When COVID-19 reached Israel last March, I was not unduly worried. Fifty years of firsthand experience with Israeli resilience and mutual cooperation, through wars, recessions, exploding buses and deep political turmoil, made me believe we would sail through this crisis as well. Indeed, initial public compliance and low infection rates earned Israel high marks worldwide.
But now, with a death toll climbing into the thousands and a population rebelling in infantile ways against the simplest, most basic rules of public hygiene, I must admit that I am frightened.
Israel was always fraught with differences. But now those divisions are endangering trust in our institutions and leadership, including, for the first time, the police and even the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). How did we get here? The discipline necessary to preserve life during this plague was eroded not by one group, but by many.
Perhaps the most egregious group continues to be the Haredim, too often commanded to ignore health rules lest their “spiritual lives” be endangered. As one rabbi put it: “Six months at home without the influence of their rebbes and our yeshiva boys will be distanced from our communities. [It will be] a spiritual death. COVID is preferable.” By the second lockdown, 40 percent of all those infected with COVID and 51 percent of all schoolchildren with COVID were Haredim, who make up only about 10 percent of the Israeli population.
Another group whose behavior is arguably even worse—because their deliberate mass gatherings are totally optional—are the so-called Black Flag protesters who have gathered throughout the crisis in the thousands in the streets of Jerusalem and elsewhere to protest the “corruption” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and demand his resignation. I have seen them here on my street, week after week, their masks on their chins, their bodies squashed together as they scream and yell and attack police and destroy property.
Supposedly spontaneous, these rallies are well-organized and well-funded. According to journalist Sefi Ovadia of Israeli Channel 13, and backed by articles in Ha’aretz, the organization that spent 25,000 shekels to buy the black flags is founded by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s former political adviser Ushi Elimelech and run by Barak’s nephew and his former parliamentary adviser.
Many Israelis, like myself, view these protests not as private citizens exercising their democratic rights, but as a cynical, almost criminal attempt to exploit the current unrest for political gain by people who were soundly defeated in the last four elections.
The sight of thousands of secular protesters flouting mask and distancing requirements without consequence destroyed the national appetite for self-control and restraint. That gave Haredim a free pass to continue their outrageous and irresponsible behavior at synagogues, weddings and mass funerals (many, ironically, for revered rabbis dying of COVID brought to them by their own Hasidim). One Bnei Brak synagogue even hung a sign declaring itself a “protest.”
Israeli leadership is also to blame. Israelis took the prime minister’s foolish suggestion at the end of the first lockdown to “go out and have a beer” literally, with unmasked thousands crowding the beaches, malls, restaurants and supermarkets. The resulting upsurge in infections and deaths placed Israel—percentage-wise—at the top of the list worldwide.
Attempts by police and army forces to curtail violations have spotlighted unprecedented disrespect for both once-inviolable institutions. During the High Holidays, police attempting to break up illegal prayer meetings were greeted with shouts of “Leave here, Antiochus!” from Haredi residents in Beitar Illit—which at the time had more than 1,000 COVID infections and close to 200 individuals actively ill. In numerous Haredi neighborhoods, verbal abuse was accompanied by thrown stones and bags of urine, as well as burning trash cans.
Nor were secular protesters any more respectful. Many attacked police and were arrested. Black Flag leader and retired Air Force General Amir Haskel lashed out at a policewoman trying to do her job against the rioters, telling her, “I probably brought your parents from Ethiopia.”
The shaky coalition government has made a show of being serious about COVID, imposing draconian lockdown rules, but has repeatedly undermined its own efforts. Both the Prime Minister and the President celebrated holidays with those outside their households, forbidden by the rules, while Minister of the Environment MK Gila Gamliel not only violated lockdown and contracted COVID-19 but also lied about it to police.
But I have not yet lost all hope. The Israeli people are special. The courage, resilience, unselfishness and intelligence that have time and again allowed them to triumph through existential crises that could have destroyed their young country are still there. Sheba Medical Center will next month begin human clinical trials of the Israeli vaccine using volunteers. One of them—47-year-old engineer Boaz Kolodnar, father and husband—said his family was proud of him: “When I was 18 I enlisted in an elite IDF unit and never thought twice about the risk. [Now too] my small act could save many.”
This article was originally published in the November-December 2020 issue of Moment Magazine.