JERUSALEM — When people get ill in large numbers – and for a long time – their governments and professional agencies show increasing signs of dysfunction, and this is something that links Israel, America and Europe.
As countries face the second wave of a previously unknown virus that originated in China, their leaderships have shown a mixed bag of countermeasures that have been driven by incomplete knowledge, media hype, occasional superstition and large dollops of partisan stupidity.
“The government is sick, and that is not healthy for all of us,” asserted Prof. Hagai Levin, a leading epidemiologist and chairman of Israeli Doctors’ Public Health Forum. He was critical of the Israeli government’s repeated inability to plan, articulate and implement an anti-virus program.
Dr. Levin and many other doctors say that the Israeli Health Ministry has been slow to develop and implement protocols for massive testing and stopping chain spreading, and ministry officials claim they are understaffed, but critics on both the Right and Left say that Prime Minister Netanyahu has dropped the ball.
“The results are all skewed,” asserted Dr. Danny Pepperman, head of the Government Bureau of Statistics, referring to Health Ministry seriological surveys, adding that the ministry turned down his office’s offers of help. Dr. Pepperman, Dr. Levin and others say the Health Ministry has been both lax and late across the board.
Bureaucratic infighting aside, there is a rising pattern of a sick body politic to match an ailing population. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, unlike President Donald Trump, has for the most part been an advocate of lock-downs and other tough measures, but his two-headed government, that shares power with the Blue-White Party of Benny Gantz, often punches itself repeatedly instead of striking at the virus.
Netanyahu has wanted to limit the rambunctious and crowded protests in Jerusalem against him, claiming that protesters – many of whom defiantly refuse to wear masks or to heed police requests – are likely spreading disease as well as taxing already thin police resources during the virus epidemic. Blue-White insists there should be no limits on right of protest, asserting that Netanyahu is really afraid of free speech.
Blue-White, meanwhile, has championed an iron-fist approach against prayer in synagogues, especially by the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi communities in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, charging that the Haredim are “super-spreaders.” However Blue-White and other left-of-center parties have been less than firm in their opposition to maskless young adults attending beach parties or makeshift concerts.
If hypocrisy were a vitamin, both the Left and Right have taken heaping doses of Vitamin H.
The Left has been quick to charge police brutality and “stimat piot” – the closing of mouths, but there can be little doubt that the Netanyahu Government and police have for many months allowed wide-ranging protests in Jerusalem and across the country – sometimes at the expense of cleanliness and even violence.
By comparison, no one on the Left strenuously defended the right of protest for rightists after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 nor the unprecedented exploitation of police, military and courts to stem protests against Ariel Sharon’s unilateral expulsion of Jewish residents from Gaza in 2005.
On the Religious Right, especially on the fringes of the Haredi community, some have charged that the secular establishment in Israel is trying to hurt the Haredi community by using the virus as an excuse. To their credit, most Haredim do not believe this nonsense, but Haredi leaders seem unable to rein in extremists in their own camp, particularly in the Belz and Vishnitz Hasidic communities.
Moving forward, the main problem in Israel now seems to be lack of government credibility. Small store owners and restaurateurs have appeared on television to denounce government officials who do not practice what they preach.
Like several prominent American officials – on the city, state and national level – who have violated their own rules, some Israeli officials have been caught violating epidemic guidelines about travel and socializing.
This credibility gap has been compounded by the “emergency unity government” showing a lack of unity and organization. Several rightist intellectuals and journalists believe Netanyahu has lost his focus, preoccupied with charges filed against him by the State Prosecutor.
Even though the charges may be unjustified, they say, Netanyahu has lost the ability to do the job.
A clear sign of growing dissatisfaction with Netanyahu is that polls show his Likud Party would get 26 of 120 parliament seats, versus 23 for the rightist Yemina Party of Naftali Bennett, ex-Education Minister and ex-Defense Minister. Bennett had widely urged using the assets of the army and Defense Ministry to pick up the slack from the limping Health Ministry. Bennett urged moving sick people out of their communities to hotels or supervised hostels in order to reduce virus spread, but little was done.
When he was Defense Minister, Bennett wrote a major anti-virus program that Netanyahu initially ignored but later largely adopted – several months late. Prof. Roni Gamzo, the anti-virus “czar” or “project director,” was appointed and then often ignored by Netanyahu and many of his ministers.
Gamzo’s “traffic light” or “Ramzor” program divides the country into zones defined by virus spread, suggesting a more pinpoint approach – similar to plans articulated by some American governors and mayors, but Haredi ministers opposed it because they said it was designed to hurt them.
Israel’s saving grace is that the people are smarter and more reliable than politicians or health officials. Most people realize there is a real health problem and want to help by practicing physical distancing and common-sense hygiene. The “High Holidays” sometimes mean praying from porches in cross-street open-air minyans or in courtyards – a flexible spiritual response to a physical danger.
Many Jews and Arabs go for long walks by themselves or in pairs, holding or wearing masks. Along the Jerusalem Promenade, when the sun sets and the heat relents, women in Jewish and Muslim headdresses, men in shorts and running suits walk, run and grunt, hoping for a better day.
Michael Widlanski, a former New York Times correspondent, writes from Jerusalem.