Israel Could Stretch Purim Coronavirus Curfew Through Monday Morning

Police brace for holiday's celebrations amid easing of coronavirus restrictions, while Israel's government weighs the extension of curfew

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People dressed in Purim costumes in Jerusalem, this week.
People dressed in Purim costumes in Jerusalem, this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

About 2,000 police officers will enforce the nighttime curfew that will go into effect 8:30 P.M. Thursday evening, when the Purim holiday begins, and remain in effect Friday and Saturday from 8:30 P.M. to 5 A.M. the following day.

The cabinet is considering the possibility of extending the curfew by one day, since in Jerusalem the holiday is celebrated for an additional day, ending at sundown on Sunday.

The police will step up patrol and enforcement activities significantly around the country during the holiday weekend, including by operating 24 checkpoints during curfew hours. National police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai said Wednesday he had instructed the department of investigations to initiate criminal proceedings against the organizers of illegal gatherings, in addition to fines for breaking the curfew.

A police roadblock in Tel Aviv, last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The preparations being made by the police are unusual, but they are on a smaller scale than their operations during previous lockdowns and curfews, during which 6,000 officers were deployed nationwide. The purpose of the checkpoints is in part to prevent people from traveling between cities, allowing them to focus on large gatherings, in part using drones and helicopters. The police are also expected to carry out random spot checks on city streets.

A senior police official said members of the force have been speaking with Haredi community leaders over the past several days, in a bid to prevent large Purim celebrations. “We hear voices this time calling on people to observe regulations and to celebrate the holiday within the framework of the nuclear family,” said the official, who was speaking on condition of anonymity. “On Purim last year entire Haredi communities were infected and it’s burned into their memory,” he added. The police say that synagogues may request permission from the local government to hold worship services and the Megillah reading indoors, however.

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The police have also begun working to stop big parties that are scheduled for the weekend. The police also announced that it will employ intelligence measures to prevent large-scale gatherings, in other words monitoring social media.

The greatest challenge to police is expected to be enforcing the ban on gatherings in private homes, since the coronavirus regulations prohibit officers from entering a home without a warrant. In addition, ordinances prohibiting excessive noise during certain hours do not apply to Purim.

Many Purim events will be held after the nationwide curfew ends Sunday morning, in cities where this year the holiday is celebrated an additional day. This year’s Purim holiday is a three-day affair, Purim Meshulash in Hebrew, in Jerusalem and other so-called walled cities in Israel, beginning Thursday at sunset and ending at sunset Sunday. The extension occurs when the holiday falls on Shabbat, when certain religious obligations for Purim cannot be performed. The solution is to read the Megillah and give charity on Friday and to postpone the traditional festive meal and the exchange of gift baskets, mishloah manot, until Sunday.

Purim will be celebrated differently, but many Haredi sects are still expected to hold large gatherings. Last year’s Purim celebrations accelerated the spread of the coronavirus in Israel and in many Haredi communities abroad. Health Ministry officials fear that this year, too, the festivities, which are often held indoors under crowded conditions, will lead to a surge in COVID-19 infections.

One of the most important Purim events – not only in Jerusalem – is the donation drive that yeshivas hold to collect money to help pay wedding and related expenses of students who otherwise might not be able to marry. Tens of thousands of yeshiva students go door-to-door, eating, drinking and dancing with the males of each home while soliciting contributions from them. This year some yeshiva heads called for switching from in-person to telephone donations. The change was initiated by Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, among the leaders of the so-called Lithuanian – non-Hasidic – Haredim. He instructed yeshiva heads to keep their students in school during the holiday.

The heads of Yeshivat Beit Matityahu in Bnei Brak asked alumni of the school if they were prepared to have students come to their homes for the donation drive this year as usual, and 90 percent said no. Thus, the school will raise funds by phone. But many figures in the yeshiva world said the drive would take place in something close to its usual format, with yeshiva students going to donors’ homes.

“Of course there will be more donations by phone and it won’t be like usual, but all the yeshivas are getting ready to go door-to-door,” said one Haredi man. “The talk about studying on Purim and not going out to solicit donations is good for public relations, but it absolutely won’t be carried out on the ground.”

The same person, who spoke to Haaretz on the condition of anonymity, said the canvassing actually began late last week. “If it was money that goes to the yeshiva maybe there will be less interest in working hard to raise it, but you have to understand that this money goes straight to students, and they’re not prepared to give that up.”

A vaccination clinic in Bnei Brak, earlier this month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Fighting fake news

In related news, Haredi leaders continue to fight the spread of disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine and to encourage members of their communities to get inoculated. The head of the Shas party’s Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen, was vaccinated this week despite having been infected with the coronavirus about a year ago. In a statement issued by his office, Cohen said that when asked about rabbis who are against the vaccine, he expressed his discontent and reiterated his position that every person has a duty to be vaccinated against the disease.

Not only Haredi leaders but also families who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 have been forced to deal with misinformation. In a local paper in Modi’in Ilit, the relatives of a woman who had died published a rebuttal to reports that she had died as a result of the coronavirus vaccine.

“Irresponsible individuals [claimed] that she died from the vaccine and her husband became very ill from it. These were complete lies,” the family members wrote. “Our mother was not vaccinated, and she died of a heart ailment from which she had suffered for a number of years. Her husband, our father, who did get vaccinated, tested positive for the coronavirus less than two days after receiving the first vaccine dose, and he presumably was infected prior to receiving the vaccine.” The writers urged other mourning families to check whether similar false rumors had been spread about their own loved ones.

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