectively ended both the protests and indoor worship, although they made an exception for Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, which begins at sundown on Sunday. The restrictions allow prayer services inside synagogues on Yom Kippur but with limits on the number of worshipers.

The protests, which have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators each week to the streets outside of Mr. Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, are calling for his resignation. Mr. Netanyahu, a polarizing conservative, is standing trial on corruption charges and is blamed by many Israelis for failing to prevent the country’s high rate of infections.

He has long railed against the protesters and cast them as anarchists and spreaders of the virus. Until Thursday, they were allowed to continue demonstrating because of an Israeli law that protects the freedom to protest.

A growing chorus has criticized the mass protests, saying it was unfair to allow them to continue while there were already restrictions on communal prayer, and that the discrepancy was leading to an erosion of public trust and noncompliance with other antivirus guidelines.

The debate over protests vs. prayers encapsulated the divide in Israeli society, said Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The protests represent the core of the liberal-left constituency, while the synagogues symbolize the national-religious outlook of the Netanyahu camp.

“This,” she said, “is the politicization of coronavirus that is happening in Israel.”

Experts also questioned whether Mr. Netanyahu’s concessions will serve public health. Some pointed out that allowing all-day services inside synagogues on Yom Kippur will defeat the purpose of the tight lockdown, because evidence suggests that the virus spreads much more easily indoors than outdoors.

As on the Rosh Hashana holiday, last week, rabbis will be required to arrange worshipers into clusters of 20 to 50, wearing masks and separated by dividers. The number and size of the groups will be calculated according to local infection rates, how many entrances each synagogue has and the space available.

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Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Ultra-Orthodox cabinet ministers had argued that for many Jews, praying outdoors in the heat on Monday on Yom Kippur would be unbearable, especially for those observing the holiday’s 25-hour fast. An editorial in a popular ultra-Orthodox news site warned this week that closing the synagogues on Yom Kippur would be “a declaration of war on God and his Torah.”

Synagogues are typically packed to capacity on Yom Kippur, usually the most attended services of the year. Under the guidelines, some synagogues will be able to accommodate hundreds of people.

“Keeping the synagogues open on Yom Kippur sends the wrong message,” said Hagai Levine, a professor of epidemiology and chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “In certain situations you can have dozens of people in synagogue for many hours.”

He said that the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations had not been a driving force behind the spread of the contagion.

As in New York, the crowded conditions in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities have already proved fertile ground for increased transmission.

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Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Some believe that the new restrictions, which will exact a high economic price, were largely designed to quash the protests.

“All the linkage between the protests and prayers is artificial, a Netanyahu spin,” said Ofer Koch, 67, a protester and businessman who has spent much of the last three months at a protest tent near the prime minister’s residence, even spending some nights on a thin mattress on the sidewalk. “His only goal is to stop the demonstrations.”

But Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, who runs a variety of programs catering to Orthodox communities in Israel, said his community had been “up in arms” about the discrepancy between the limitations on communal prayer gatherings and the mass demonstrations. “People were asking where’s the justice? Where’s the equality in this?” he said, adding that it had deepened the distrust in the government.

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Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Mr. Netanyahu and his attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, however, have said that the urgent need to address the public health crisis overrides even basic rights, including the right to demonstrate or to hold communal prayers without limitations.

“The meaning of leadership is making tough decisions, necessary decisions, lifesaving decisions,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We do not have the privilege of knowing that we could have prevented additional mortality and did not do so.”

He called the accusation that he was primarily acting to halt the protests “ridiculous.”

Mr. Mandelblit said in a statement on Thursday that the high death rate legally justified restrictions on all gatherings, including demonstrations and prayers.

The protests will be allowed to continue, within limits. The police determined that up to 2,000 protesters could fit into the area around the prime minister’s residence, while maintaining social distancing and standing in separate clusters of 20 people. But under the new rules, only those who live within 1,000 meters may attend.

Since the freedom to protest is anchored in Israeli law, the restrictions announced on Thursday required the Israeli Parliament to approve ordinances to limit that freedom.

Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis had themselves exploited the freedom to demonstrate. After Rosh Hashana, families identified as ultra-Orthodox were caught on video masquerading as protesters, lugging suitcases onto private buses marked as protest buses in order to get around restrictions on movement between cities, and to move through police roadblocks without being fined.

And the protest movement lost much public support after the media aired video of dozens of activists enjoying an al fresco meal on Rosh Hashana eve at the protest tent in Jerusalem without social distancing, flouting the lockdown that had forced many other Israelis to eat alone. Another group gathered on the beach in Tel Aviv for a protest that turned into a beach party.

The national debate has also given rise to differences within the protest movement. Black Flags, one of the groups behind he protests, preemptively suspended its participation in the protests in central Jerusalem, saying it would limit its presence to smaller, local demonstrations on bridges and at junctions across the country.

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Credit...Dan Balilty for The New York Times

At the protest tent, Mr. Koch’s group, “Ein Matzav,” which roughly translates as “No Way,” had planned a last stand on Thursday night: an event where participants were seated on chairs in the street, two meters apart, and listened to lectures about the government failure. Hundreds of people showed up.