After more than a month in a virtual lockdown, Israel’s residents are getting restless.
The rise in the number of coronavirus infections and the resulting deaths have been somewhat mollified by the stringent crackdown imposed by the government on its citizens’ movements – but not to the extent that there’s yet a consensus on when and how the country is going to be able to get back on its feet.
Passover was already observed in isolation around the country, and one of the fears that health officials express is that if measures are eased before Independence Day next week, it will cause a huge setback in the fight against corona.
Still, with well over a million Israelis unemployed – and the well-intentioned, but insufficient aid relief measures enacted for workers, families and businesses not doing enough to ease the burden – Israelis are simmering in their homes.
In democratic societies, protests are a natural outlet for citizens to express themselves, unleash frustration and reduce the pressure building up. In our new coronavirus reality, those outlets have been severely, and justifiably, curtailed.
However, the peoples’ voices cannot be silenced, as exemplified by two very disparate public gatherings that took place Thursday night, which demonstrated the contrast between responsible and irresponsible behavior.
In Jerusalem, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox residents of Mea Shearim gathered in the streets to protest the lockdown imposed on them because they were either unable or unwilling to heed the directives that the rest of the country has been forced to follow – and has been the primary reason that haredim have been a high percentage of coronavirus victims.
The protesters not only ignored the regulations enforcing a two-meter distance between people outside, but they ended up clashing with police: throwing eggs, stones and metal bars at the very people who have been trying to protect their lives by enforcing the lockdown. According to the Post’s report, leading rabbis from Mea Shearim called upon the residents to take to the streets.
Some 60 kilometers away, in Tel Aviv, a different protest took place. A few thousand people gathered at Tel Aviv’s Habimah Square to protest against Blue and White joining a unity government with Likud and embattled Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The police sanctioned the protest, provided that the attendees observed the social distancing restrictions in effect, including the two-meter distance and the wearing of face masks.
A police statement said, "According to the emergency regulation and the Popular Health Order approved by the cabinet, protests are regarded as an essential right that should be reserved for every citizen, as long as all restrictions and instructions are obeyed."
The square was marked off with chalk-drawn circles directing people where to stand – and most, if not all of the attendees, followed the instructions at the protest. There were no clashes with police, no eggs or stones thrown, and public decorum was maintained.
There’s a separate debate to be had about whether the Tel Aviv demonstration should have taken place, since it contravened the regulations prohibiting the gathering of large crowds during this period, no matter whether they keep social distancing norms or not.
Nevertheless, there were no clashes in Tel Aviv with police and no eggs or stones were thrown. Public decorum was maintained.
This didn’t prevent Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s eldest son, from attacking the gathering on Twitter and shockingly expressing hope that the elderly people, who he claimed would resultantly die of COVID-19 due to the protest, would be leftists.
"I hope the elderly people who die following this protest will be from your bloc," Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, replying to a photo of the Tel Aviv protest posted by Meretz head MK Nitzan Horowitz.
Yair Netanyahu’s tweet was subsequently deleted and his father released a statement denouncing his son’s statement.
"In the battle against coronavirus, there are no political blocs, and there must not be," the statement said.
That’s the way it should be, obviously. Protests are a necessary requisite in any democracy – especially now as over a million Israelis remain unemployed, many to unfortunately remain that way until there is an economic rebound. People deserve freedom of speech. But it can’t be exercised with no regard for the consequences: for themselves and for others.