Amid coronavirus, this year's Yom Kippur is another kind of war

Most of the country is focused on the current battle against the COVID-19 pandemic – or, rather, on the fever-pitch fighting within the government about how to curb the alarming rise in morbidity.

The Western Wall (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
The Western Wall
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
For the first time in decades, the Israeli press is not devoting the lead-up to the Day of Atonement with stories about and lessons learned from the 1973 Yom Kippur War. 
Instead, the bulk of the news and accompanying analysis is focused on the current battle against the COVID-19 pandemic – or, rather, on the fever-pitch fighting within the government about how to curb the alarming rise in morbidity and fatality rates.
Unlike other issues at the root of major rifts between politicians and the sectors that they supposedly represent, however, this one seems to have no clear camps. And, as Israelis are used to having actual enemies to confront – either with swords or pens – the debate over coronavirus closures has been causing great confusion. 
Indeed, though by this point there is wide consensus that the situation is dire, there has been little agreement, even among medical professionals, on how to reverse the worrisome trend. To make matters even more complicated, the same experts and lawmakers have shifted their positions. 
Much of the public responded to the flip-flops and arbitrary directives by ignoring them completely or by looking for loopholes. This triggered others to feel like patsies and follow suit.
Finally, after days of deliberations – following a semi-lockdown during the past week that was barely enforced – the coronavirus cabinet decided on a complete nationwide lockdown, to begin Friday and last at least until the end of the Jewish holidays in October.
A LOOK at how Israelis have been dealing with the pandemic for the past six months sheds light on why another total lockdown was deemed necessary.
Initially, a good portion of the populace was frightened of the illness that took the world by surprise. The sense of impending doom that spurred leaders everywhere to impose health restrictions and closures had a unifying effect. 
Stocking up on supplies to take into bomb shelters or – as in the case of the First Gulf War, into sealed rooms – is not only familiar to Israelis; it provides a comforting sense of control, albeit a false one. 
In addition, the Jewish state was enjoying an uncharacteristically shared experience with people around the globe. Suddenly, Israelis weren’t the only ones hoarding toilet paper and laughing about it. They just happened to be doing it in Hebrew.
The other thing Israel had going for it in March and April was an enviable record where coronavirus statistics were concerned. With a negligible death toll and a flattened curve attributed to a swift lockdown and a society well-versed in national emergencies, the Start-Up Nation was held up as a paragon, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reopened the economy in May.
Two things happened at that time. The country’s children returned to school, and – after three rounds of inconclusive Knesset elections – a coalition finally was forged between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Blue and White, headed by Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz.
Once back in the classroom, kids and teachers began to get infected with COVID-19. Though few serious cases emerged, the number of students and educators sent into quarantine was high. 
Dozens of institutions then were shut down again almost as soon as they resumed operating. Since this domino effect happened close to the end of the academic year, it was a tremendous nuisance for parents, but it was bearable nonetheless.
FAR LESS tolerable has been the utter dysfunction of the so-called “national-unity government,” which Gantz said he ultimately agreed to join in order to stave off a fourth round of elections and combat the pandemic. Well, he achieved the first part of his mission, but the second hasn’t worked out at all.
Despite the coronavirus cabinet, Knesset Coronavirus Committee and coronavirus project coordinator – or perhaps because of all three – the chaos has been as overwhelming as the spread of COVID-19 is exponential. Naturally, Netanyahu is accused by his detractors of being the prime culprit, despite his having managed the pandemic just fine during the period of his interim premiership. 
Coronavirus barely has crossed the minds of the mobs gathering every week near his residence in Jerusalem, however. On the contrary, their conduct has been antithetical to social distancing. 
That their protests have been outdoors is irrelevant, given the size and behavior of the crowds. The assertion that demonstrations are not a source of infection is now being questioned even by experts – such as Channel 12’s in-studio coronavirus pundit, former Health Ministry director-general Gabi Barbash – who previously held and promoted that view.
Meanwhile, many in the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community have been acting as though packing into yeshivot, synagogues and banquet halls – regardless of size and space restrictions – outweighs any health concerns. This is odd, considering that they have been hit hard by the virus.
The same applies to the Arab-Israelis, who continued to throw huge weddings and other celebrations, in spite of a high rate of infection. When asked about this, their representatives pointed to the haredim and the protesters. 
Their argument was socially and politically valid. What’s good for the goose should be good for the gander, after all. In this respect, any Israeli who violated the coronavirus rules for any reason was justified. 
BUT WHAT the countrywide cries of “no fair” indicated was a lack of trepidation over the virus itself. This is peculiar, considering the constant warnings on the part of doctors and nurses who have been treating COVID-19 patients and watching more and more of them die painful deaths.
It is especially puzzling that when there were far fewer such patients, Israelis scrubbed their hands like Lady Macbeth if they inadvertently touched a doorknob. Yet even then, the one sacred cow seen by all as inherently sanitary, and that nobody dared to muzzle, was the “right to demonstrate.” 
Early on, Netanyahu said that he of all people could not curtail the protests, because he was their target. At the time, nobody disputed this. Oh, except the demonstrators themselves, who never ceased shouting that he had “stolen Israeli democracy” – whatever that means. 
All of the above had an interesting consequence: Israelis grew weary of defending the demonstrations, which are more like wild block parties than political statements. Furthermore, if the government was temporarily infringing on other civil rights for health purposes, why should the protesters be exempt?  
THIS BRINGS us to the painful concession that has to be made by many Israelis this Yom Kippur, which begins on Sunday evening. The limitation on synagogue occupancy means that prayers will be conducted either in very small groups indoors, or outside in the oppressive heat. Imagine opting for the latter while fasting for 25 hours straight. 
The pushback is understandable, but only if those objecting to limits imposed on the way in which they mark the holiest day in Judaism deny the dangers of the virus. 
It is noteworthy, then, that two prominent rabbis came out on the side of “pikuah nefesh” – the principle in Jewish law according to which preserving human life overrides virtually any other ruling. Israel’s Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau said that he would support the shuttering of synagogues, including on Yom Kippur, if health officials determine it’s the “right thing to do.”
Rabbi David Yosef, the son of former Sephardi chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and a member of the Higher Rabbinical Council, went even further, declaring that all synagogues should be closed immediately due to the steep rise in coronavirus infection. Such a danger, he stressed, “is worse than Torah prohibitions.” 
It remains to be seen whether the new regulations will be heeded and enforced. That will depend on the extent to which the public is persuaded that its sacrifices won’t turn out to have been for naught. 
One thing is certain: Anyone who engages in genuine soul-searching and repentance on Yom Kippur will be better equipped to get through the next month without scrutinizing, blaming and comparing himself to others.