Why some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities defy social distancing

Ultra-Orthodox Jews light a Lag Ba-Omer bonfire in Jerusalem earlier this week.

(CNN)The Israeli government knew to expect trouble on Tuesday night. It was Lag Ba-Omer, a Jewish holiday traditionally celebrated in Israel with mass gatherings around roaring bonfires. For the devout ultra-Orthodox community, it is an occasion for making a pilgrimage to Mt. Meron in the country's north, where the second-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is buried.

Thousands usually visit the site at this time of year, but in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic the Israeli government issued a decree ordering that from May 7 to 13, "gathering on the area of Mt. Meron will be prohibited except for local residents or people who need to go there for work."
It didn't work. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews turned up on Mt. Meron Tuesday in defiance of the ban, according to the police.
    "Suspects stormed a closed off mountain area and caused wide-scale disturbances that included throwing rocks at police and causing damage," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
    Through the evening, the numbers of people arrested kept ticking up: first 100, then 200, then more. In the end, 320 people were arrested for violating health and security measures, Rosenfeld said.
    The mass arrests are the latest incident in a global trend with dangerous consequences -- a small but committed segment of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community from Israel to London to New York refusing to obey social distancing orders.
    Two weeks before the Mt. Meron arrests, a large crowd turned out for the funeral of a prominent rabbi in the heavily ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York.
    A week before that, police in London were called -- twice -- to disperse an ultra-Orthodox Jewish wedding in London's Golders Green neighborhood.
    In Israel, at least, the results for fervently observant Jews have been serious. About 50% of Israel's coronavirus cases have been in largely ultra-Orthodox municipalities, according to a CNN analysis of Ministry of Health data through May 12. The country is about 14% ultra-Orthodox.
    Israel has more than 16,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 265 deaths, according to data from Johns Hopkins University as of Thursday.
    Mourners gather for the funeral of a rabbi in Brooklyn last month.