Mass protests and large indoor minyans make no sense now - analysis

Both freedom to protest and freedom of worship are fundamental rights in a democracy. But on certain rare occasions the rights of individuals need to be curbed temporarily for the public good.

Demonstrators protest the government's mismanagement of the fight against COVID-19 and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of his Jerusalem residence, Aug. 29, 2020. (photo credit: MOSTAFA ALKHAROUF/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
Demonstrators protest the government's mismanagement of the fight against COVID-19 and demand the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in front of his Jerusalem residence, Aug. 29, 2020.
(photo credit: MOSTAFA ALKHAROUF/ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES)
With the number of new people infected with COVID-19 ranging between 2,500 on a good day to nearly 5,500 on a bad one, with the IDF setting up field hospitals because the regular hospitals are running out of room, and with the number of Israeli dead from the virus nearing 1,300, it is time for everyone to demonstrate common sense.
And common sense, as former Supreme Court justice Elyakim Rubinstein said in a KAN Radio interview on Tuesday, dictates that the organizers of weekly mass protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should either temporarily suspend them, or think of other ways to protest – demonstrate in small groups at road junctions, in cars, or on social media – until Israel flattens the coronavirus curve.
Nobody can accuse Rubinstein of not understanding the importance of the right to demonstrate in a democracy.
“The right to protest is important, and I obviously support it, but common sense says to preserve life,” he said. “Everyone understands that demonstrations are corona incubators. We see people crowded together – you don’t need figures from the Health Ministry. There is also the need to think about the health of the police.”
And it is not only Rubinstein. It is impossible to pretend that with the spreading infection rate there is no need to limit demonstrations, Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit was quoted as saying in Makor Rishon on Friday.
Likewise, nobody can say Mandelblit does not understand the importance of citizens’ right to protest.
But both of them added a caveat – Mandelblit directly, Rubinstein inferred: It is not the politicians or the government who should be curbing the demonstrations, since they are the targets of the protests and have an interest in seeing them restricted.
Rather, Mandelblit said, those who should draw up the guidelines to limit demonstrations are the police and professionals in the Health Ministry. Rubinstein called on the organizers themselves to take the initiative and realize that this is not the time.
“Be careful,” he said to the organizers. “Keep in mind the principle of preserving life.”
Everyone needs to demonstrate common sense, Rubinstein said, including those demonstrating every Saturday night on Balfour Street in Jerusalem against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as those who insist on praying in large groups in closed spaces.
Now is simply not the time – even with Yom Kippur just around the corner; even with a prime minister on trial for corruption.
Both freedom to protest and freedom of worship are fundamental rights in a democracy. But on certain rare occasions, the rights of individuals need to be curbed temporarily for the public good. And this is one of those times.
As Rubinstein said, there is no doubt that thousands of people demonstrating close to one another spreads the virus, even if the Health Ministry has not provided hard and fast figures about how many people have become infected at those events.
But that is not the only reason to curb the demonstrations. They have also led to a dangerous dose of “whataboutism” that has infected the country. Tell the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) it is necessary to close synagogues, and their reflexive response is, “What about the protests?” Tell restaurants they have to close their businesses, and they say, “What about the synagogues?” And around and around it goes.
And then there are the issues of what appears to the public as reasonable. It is difficult to call upon the entire country to make enormous sacrifices – economic, familial, religious and otherwise; then say there are major exceptions – demonstrations and large minyans for the High Holy Days.
This will lead, and has led, to restaurants setting up outdoor tables and calling their establishment a “synagogue,” or people holding parties and saying they are “demonstrating.”
The permission to hold protests creates a gaping hole in the lockdown that leads to the public making light of the lockdown itself. So, too, do complicated mathematical formulas that allow worshipers into synagogues if there are multiple entrances. Because how serious could the situation really be if the state is allowing these types of exceptions, which seem unreasonable if you seriously want to “flatten the curve?”
“We need to understand that we are in a crisis. This is war,” coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said Sunday. “This week there are 800 people in serious condition [in hospitals], and this demands that we all change behavior. All gatherings can lead to infections, and it doesn’t matter what kind of gatherings.
“People from one sector see that there are demonstrations and say to themselves that it is possible to have similar gatherings everywhere else in the country. When we take 1,000 people, there is a good chance there is one person infected by corona. We need now to unite around a single goal – reducing the incidence of infection. There will be opportunities to demonstrate afterward,” Gamzu said.
Or, as Rubinstein might say, just use common sense.