Coronavirus: Israel's rule-breakers defend their right to party

Israelis aren’t exactly known for following the rules, so it comes as no surprise that people have been partying in secret for quite some time now, and have no intention of stopping.

A BLACK PANTHERS demonstration in the early 1970s. (photo credit: DAVID MORGAN)
A BLACK PANTHERS demonstration in the early 1970s.
(photo credit: DAVID MORGAN)
 This year’s particularly unusual Purim saw many headlines documenting Israelis’ defiance of the coronavirus curfew imposed during the holiday. Even though a three-night curfew was officially put in place for the Purim weekend, hundreds and even thousands of partiers from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv gathered for banned Purim festivities, regardless of the attendees’ level of religious observance.
Many took to social media to furiously debate about the Purim parties, with some claiming the partying would inevitably lead to an increased morbidity rate, followed by closed skies and a lockdown over Passover. Others felt more confident, given the number of vaccinations administered, and were becoming increasingly fed up with government’s rules and lockdowns that seem to have no end in sight. However, these coronavirus-era parties are not a new phenomenon that arose only during Purim.
Israelis aren’t exactly known for following the rules, so it comes as no surprise that people have been partying in secret for quite some time now, and have no intention of stopping. Whether they be low-scale gatherings of close friends or full-on parties, some Israelis are marching to the beat of their own drum, regardless of what the government and the Health Ministry advise. They’re not just partying for the sake of hedonism either. Instead, they seem to be following their own logic and making the calculated decision to continue socializing and partying.
“I don’t know what kind of evaluation system makes sense, but the benefits outweigh the costs, just getting to be around people, ” said 23-year-old Melissa (names have been changed to protect the privacy of interviewees) from Jerusalem, who began going to low-profile gatherings with about 15 to 20 people after the second lockdown. 
“It felt very serious and intense during the first lockdown, but I think I got past the overabundance of caution pretty easily. Knowing a lot of people who had corona helps, and the fatigue of being around the same people all the time. It’s really hard to feel normal.”
At the time of her interview, Melissa was in quarantine after becoming infected with the virus, which she believes happened while hosting a Tu Bishvat party. Considering that she experienced little or no symptoms, she didn’t regret her continuous socializing, but acknowledged that she got lucky, and didn’t intend to undermine other people’s more serious experiences with the virus.
In addition to her concern for Israel’s economy was the natural human desire to socialize with others: “It’s taken a huge toll on people – myself included – with what feels normal, and what doesn’t. Even going to parties during corona times, I experienced fear of the stranger that I certainly didn’t have before, which has been weird to grapple with.”
Mendy is a 28-year old medical professional from a small community who has continued to partake in weekly get-togethers with his long-term group of friends throughout the recent lockdowns. He shared a sentiment similar to that of Melissa’s about the importance of socializing: “It’s very important for our society to have these big gatherings. That’s what makes our society, what makes us who we are nowadays. We have the potential to travel, go to parties, go to gatherings, and actually interact with people.”
While Mendy’s gatherings generally consisted of no more than 10 people, he said he has no problem with big gatherings either. In fact, he encourages it.
However, Mendy’s reasoning for supporting gatherings and parties goes beyond the human need for interaction. As a medical professional who has worked on and off in a coronavirus ward in “one of the biggest hospitals” in Israel, he is convinced the Health Ministry has not been reporting accurate numbers regarding coronavirus patients. While he would neither disclose his exact position nor the name of the hospital he works at, he claims the numbers of coronavirus patients he was taking care of were significantly lower than the numbers the Health Ministry was reporting.
“[The Health Ministry] is painting a picture that is very different from reality,” said Mendy. “I have absolutely no idea what the motivation behind this is. I’m not going to start making up reasons as to why people do certain things. But if you’re trying to do good, stop playing around with the numbers. You don’t need to create a situation in which people are even more scared. This is not only in Israel; I think the governments of other countries have used corona in order to majorly overstep their authority.
