Israelis mark Yom Kippur beneath ‘painful’ virus lockdown

Jerusalem, September 27

The solemn Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, which annually sees Israeli life grind to a halt, begins on Sunday in a nation already under a sweeping coronavirus lockdown.

Every year, businesses shut down, roads empty out and even radio and TV stations go silent as the faithful fast for 25 hours and hold intensive prayers of atonement on the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. The more secular-minded can be seen riding bikes or even picnicking on deserted highways. The holiday begins at sundown on Sunday.

But this year all non-essential businesses have already been forced to close, and Israelis have been ordered to stay within 1,000 meters (yards) of their homes throughout the High Holidays, which began last week with the Jewish New Year and continue to mid-October.

It’s the second nationwide lockdown since the pandemic began, an attempt to contain one of the most severe outbreaks in the world. Israel, with a population of just 9 million, is reporting more than 7,000 new cases a day, raising fears its hospitals could be overwhelmed.

A lockdown last spring largely succeeded in containing the outbreak, with new daily cases dropping to around a dozen in May. Authorities then reopened schools and businesses quickly, leading to a surge in cases even as the economy struggled to recover.

An emergency government formed in May to manage the crisis has been plagued by infighting, adding to the public sense of despair.

In a message to the nation, Israel’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin, called on people to light a candle in memory of the more than 1,400 Israelis who have died from COVID-19.

“They were all loved, all known, all had names and faces,” he said. “May we be forgiven for the sin of weakness and inability, for not doing enough, for not managing to save them. Because of that, lives were lost.”

As part of the latest lockdown, Israelis can only pray in open areas close to home, with gatherings limited to 20 people. However, synagogues will be allowed to open for limited prayers with social distancing on Yom Kippur despite warnings from health experts that it could lead to further transmission.

In a videotaped statement Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledged that mistakes have been made by decision makers. But he urged people to avoid going into synagogues on Yom Kippur and to pray outdoors.

Netanyahu has also called for an end for public demonstrations against him, saying they are a public health risk.

Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in recent months, calling on Netanyahu to resign while he is on trial for corruption charges and because of what they say is a failed response to the coronavirus crisis.

With a divided parliament unable to pass legislation banning the demonstrations, Netanyahu last week threatened to impose a state of emergency. Protesters claim Netanyahu is trying to muzzle them.

Israel’s politically influential ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which has suffered from high rates of infection, is opposed to restrictions on prayers, viewing it as a form of discrimination by mostly secular authorities, especially while demonstrations continue. AP


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