An army of nine million to fight coronavirus

How can we deal with the tragedy that is taking shape before our eyes in the absence of an effective national leadership?

PEOPLE WALK through the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Wednesday. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
PEOPLE WALK through the Mahaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Wednesday.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Let’s begin with the main point: Our country’s leadership has ceased to be relevant in the war against the coronavirus. Now is not the time to analyze the reasons and assign blame. That would only divert our energy from the real battlefront.
It is also clear that there is a civic obligation of the highest order to comply with all the directives of our elected leaders. But success or failure in this war no longer depends on the leaders, but rather on you and me, and on every citizen of Israel.
It is highly likely that in the next two or three weeks more Israelis will succumb to COVID-19 than died in the four years of the Second Intifada (1,030), and that on Sukkot, the daily death toll will exceed the number slaughtered in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Israel’s history: the Passover Eve massacre at the Park Hotel in Netanya (30), after which the IDF launched an all-out assault on the terrorist infrastructure in Judea and Samaria. Already today we are grieving over a long list of those who have succumbed to the virus, twice as long as the roster of Israeli soldiers who gave their lives for us in the Six Day War (780).
We must face the facts: Among the readers of this column, there are many “walking dead” not yet identified as such. Yes, more parents will die than children, but that is of little consolation at best. Death from COVID-19 may not be as “photogenic” as a body in uniform or the blackened wreckage of a bombed-out bus, but that is of no significance to the many Israelis who will be mourning, sitting shiva this autumn.
How can we deal with the tragedy that is taking shape before our eyes in the absence of an effective national leadership?
Our war is not against an external enemy, but only against ourselves. The two defining traits of Israelis in normal times have morphed into a direct and immediate threat to human lives. The first, our freewheeling and argumentative spirit and tendency to push the envelope – which enabled us to emerge as a global hi-tech power and a hotbed of start-ups – are now fueling the cunning coronavirus.
In countries in which discipline comes natural to their citizens, such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, the population’s across-the-board compliance with the rules has saved lives, with no need for drastic lockdowns. In Israel, which holds the international trademark on chutzpah, the famous Israeli free spirit has led to catastrophe. At the end of the day, the coronavirus pandemic is a disease caused by the blatant flaunting of discipline, for which the penalty is death.
The second defining Israeli characteristic is our deep sense of community and the warm relationships among us. But what gives meaning to our lives in normal times has been denied to us by the pandemic. Flocking together with our community is lethal today, and the death rate is highest in the most community-centered sectors: the ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
The israeli discourse of blame directed against the failed leadership and against the “other” (the tribe we don’t belong to) does not help in this war. The only remedy, the essential remedy, is that each and every one of us accepts individual responsibility. Unlike the wars of the past, when our fate was in the hands of military commanders, this time success and failure are in the hands of each and every one of us.
We do not need to be heroic in the same way as soldiers are on the front line. What we need is simply dogged persistence, maintaining a two-meter distance between us and wearing a mask over our mouth and nose, always, and with no exceptions. This is our individual responsibility, our civic obligation, our religious duty, to stay two meters apart and never gather in crowds. So simple and yet so hard.
In the absence of any functioning leadership, and with the battlefront in every place and at every moment, the call-up notice must be addressed to all Israeli citizens, an army of nine million. We need to immediately put our creativity, not our politicians, to work and hammer home the message that we are caught up in a bloody war, and we must make an indelible mark on everyone’s conscience with regard to how we need to behave in order to win it.
We can take various measures to effect a rapid change in people’s mindsets.
First, advertising agencies and PR firms can launch carefully crafted and creative campaigns to help people internalize the link between their own behavior and other people’s deaths. Stickers such as “I pledge to maintain social distancing and always wear a mask,” should become a standard feature on every Israeli’s clothing, auto bumpers and balconies. This would result in the shaming of those who do not publicly commit to this pledge and thus put the public at risk.
Second, the media should publish the obituaries of COVID-19 victims on a daily basis. Instead of the obsessive attention focused on our disgraceful politics, the media should be unmasking the devastating price we are paying for the national fiasco; not as yellow journalism, not to defend the prime minister or to force him out of office, but rather to save lives.
From here on in, we must no longer focus on specific groups or sectors within the population. We must focus only on individuals. At the same time, the leaders of each group, in light of their powerful influence, bear a special responsibility.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders should follow the bold examples of Rabbi David Yosef and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, and exploit every possible opportunity to trumpet the obligation under Halacha, Jewish law: “Be most careful of your lives.” The civilian call-up notice must also be released by the High Follow-Up Committee of Israeli Arabs and by Muslim religious leaders. Let’s hear your voices loud and clear. This is your moment of truth.
Enough with the blaming. The time has come to accept responsibility. We must drill it into our minds: It doesn’t matter what the other person does; what’s critical is what I do. We can defeat the Angel of Death that is waltzing through our streets and homes, rescue the economy and restore national solidarity by means of one simple formula: two meters and a mask. Perhaps we should name the struggle “The Two-Meter War.”
The writer is a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University and a senior fellow of the Israel Democracy Institute.