“Many of my coworkers don’t agree with everything that I do, and they don’t agree with going against the guidelines, but they agree with me that there are things that simply don’t add up with the Health Ministry where someone is in some way or another playing around with their statistics for months.
“Being a medical professional in a corona ward has not only not changed my point of view,” he concluded, “it’s actually strengthened my point that there is some form of hypocrisy in place.”
Indeed, hypocrisy regarding coronavirus guidelines certainly exists, apart from Mendy’s claims about the Health Ministry allegedly fudging the numbers. Many Israeli politicians across the board, who are supposed to serve as examples, were caught breaking guidelines set in place, according to Maariv, The Jerusalem Post’s sister newspaper.
During Passover last year, Maariv reported, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin both spent their Seders with family members who did not reside in the same household as them. This was even after Netanyahu urged Israelis to observe the holiday with only their nuclear families – those who were already under the same roofs - in order to stop the spread of the virus. Netanyahu hosted his son, while Rivlin hosted his daughter. 
While Netanyahu’s inner circle claimed that Netanyahu’s son – who generally does not live in the same home as the prime minister – had been living in the compound for a month without seeing other people, Rivlin took to Twitter to apologize about violating the guidelines.
Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman also hosted his son for the Seder, while MK Nir Barkat and Minister Yoav Gallant hosted their daughters. None of their children were residing under the same roofs as their fathers at the time. Similar to Netanyahu, Barkat encouraged citizens to celebrate the holiday only with those who lived in the same household, yet proceeded to violate the guidelines himself.
During the third lockdown, in January, Lt.-Gen. Eran Kamin, the Israel Police head of coronavirus enforcement, violated lockdown restrictions in another incident of clear hypocrisy. Kamin was caught strolling in Tel Aviv’s Hayarkon Park with his wife and another friend, even though he is neither a Tel Aviv resident nor resident of a neighboring city. Officials said Kamin went for a walk from his office, which they claimed was located within the allowable distance for walking in the regulations at the time.
With politicians in Israel and across the globe violating the very guidelines they set in place, it’s no wonder everyday people have become increasingly fed up and rebelled with their own celebrations. While Melissa and Mendy haven’t attended large parties themselves, other Israelis definitely have.
LISA, A 41-year-old professional from Tel Aviv, has attended a couple of parties during the pandemic: a New Year’s party on a public rooftop, and an “underground speakeasy party” at a bar that gained popularity through word of mouth.
“The entrance to the speakeasy bar was weird and inconspicuous,” she said. “You don’t know where you’re going at first, then suddenly you’re underground in a real bar with real drinks. Obviously limited, but real drinks, like, ‘Oh my god! Beer on tap!’ It was small, because the nature of these things have to be small to make sure you’re not busted. Some people turned off their phones because they didn’t want to reveal their location.”
To score an invite to the underground party, which Lisa said was essentially a sorority pledge, she was sworn to secrecy. She appears to have a more relaxed approach about the pandemic. 
“For me, the idea of not living a life is scarier than catching corona. My philosophy is not being scared of life. The idea of looking back and being like ‘Oh my god, I did not live my life for an entire year’ – and now going into a year and a half – is such a tragedy. We’re not here on this planet for very long, and the odds are that you’re going to be fine [if you get infected with coronavirus]. As a salary-earning individual who is paying good taxes, I think I need to continue to be out there in the workforce, in my life, contributing in that way to society.”
She also stressed that when she is in the vicinity of at-risk populations, she always wears a mask and socially distances.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I actually got the second dose of the vaccine today,” clarified Lisa. “A lot of people associate the two [partying and rejecting the vaccine] together. I’m like ‘No, I believe in science.’ I don’t want to get sick, but I don’t want to not live either. Live your life, you do you!”
