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Thinking about Israel – Mosaic members’ views

Jacqueline Gross shares her personal thoughts on the Covid situation in Israel below.  For more see Mosaic’s Israel webpage.  If you’d like to contribute to this series or take part in Israel discussions contact us.

Since we went into lockdown and the months went by, I noticed that I was becoming evermore introspective, just thinking about Covid-19 and what it was doing to my life and to my immediate circle of family and friends here in the UK.  I am sure I am not alone in this.

Yes, I had WhatsApp or FaceTime and Zoom with my son in Israel and family in New York and France .Then I started to consider what it must be like for my son living in Israel which in so many ways is such a different country to live in than the UK . So I decided to inform myself.

When Covid-19 struck Israel in early March they were the first country to ban flights and travel in and out of the country. They were the first to lockdown ,doing all the right things at the right time. Every day I looked and compared the graphs of new cases and deaths in Israel as they diminished, comparing them with other countries around the world. I thought that’s the way to handle this pandemic.

Then schools and Yeshivot opened, shops and businesses opened , cafes and restaurants opened. Large shopping malls were slower to open.This relaxation was done with great speed without waiting at least 2 weeks between each raising of a restriction to make sure that the virus did not return.  People started to resume normal lives although some basic restrictions were still in force- wearing masks in shops, social distancing , not holding huge weddings or Barmitzvahs.  Many people did not adhere to these rules. The Haredim were particularly against any restrictions on religious gatherings, weddings , barmitzvahs and the ever increasing number of funerals where several hundred men would gather all very close together and none of them wearing masks.

As time went by the number of positive Covid-19 cases started to rise slowly at first then rapidly followed by an ever increasing death rate, until by the middle of the Hagim Israel had the dubious privilege of having the highest per capita rate of infection anywhere in the world.

What was Mr.Netanyahu and his Government doing during the catastrophe unfolding before them ? Instead of pulling together and maybe even forming a Government of National Unity with the major opposition parties they weresquabbling amongst themselves with Mr Netanyahu trying to wriggle out of any future Court hearings.  A Covid Czar was appointed but his ideas were ignored and his regulations were constantly flouted. Now a new Czar is being put forward. This time a military man has been chosen.

Regulations were put in place, locking down certain areas of high infection ,mainly in Haredi towns and Haredi area of Jerusalem. But the Haredim did not comply .They continued to hold large religious gatherings and weddings ,many people not wearing masks and certainly not adhering to social distancing. This disregard of the law was particularly evident during the High Holydays.  Mr. Netanyahu stood back and let it happen sending in the police from time to time just to show he was on top of the job. The police were given a vey hostile reception, pelted with rocks and eggs , the car windows smashed . In Modi’in Illit some youths set bushes, trees and a building on fire . This was just around the time central Israel was having wild fires.

The Haredi population form 12% of the population and yet contribute to 45% of cases of Covid-19.  Netanyahu would not do anything to endanger his majority in the Knesset. He could not alienate the religious parties by forcing the Haredim to keep to the same regulations as everyone else in the country. These religious parties hold Netanyahus’ Likud party to ransom.

This is in stark contrast to the reception given to the demonstrators who have been congregating every week on Friday evenings and other times outside the PMs house and in other big cities in Israel, to protest against Netanyahu. Some of the protesters have been arrested , some pushed around by the police fairly roughly.  Pro-Netanyahu thugs have been mingling with the protesters doing there share of pushing and thumping. The protestors were largely social distancing and wearing masks.

This year Israel is in its 74th year. In that time it has fought and won many wars.  Israel is now fighting a very different kind of war and unless things change and Mr Netanyahu and his party stop arguing and start looking after the interests of the whole country instead of segments of it then I fear Israel could be facing a sort of civil war.In fact what Hamas, Hezbollah and the other terrorists could not do, ie destroy Israel will be accomplished by the citizens of Israel themselves.

Covid-19 has revealed the splits in Israeli society like nothing else has ever done. It has done the same in the UK but not to the same extent . The splits were already there as tiny fissures. This was noted in a speech made by President Rivlin in 2015 where he warned of a new demographic process being created composed of 4 tribes– secular Zionists, national religious, Israeli-Arab and ultra-Orthodox Haredim. Here quoting from an article by Calev Ben-Dor “the overlap between these groups is often minimal. Each have there own media platforms. The difficulty of creating a shared vision and flourishing society is accentuated by the fact that only two of the four serve in the army; only two of the four are even Zionist’. He goes on to say that “ each tribe believes its values and lifestyle are under threat from the others”.  One of Israel’s leading think tanks (INSS) in a recent paper about how Covid-19 has already widened the existing fissures in social solidarity said “Our ability to demonstrate mutual responsibility even with other social groups with which we have deep disagreement is vital to the health of a whole society, but is on the slide in Israel.”

It is a worrying time for all of us but it is particularly bad in Israel where there is a dysfunctional government , a constitutional crisis caused by a Prime Minister who refuses to resign even though he is under indictment for corruption charges.  The courts are being delegitimised as is the justice system and even the Attorney General.  The police have started to gain a reputation for brutality by the secular Zionist centre left. There was always distrust of the police by many Arabs, Ethiopians and others.

This society is fractured by increasing hardship and unemployment and now also distrusts the Courts, the police and the government. Israel has been through some tough times and we can only hope that some sense of common good will emerge very soon and put the pieces back together again. It would be almost unbearable to see a country that has been called the Start-Up Nation, that appears so strong and vibrant should fail its people.

As I write this a small shard of light has appeared in that the number of positive newly infected people is slowly decreasing. Maybe the Government will learn from their previous experience and open up the country really slowly, keeping a careful watch on how each easing affects the all important R value.

French philosopher Bernard Henri-Levi, gave an interesting Zoom talk on his recent book The Virus in the Age of Madness. In the Q&A’s I said that I feared for Israel’s survival . He was very up-beat saying that Israel is strong and will come through this – that we hadn’t struggled for over 2000 years to loose the State of Israel to a virus. I would very much like to believe him.

Many thanks to Jacqueline for sharing her thoughts.  Please note that these are her personal views and NOT those of Mosaic Jewish Community or our three Synagogues.  For more about Israel see Mosaic’s webpage about Israel.  If you’d like to contribute to this series or take part in some discussions about Israel then please contact Israel matters at Mosaic

November 16, 2020