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What has led Israel into its coronavirus madness? - analysis

Article’s tags: Media imbalance

Ichilov Medical team at the coronavirus unit, in the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 28, 2020. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)Ichilov Medical team at the coronavirus unit, in the Ichilov hospital, Tel Aviv, Israel, July 28, 2020.(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

First the facts.At least 1,022 people have died in Israel from coronavirus as of Monday. More than 900 people are currently hospitalized, 476 are in serious condition, and 137 are intubated.

On Sunday, 2,257 people were diagnosed with the disease, and the rate of positive cases among some 19,353 tests stood at a whopping 12.2%.

Those are not phantom numbers. The deaths are real; the intubated in the hospitals are real. Israel has among the worst rates of infection per one million people in the world. Nobody is making this up.

More facts: Some 28% of the current cases are in the Arab community (which makes up 21% of the population), and 22% of all cases are in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities (which comprise about 12% of all Israelis).

And none of this is going to go away by itself. It’s not as if one day Israel will wake up and, as if by magic, the pandemic will be gone. It will only be eradicated if the government acts, and the population must heed.

Right now, neither is happening.

The government is unable to act because of political considerations, as was made evident by its inability to decide for the second day in a row on Monday on even a partial nighttime lockdown of the hardest-hit “red” cities. And the public is unwilling to listen. That combination is toxic – one that will inevitably lead to more hospitalized people, more intubated patients and more fatalities.

During this process of indecision, the country’s fragile social fabric is being badly strained.

“It is impossible that the citizens of the State of Israel should become hostages of [Interior Minister Arye] Deri, [Housing and Construction Minister Ya’acov] Litzman and [MK Moshe] Gafni,” Yisrael Beytenu head Avigdor Liberman said of leading haredi politicians at a party faction meeting in the Knesset.

“Coronavirus cabinet decisions are not made on the basis of scientific data, nor are they transparent or logical,” he said. “Netanyahu has sacrificed public health on the altar of preserving his coalition. Therefore, all the decisions made are blatantly illegal. I propose the public act in accordance with common sense and not in accordance with government guidelines.”

Here is the head of a major political party, a former defense and foreign minister and a man who fancies himself as a future prime minister, calling on each individual in the country to do what is right in his or her eyes.

If you think it’s a good idea to don a mask, don a mask. If not, the heck with it. If you think social distancing is silly, don’t do it. If your common sense tells you that there is nothing wrong with large weddings, go organize a massive party.

Among those who shouted loudest against Liberman’s comments were the haredi politicians, lawmakers who need to look in the mirror and ask themselves: Did our actions not trigger these words?

Liberman’s stunning remarks were not uttered in a vacuum. They followed a letter sent to Netanyahu on Sunday by the heads of four haredi communities facing a lockdown: Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit, El’ad and Emmanuel. Their message was simple: They would not heed a lockdown call.

“As the one who managed the crisis, you never bothered to hear our voice, understand our hardships or try to promote real initiatives that could flatten the curve,” they wrote to Netanyahu. “With pain and restrained rage, we see day after the day how the honor of the great men of the Torah, the life of the Torah... are trampled upon by you in an unparalleled way. We hereby announce that we will stop cooperating with the various authorities regarding the lockdown.”

The letter, and intense haredi political pressure, worked. Netanyahu buckled: The planned lockdown that was initially set to start Monday morning was downgraded to a nighttime lockdown intended to take effect that evening. But it has also been postponed. Haredi politicians threatened to ignore the rules, so the government decided not to implement them.

If it’s good enough for the haredim, Liberman must have reasoned, it’s good enough for me. If they can say that they will not follow the regulations, then I can call on the citizenry to do the same thing.Why not?

Well, simply, because a country can’t function like this. Different communities can’t just decide that they won’t follow the regulations designed for the benefit of the collective.

Haredi politicians can’t shut their eyes to the reality of coronavirus – a very nasty illness that affects and will kill haredim just like anyone else – and pretend that restrictive and even draconian measures can be avoided.

Stunningly, the response of the haredi political leadership over the last few weeks – a crisis that is hitting their commutes hard – is to blame coronavirus “czar” Prof. Ronni Gamzu.

Various haredi politicians, local officials and media personalities have called him everything from a small politician to an antisemite. Why? Because he favored a lockdown on “red” cities, many which are haredi.

Gamzu’s recommended steps were not designed as punishment, and they should not be seen as such. They are tools crafted to try and bring down the numbers. Rather than fighting against these proposals, the haredi politicians should cooperate – because they are the means by which lives will be saved.What’s the problem? The problem is a deep-seated one: Suspicion within parts of the haredi leadership of the government’s motivations, as if the government is using the virus as an excuse to upend haredi life.

This is similar to haredi suspicion that the real reason the government wants to draft yeshiva students into the army is not because of a genuine belief that everyone should equally share the burden of protecting the state and because the IDF can use the manpower, but rather because the secular state wants to uproot the haredi way of life.

Litzman was quoted last week as saying the reason Gamzu wants a lockdown during the High Holy Days is because he doesn’t “want people praying.”

Litzman can’t be serious, yet the government’s anti-corona steps are increasingly seen among haredi politicians as not aimed at expunging the deadly virus, but rather at their community.

And this then creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more haredi politicians resist anti-corona steps, the more this creates antagonism toward haredim among parts of the general population – and the beneficiary will be Liberman and his party, which rode into the Knesset on an anti-haredi platform.

Haredi behavior regarding the virus, such as staunch opposition to lockdowns in “red” areas and insistence on pilgrimages to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s grave in Uman, Ukraine, on Rosh Hashanah, is going to drive stridently anti-haredi reaction that will trigger a greater sense among haredim that the general population is out to get them – all to the detriment of the country.

What has become apparent in recent days is that while haredi politicians manned the barricades against Gamzu and his plan, some municipal leaders in the Arab sector – hit even harder by the virus – are taking responsibility, declaring that large weddings in their cities and towns are feeding the virus and need to be restricted.

While Arab local officials are blaming the spread of the virus on people not following the rules, leading haredi politicians are blaming it on Gamzu and Netanyahu.

It’s an odd tale of two reactions. And it is troubling.

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