Jerusalem Police Stood by as Thousands Celebrate in ultra-Orthodox Neighborhood

Hasidic synagogues concealed their windows and guards kept out unwanted guests, but the atmosphere was festive and music poured down the street, as if the coronavirus hadn’t reached there

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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Mea She’arim, October 6, 2020
Mea She’arim, October 6, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

Thousands of Hasidim in their holiday finery, yeshiva students and curious residents rushed through the narrow streets of the Mea She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem Tuesday. Many Haredi synagogues have closed their doors, in accordance with the lockdown guidelines. In Mea She’arim the atmosphere was definitely festive, as if the coronavirus hadn’t reached there. Women pushed babies in strollers and young children held their fathers’ hands, walking to synagogues from which deafening music poured. Face masks were a rare sight, marking their wearers as outsiders. The stares of residents said it all: You don’t belong.

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The entrances to the Bratslav, Toldot Aharon and Toldot Avraham Yitzhak synagogues were concealed with thick curtains to keep out prying eyes, and the windows were sealed. Some synagogues even had guards posted to keep out unwanted guests, meaning anyone from outside the sect. Hundreds of so-called Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) and Sephardic yeshiva students, some from abroad, whose suits immediately identified them as outsiders, gathered outside the synagogues and begged to be allowed in, but in vain. They searched desperately for a breach in the defenses, but the Hasidim had thought of everything. Side and back entrances were also guarded. The yeshiva students who had been turned away looked despondent, even as they decided to try their luck elsewhere.

Three young Bratslav Hasidim stood outside the main entrance of their synagogue and didn’t allow anyone to enter. “You could have come in until 8 P.M.,” one said, but another hastened to add, “We can’t let you in, only 20 people are allowed inside.”

Mea She'arim in Jerusalem, October 6, 2020.

A man who had come with his son from Modi’in Ilit tried his luck at the back entrance, but the long, packed line made it clear that he wouldn’t be getting in. “Yesterday there was a Bratslav event in the Ahuzat Brachfeld neighborhood of Modi’in Ilit,” said the father, who added that there they had found a creative way to fool the police. “Everyone danced with headphones on so that no one would hear the music outside,” he explained.

Insiders who did manage to gain a coveted entry permit were granted it on one condition – that they agree not to photograph or record anything. The Bratslav PA system announced: “Do not document or photograph in any way. Everyone understands what will happen if there is documentation.” When the announcement was over the music resumed and the approximately 1,000 Hasidim in the synagogue continued to celebrate as if a coronavirus vaccine had been found.

To date there have been no videos or other evidence from the events in Mea She’arim, in accordance with understandings the Hasidic representatives reached with the Jerusalem Police. Under these agreements, the Hasidic courts would be allowed to maintain their holiday routine and hold mass events every night and the police would ignore them, so long as no evidence of the celebrations leaked out. The police representative responsible for this agreement, Maj. Gen. Shimi Marciano, could not be seen Tuesday night in Mea She’arim. The commander of the Lev Habira station had spent the day being questioned by the Justice Ministry unit for the investigation of police officers, after he was filmed using violence against a minor during one of the disturbances in the neighborhood.

Mea She’arim, October 6, 2020

The police denied there had been any agreement with the Hasidic courts, and officials in the force argued that there were no mass events taking place in Mea She’arim. When confronted with the reports from within the Hasidic courts, they responded, “there’s no documentation.” But now there is.

Large numbers of policemen stood Tuesday night, as every night since Sukkot began, at the edge of the neighborhood, around 100 meters from the Toldot Aharon synagogue. They stood there for hours, as with each passing minute the crowds gathering in the area swelled. Around 15 minutes after the last event in the neighborhood ended, the forces were given an order and they entered the neighborhood and started chasing after people for reasons that were not clear. But the entry of the police proved to be a sign for the locals as well, and disturbances erupted.

Police officers began arresting people indiscriminately. Young children and teenagers, some of whom were just curious bystanders looking for action during the yeshiva vacation, threw stones and other objects at police. Four police officers suffered mild injuries, including two policewomen who were treated at a hospital. Seventeen residents were arrested.

From what transpired in Mea She’arim it seems as if the police decided not to enforce the coronavirus regulations and prevent mass events, no matter what. Instead they chose to settle for making some symbolic arrests for propaganda purposes.

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