A ripple effect from the coronavirus protest restrictions – analysis

Israel is not the only entity to restrict protests.

Have protests led to an increase in the spread of coronavirus? (photo credit: CANVA.COM)
Have protests led to an increase in the spread of coronavirus?
(photo credit: CANVA.COM)
“It’s not smart, it’s not right... it’s not the time for protest. No one has the right to make choices like that – that potentially puts at risk everything we are working towards.”
Those words against protests during the age of COVID-19 were not uttered by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Likud members at the Knesset debate on the matter late Wednesday night.
Rather, they were said in mid-September by Daniel Andrews, the center-left Labor Party premier of the Australian state of Victoria, which includes Melbourne. On Monday, Melbourne residents began emerging from a stringent two-month lockdown that began in July when Victoria was registering 670 new coronavirus cases a day. The lockdown easing only began when the number of new daily cases dropped to 22.
Protests were banned and dozens of people were arrested when they attended demonstrations against what they considered to be the state’s heavy-handed anti-corona measures. Andrews called the protests “selfish, unlawful and wrong.”
The situation in Melbourne is relevant to what is happening here because it provides context.
First, Victoria, with a population of 6.7 million people, went into a draconian lockdown when it registered 670 new cases. Israel, with its 9.2 million people, on Wednesday counted 9,000 new cases.
Secondly, Israel is not the only entity – as a result of the passage of a law in the Knesset on Thursday morning – to restrict protests.
It doesn’t make Israel a dictatorship to place restrictions for a limited time on protests; it makes the country smart and puts it in the company of places like Victoria, which few would compare to dictatorial Venezuela.
The Knesset’s decision is important because with the country’s rate of infection spiraling out of control, allowing 10,000 to 20,000 people to congregate in close quarters – even if outdoors, and even if one believes it is for the noblest of purposes – is unwise.
Even Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn (Blue and White) acknowledged as much on Thursday when he told KAN Radio: “The right to health takes precedence at this time over the right to demonstrate. As soon as the economy returns to partial activity, the protests will return within a number of weeks to what they were beforehand.”
But the restrictions on the protests have utility beyond ensuring that those going to the demonstrations will not infect others or get infected themselves. The restrictions on the mass protests will deprive others of a wonderful excuse for flaunting the regulations and holding mass gatherings of their own, for they will no longer be able to claim: “If it is okay to demonstrate, it’s okay to gather in large groups to pray, party or celebrate on the upcoming Sukkot holiday.”
Forty percent of the country’s coronavirus cases are among the haredim (ultra-Orthodox), coronavirus commissioner Prof. Ronni Gamzu said Thursday. Brig-Gen. Roni Numa, the liaison to the haredi community on the crisis, said the number was 30%.
But whether it’s 30% or 40% is immaterial. The bottom line is that among the haredi population, which accounts for between 8%-12% of the country’s population, there is a real coronavirus problem. And part of the problem has to do with an unwillingness by many to adhere to the rules.
Army Radio on Thursday broadcast an audio clip of a man in the haredi town of Beitar Illit being asked by police on a busy street to call in Yiddish through a megaphone to people at a crowded lulav and etrog market to disperse.
The man told everyone to leave for 10 minutes, after which they could return. As if he was somehow outsmarting the police and outwitting the authorities. But he was not outsmarting anyone, just endangering the public – his own public.
More than one haredi leader has appeared on television or on the radio in recent weeks and when asked why some large events continued to be held in their communities, said if it was permissible to protest, then it was permissible to pray in crowded synagogues, learn in packed yeshivot or attend large gatherings.
In the fight against corona, personal example is critical. When the prime minister, President Reuven Rivlin and other public figures did not abide by the regulations during Passover and invited family members to their Seders, people were justifiably angry, asking why they need to follow the rules when their leaders didn’t.
That same logic has been used by many people in recent weeks, not only haredim, with the Netanyahu and Rivlin Seders replaced by the protests around the corner from the Prime Minister’s Residence both as the example of – and justification for – noncompliance.
Even if this government would consistently enact the best, most efficient and wisest regulations known to man to fight COVID-19, they would have no impact if people do not abide by them. And Israelis are simply not going to abide by regulations if they see that others are not.
Temporarily curbing mass protests – if they can do it in Victoria when the daily infection rate is 670, they can surely do it here when that rate is 9,000 – sends the right message. Hopefully, it will have a ripple effect that will lead to greater public obedience across the board. But don’t hold your breath: Israelis are not Australians.•