The riots were eventually quelled in some neighborhoods by police wielding stun grenades and water cannons.
The unrest has been growing in recent weeks as police have stepped up enforcement within insular ultra-Orthodox communities, which traditionally resist government authority. On Friday, protesters attacked a police vehicle patrolling Bnei Brak.
Many ultra-Orthodox communities have gone their own way in the coronavirus fight. Led by influential rabbis, sects have ignored national orders to close schools and avoid gatherings in favor of a bid to let the virus spread naturally, at least among younger people.
Some government leaders, including ultra-Orthodox ministers and members of parliament, have pushed to exempt the communities from the restrictions, arguing that their customs make it unbearable to forgo religious education, a full-time pursuit for many men, and gatherings for weddings, funerals and worship. Some politicians have said efforts to enforce the lockdown mandates amount to discrimination against Israel’s most religious citizens.
That has sparked growing anger among other Israelis, who increasingly blame soaring infection rates in ultra-Orthodox areas for stoking the pandemic and undercutting Israel’s fast-moving vaccination campaign. Health data shows that Haredi communities, as the ultra-Orthodox are known here, account for more than a third of infections although they make up only 10 percent of the population.
The country’s 9 million citizens are enduring their third national lockdown, with offices shut and secular students forced to stay home for weeks at a time.
Beginning Tuesday, officials will close Israel’s only international airport for at least a week to give its vaccine program a chance to get ahead of the virus’s spread, particularly the newly emerging variants first identified in Britain and South Africa that are believed to be more contagious.
Angry citizens have directed much of their frustration at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has generally declined to step up enforcement in ultra-Orthodox communities, which are fundamental to his right-wing coalition. In March, Netanyahu will face voters in Israel’s fourth national election in two years.
“We are losing lives because of a politically motivated lack of enforcement,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a Netanyahu opponent, said in a statement Sunday. “The government and the ministry of education aren’t exercising their legal authority to close and deny budgets to educational institutions that are open during the lockdown contrary to government guidelines.”
The prime minister has pleaded with community leaders to direct their followers to obey the rules, including a request he made this week to the grandson of a top rabbi to persuade his grandfather to acquiesce. But those overtures have been met with only limited success.
“I expect all citizens of Israel to respect the safety guidelines. That includes all the sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox,” Netanyahu said in a statement Sunday.
Public pressure to ramp up police action has grown as images of Haredi weddings and crowded synagogues have proliferated on social media. A photo of ultra-Orthodox men going maskless on a flight from the United States, and accounts from other passengers who were made uncomfortable, sparked outrage Sunday.
Elected leaders in several of the towns targeted for enforcement in recent days, which included neighborhoods in Jerusalem, blamed the police for provoking violence.
Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, who was pelted with stones and eggs when he arrived at the riot, according to reports, condemned the violence but called for police to withdraw and leave enforcement to local leaders.
“It’s with a sad pain that we say out loud that the Israeli police and its leaders are to blame for the catastrophe that has been taking place in our city for several days,” Rubenstein said after an emergency meeting.