Unlike Lisa, 22-year-old Benjamin from Tiberias has taken to the great outdoors, hosting plenty of mesibot teva (“nature parties”) that he claims are meant to represent a political statement as well as a haven for people who are looking to connect and let go simultaneously. The parties he hosts take place in isolated locations with 20-40 people. He doesn’t believe gatherings of that size are significantly impacting the morbidity rate. He has had a couple of run-ins with the police as a result of hosting and attending the parties, but they either let the partiers leave after telling them to go home, or the partiers managed to escape.
“I see thousands of people all hustling and bustling and getting very close to each other in the [Mahaneh Yehuda] shuk. If they can do that, why can’t we do this?” Benjamin asked indignantly.
“It’s funny how the government deems some workers essential and others non-essential. Is music not essential? Is the mental health of the artists and the people not essential?”
Benjamin continued to stress the importance of mental health amid the pandemic: “What I do believe is that these events are having a huge positive impact on people’s mental health. The people who come to these types of events are the people who need live music events to live, the type of people that will hike up a mountain, through rain and mud, in the middle of nowhere during a super-lockdown just for a few hours of dancing and letting go. Many of them struggle with a range of severe mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts or behaviors. For many, these events are the only place where they can feel at ease from the chaos that is their everyday lives.”
CONTRARY TO the sentiment of other interviewees, 28-year-old Rachel from Tel Aviv felt ashamed about her participation in parties during the pandemic. She attended three major events in south Tel Aviv: two baby showers and one wedding. While the first baby shower included about 30 guests, the second baby shower attracted at least 100 people, while the wedding hosted a whopping 120 people during a lockdown. Rachel said the events were able to take place because the police generally turn a blind eye to south Tel Aviv, unlike their attitude toward north and central Tel Aviv.
“I went begrudgingly to all of them, and I’m kind of embarrassed that I went,” she admitted. “My friends would judge me terribly for it. The way I rationalized it was that my partner was going to go anyway, and we live together, so either way it makes no difference.”
Apparently, the people invited to the wedding tried everything they could to convince the couple not to get married during the pandemic or a lockdown, but they were determined to get married immediately. Rachel still attempted to make the wedding corona-safe by handing out hand sanitizer at the door and ensuring the guests were wearing masks.
“It ended up being a very awkward event, not as happy and joyous as they had hoped. To be quite honest, I think they deserved to have an awkward event,” Rachel said.
“So many people didn’t show up, and those who did weren’t really jumping and dancing together. There were people coming and going, and you had to be careful at the door because of the fear of police. Not the kind of vibe someone wants for a wedding.”
During the 1918 influenza pandemic, run-of-the-mill folks were also prone to breaking the rules. reported that US cities placed bans on large gatherings and celebrations on Halloween. While many Americans adhered to the bans, there were some who reacted in the same way certain Israelis reacted to the curfew over Purim: They didn’t listen. Media outlets reported that major cities such as St. Louis, Missouri; Birmingham, Alabama; and Dallas, Texas were home to particularly boisterous festivities. History is known to repeat itself, and evidently, it’s simply human nature to break the rules.
It wasn’t long until the 1918 pandemic gave way to the Roaring Twenties, an era known for prosperity, glamour and indulgence. It seems that after being cooped up for two years, people had enough pent-up energy to last well into the next decade. Perhaps when the current pandemic ends, people throughout the world will unleash their vitality in anticipation of the next chapter of humanity.
The introduction of COVID-19 vaccines is widely hoped to represent the beginning of the end of the pandemic. However, given the number of recently discovered variants, the virus remains a nightmare from which we have yet to awaken. Nonetheless, people have begun to look for the light at the end of the tunnel.
Mendy, Rachel and Lisa are very eager to see their families who live overseas and whom they have not seen in a long time. Melissa is yearning for concerts and live music, while Benjamin is excited about the prospect of massive music festivals and world travel. Lisa also itches to travel again.
Israel and the rest of the world long to soon return to happier times in which travel itineraries, weddings, baby showers, music festivals, concerts, weekend retreats, and nights out on the town with friends are encouraged rather than scorned.
Until then, these revelers intend to live for today and immerse themselves in the here and now, come what may. 