A nation adrift at sea? This week’s looted containers are a metaphor for what ails Israel

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Nine containers full of possessions belonging to other people fall off a boat, and others see it as an opportunity to pounce.

 AN AERIAL view shows people gathering near a shipping container that was washed up on the shore in Ashkelon, on Wednesday. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
AN AERIAL view shows people gathering near a shipping container that was washed up on the shore in Ashkelon, on Wednesday.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

If you are searching for that one image that captures much of what is wrong with Israel as the year 2022 comes to an end, consider the following.

Tuesday night, off the coast of Ashkelon, a number of men wade into the cold, stormy water, climb onto a container – one of nine – that fell off a ship, take an electric saw and metal bars and pry it open. The container contents are then washed up on the beach, and hundreds of people – Jews and Arabs, religious and secular – come to take what is not rightfully theirs.

Some come with plastic bags, some with tractors, and some with trucks. Among the loot: disposable plates and cups, blankets, rugs, industrial refrigerators and even restaurant counters. Within hours some of the booty is already for sale on social media.

Don’t take this wrong; there is much that is right as well with Israel as 2022 comes to an end: there is resilience, determination, acts of kindness, goodness and a sense of purpose. Despite the constant barrage of voices saying that the country is falling apart – voices that become especially loud during election campaigns and coalition negotiations that follow (and a good part of 2022 was under the shadow of those two events) – all is not bad. Not everything is sour.

But what took place off the coast of Ashkelon and on its beach on Tuesday and Wednesday illustrates what is wrong with the country.

An aerial view shows the Dead Sea shore the dead sea and its surroundings on October 18, 2020.  (credit: MENACHEM LEDERMAN/FLASH90)An aerial view shows the Dead Sea shore the dead sea and its surroundings on October 18, 2020. (credit: MENACHEM LEDERMAN/FLASH90)

Nine containers full of possessions belonging to other people fall off a boat, and others see it as an opportunity to pounce.

If the containers, wracked by ocean waves, opened by themselves and the contents spilled out onto the sea, an argument could be made that an act of nature washed all these articles onto the shore. But, according to eyewitnesses at the scene, that was not the case. The containers were forcefully opened.

Six of them were opened. Another three – which were rumored to contain mobile phones, tablets and Nike shoes – were not. As they later emerged, bobbing on the waves, people on boats raced toward them, apparently hoping to get their hands first on the loot. This time, however, the police intervened and towed the containers to shore.

The whole scene seemed a fitting end-of-year metaphor for the country’s political situation, at least the coalition negotiations.

A container falls into the sea and people pounce on it, force it open and take everything inside. They do so at night, in the stormy sea and at risk to life and limb. Why? Because they can.

For the last seven weeks the coalition parties pounced on a container – the ability to form a government – that, unlike the ones that fell into the sea, they obtained rightfully through democratic elections. They then opened that container and took – one by one – whatever they could.

The Religious Zionist Party took the Civil Administration and hundreds of millions of shekels for state religious schools and yeshivot, for hesder yeshivot and for girls in National Service. It also got a pledge of support for legislation giving businesses and institutions the right to refuse to provide goods or services if to do so would run contrary to their religious beliefs.

Otzma Yehudit took the Border Police, enhanced control of the police for its new national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and an additional NIS 45 billion over the next seven years for that ministry.

Shas got support for a law that would enable its party leader, Arye Deri, to be a minister despite his previous convictions; more than NIS 1 billion for food stamps to be provided for the needy; and a government-funded center celebrating and commemorating Shas founder and leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

And United Torah Judaism got the state’s budget for yeshivot doubled, as well as pledges to amend the Law of Return, rescind state recognition of non-Orthodox conversions performed inside Israel, and the cancellation of the Western Wall compromise that would create an egalitarian space at that site.

How did the coalition parties come away with so much?

How did the coalition parties come away with so much? Because they could. Because they won a parliamentary majority. Because the ball was in their court. Because by being able to deprive Benjamin Netanyahu of being able to form a government, they wielded tremendous leverage over him. So they took whatever they could, without – like those who opened the containers in the sea – considering the consequences to others.

Those who looted the ships’ containers cared not a whit about the losses that would be borne by the importers who brought in the various products, or about those who ordered them. That was not their concern.

Likewise, the parties pushing through all kinds of legislation in the coalition agreement to suit their narrow interests – at the expense, in some cases, of the interests of those not in the coalition – are also not considering the consequences. How does this impact the half of the country that did not vote for them? What taste does it leave in people’s mouths? What does this do to national solidarity?

Governments pushing through policies that adversely affect another part of the population because they have the parliamentary ability to do so, without considering the concerns of those opposing those policies, are not new in Israeli politics.

Yitzhak Rabin gave blunt voice to this way of thinking in 1993 when – facing massive demonstrations by residents of the Golan Heights and settlements in Judea and Samaria against the Oslo Accords – said they “could spin like propellers,” for all he cared.

Ehud Barak acted similarly in 2001, after the breakdown of the Camp David talks with Yasser Arafat and the beginning of the Second Intifada, when he okayed fast and furious negotiations in Taba with Arafat and the Palestinian Authority in an attempt to beat the clock and cut a deal before upcoming elections, even though he knew at least half the country was opposed to those talks.

A political culture has emerged in this land whereby those in power, either through a razor-slim majority or even with a relatively healthy one, feel they have the right to do whatever they want, and those who oppose can, well, “spin like propellers.”

THERE WAS something else on display in the container looting episode that also had parallels in the recent coalition-building negotiations: an utter lack of shame.

One man took to the airwaves on Wednesday morning and proudly talked about his participation in the container event, even giving his name. A fisherman, he went to the scene not to steal, he said, but to see others cart away the loot.

“So you went as an observer,” the interviewer joked, “there for an anthropological experience?”

The fisherman laughed and then justified the looting by saying “there are so many taxes in this country, there is the high cost of living, there are taxes on disposable items. Good for them. God sent us a container of disposable items.”

Likewise, all shame has been tossed overboard in the coalition negotiations. A man, Deri, who just a few months ago pleaded guilty to tax fraud, will in two years be in control, as finance minister, of the county’s taxes. In the meantime, he will be the head of not one, but two ministries.

A man, Ben-Gvir, who was convicted in 2007 of incitement to racism and support for a terrorist organization for having a sign saying “expel the Arab enemy” and a poster reading “Kahane was right,” will now be in charge of the police.

Another man, United Torah Judaism’s Yitzhak Goldknopf, who allegedly chopped up his home in Jerusalem into several different units without getting the necessary permission from the authorities, is to serve as construction minister. And still another UTJ MK, Meir Porush, who opposed the establishment of the committee looking into the 2021 tragedy at Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s grave in Meron, will be in charge of the Jerusalem and Tradition ministry with oversight of Meron, and will be responsible for implementing the committee’s findings.

And all this is to say nothing of another man, Netanyahu, on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, serving as prime minister.

But put Netanyahu to the side for a minute. An argument can be made that his case should never have been brought to trial, and that the way the prosecution is proceeding indicates he may eventually be acquitted of the more serious allegations.

That the others will serve in ministerial posts, some of them quite senior, is an indication of brazenness run wild.

Should we be surprised, then, that when containers fall off a ship, not only do people loot the containers and take what is not theirs, but then – without shame – they speak openly about it in the media?