The global coronavirus pandemic has accentuated the strengths and weaknesses of countries around the world. In the United States, the astoundingly high infection and death rates have highlighted not only the failures of leadership, but the irony that a country that is the world leader in medical research has failed to develop a coherent national policy to fight the pandemic.
In Israel, the situation also reflects the country’s character. Israel is an amazing amalgam of modern and ancient, discipline and organization – and chaos and disorganization. After the pandemic surfaced, the Israeli government put the country in lockdown, which included the seder night of Passover. The result was a very low rate of infection and an impressively low death rate. But under pressure from businesses and the public, almost everything was flung open, supplanting the disciplined and organized Israel with its chaotic side.
I have been infuriated on a daily basis to see younger people in particular brazenly violating Israeli regulations requiring masks. Many people also lack even the faintest respect for social distancing. It’s no wonder things have spiraled out of control here, although the death rate remains relatively low. It took the country six months to record its first 100,000 COVID-19 cases, but just 32 days to reach the 200,000 mark. On one day alone recently, Israel recorded more than 8,000 cases among its population of 9 million.
So we are again under strict lockdown, with everyone in the country limited to contact with members of their immediate households and a travel ban beyond a radius of six-tenths of a mile from home – other than for stated exceptions, including obtaining food, medical care and travel to some places of employment.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Israel’s response relates to its character as a democratic and Jewish state. How should that translate into policy in dealing with the virus?
For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it was decided indoor synagogue worship would be severely limited. Apart from the two holidays, worship indoors has been banned entirely and outdoor prayer limited to small group pods. Some in the religious community have chafed at the restrictions, saying they should also apply to political protests, including the large demonstrations against the prime minister in front of his official Jerusalem residence every Saturday night.
It serves no purpose to weigh the importance of religious practice against right to protest, but for all the spiritual significance of worshiping as a congregation on Yom Kippur, even the most observantly religious Jew would acknowledge that group prayer according to Jewish religious law only requires a congregation of 10. When it comes to demonstrations, however, the power of protest is in attracting large numbers of people.
Among Netanyahu’s detractors, there are those suggesting the lockdown is a ploy to stop the weekly protests in front of the prime minister’s residence. I wouldn’t go that far and I take comfort from the lockdown as necessary to put a stop to the spread of infection. But within minutes of the new lockdown, there were reports that Netanyahu was still scrambling to try to limit protests – a conflict of interest if even there was one.
I hope and expect the lockdown, which could last until November, will flatten the curve of infection, but I think the Israeli government needs to act now to change the behavior of members of the public for the period that follows. Otherwise, we will be facing high infection rates again. At that point, we may simply have to wait for a vaccine, which Israeli researchers are also working on.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland and Columbus Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel. To read more of Savren’s columns, visit cjn.org/savren.