Forget about Uman, we have the coronavirus to fight

Flying to Uman is not a basic right in a democracy, just like holding weddings with hundreds of people is not.

When will they start fighting COVID-19 instead of one another? (photo credit: ARIEL SCHALIT/POOL VIA REUTERS)
When will they start fighting COVID-19 instead of one another?
In the summer of 1996, my high school class flew to Poland. It was one of the standard Holocaust educational tours, with visits to the different ghettos, former synagogues, and Nazi concentration camps. I also had the opportunity to break away from the group on two different occasions and visit my grandparents’ former homes in the cities of Lodz and Sosnowiec.
After a week in Poland, our principal decided to take us to Ukraine. The idea was for us to end the emotional tour of Poland with a three-day visit to an eastern European country that was then seeing something of a Jewish resurgence. So we crossed the border by train, and first stopped in Lviv. From there we were supposed to take a bus to Kiev, but some of my classmates lobbied the principal to take us to Uman, a city that I had never heard of.
I asked my friend what was there. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, he said. It was a name I knew from reading a book about Hassidic masters, but nothing more than that. Truthfully, our principal wasn’t too keen about the idea – the drive from Lviv to Uman was about eight hours, and we still had to make it to Kiev for a day of touring and the flight back home. In the end we held a vote. Rebbe Nachman won.
The next morning we boarded the buses early, and eight hours later pulled into Uman, which in 1996 looked nothing like it does today. There were no Neeman bakeries or shopping malls in Hebrew. There also weren’t tens of thousands of people traveling there every Rosh Hashana. There was just Rebbe Nachman’s gravesite and the small adjacent structure.
I learned a lot that half-day in Uman. First is that graves are not my thing – I prefer to spend my time among the living. It’s not that I don’t understand those who flock there, why people might feel something mystical traveling to an old eastern European town to the gravesite of a Hassidic master who, according to Jewish lore, promised that if you pray and give charity at his gravesite, he will ensure you a place in heaven.
Who wouldn’t want to hedge their bets?
On the other hand, I can’t understand how, with the coronavirus raging in Israel – on Wednesday and Thursday, some 4,000 people were found to be infected – thousands of Israelis want to board planes and fly to a small town in Ukraine where the healthcare is not exactly world class, and visitors risk becoming infected and infecting others. There is little chance this can end well.
The proponents of flights to Uman use the weekly protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem as a reason for why they should be able to fly to Rebbe Nachman’s grave. If 10,000 people can gather in Jerusalem every Saturday night, why can’t they fly to Uman?
The answer is that one is completely different than the other. In a democracy, the right to protest is a basic and fundamental right, just like freedom of speech. Protesting at home – like people can pray at home or in smaller numbers – is like not protesting at all. Limiting protests to smaller numbers like prayer services does not meet the standard of what a public protest is meant to be.
It is public by definition, and if there is no public it is not a protest.
For these reasons, the Knesset – including its haredi members – understood from the beginning of the corona crisis that they could not put limits on public protests. While it might be a health hazard, that is the price we pay for living in a democracy, and it is a price we should be happy to pay, since the alternative – a totalitarian regime that forgets that the people are the true sovereign power – would be far worse.
This is not to say that prayer is not important. For many people it is. What this means is that, in a democracy, to ensure governmental accountability and transparency you need to preserve the right to protest. Otherwise, that democracy might stop being a democracy.
THAT IS why the decision about Uman should be simple. Flying to Uman is not a basic right in a democracy, just like holding weddings with hundreds of people is not.
More specifically, travel to Ukraine is currently unsafe, and letting thousands of people gather there in one place without restrictions is a clear health hazard that almost everyone in the health system knows needs to be banned.
But in Israel, as in Israel, why would anything be so simple?
While coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu has said he will do everything possible to stop the Uman pilgrimage, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been openly working against him. Netanyahu met earlier this week with haredi politicians and members of the Breslov Hassidic movement to try and find a solution.
Moreover, when haredi politicians like Housing Minister Ya'acov Litzman called for Gamzu to be fired, Netanyahu remained silent, speaking publicly in support of Gamzu only three days later and only after members of his own party started to criticize the man the government has appointed to help manage the crisis.
While the support was better late than never, what is happening to Gamzu is a classic symptom of a country that is run more by politics than a desire to save lives.
His authority is vague, his responsibilities remain unclear, and he encounters “illogical decisions” every step of the way, as he told The Jerusalem Post’s Maayan Hoffman this week. The government, he explained clearly, is motivated by political considerations.
This has been the case for months. Uman is only one example. Here is another: when Israel initially shut down its skies and banned flights, it would have made sense then to begin planning how the country will one day reopen its skies, right? Instead, that is not what happened.
It took till August for the government to publish a tender asking companies for proposals to establish a testing station at Ben-Gurion Airport. The envelopes with the proposals will only be opened on August 31, and a decision will hopefully be made by the next day. It will then take a few weeks to draft the contract, and then about two months for the testing station to open.
Tenders? Envelopes? 45 days? If lives were not on the line, this situation could be mistaken for a joke. Sadly though, it isn’t. According to current trends, not only does Israel have one of the highest infection rates in the world, but the death toll is climbing as is the number of serious cases.
FOR NOW, hospitals are able to manage the numbers, but when winter hits and the hospitals start to overflow with cases of COVID-19 and regular flu, we could have a disaster on our hands.
For this reason, the sooner the coronavirus cases go down, the better. But with nothing else working and the number of infections hovering at around 2,000 a day (remember when the government wanted there to be only 400 infections before the school year begins on Tuesday?), a lockdown is back on the table as the only real effective tool Israel has left to stop the virus from spreading.
For now, the strategy is simple: try to stretch until Rosh Hashana to minimize the harm to economy, and then shut down one way or another until after Sukkot in mid-October. Anyhow, the thinking goes, kids are home from school during this time, and many people take off from work. The damage to the economy can be slightly mitigated.
To get Israelis to buy in to this situation, they need to know that the government is doing its part – working together united behind the coronavirus czar, and putting in place all of the necessary tools and capabilities that will be needed the moment we emerge from another lockdown, so that the newly reduced numbers can stay down. This means continuing the high rate of testing that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein initiated a few months ago, but also establishing the needed contract tracing capabilities, something Israel still sorely lacks.
If this doesn’t happen, then the next lockdown will end no different than the first one. Israel will get the numbers down, it will emerge from the closure, reopen the economy to its full capacity – and then the numbers will skyrocket. For them not to, the government needs to make sure it has what it needs the day the lockdown ends. Otherwise, it’ll simply be a waste of time.
In addition to letting Gamzu work and creating the necessary post-lockdown tools, there is one more thing this government needs to do: start working together as opposed to working against one another.
Thankfully, for now, the threat of a new election has been postponed by 120 days. While very few politicians expect the government to stay intact beyond the next budget deadline in just four months, the challenges Israel faces cannot be underplayed.
Wednesday had it all – a new high in coronavirus infections, attacks from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, IDF retaliatory strikes, and then a deadly stabbing attack in Petah Tikva. If our leaders needed a wake-up call, Wednesday should have done the job.
The problem is that Gantz and Netanyahu’s interests do not currently align. While Gantz was able to prevent Netanyahu from bringing down the government this week, he wants quiet and calm for as long as possible: either until the court pushes Netanyahu out of office, or until November 2021, when Gantz is supposed to rotate into the Prime Minister’s Office.
Netanyahu, on the other hand, wants constant chaos. He will need to keep things tense and on edge so that when he decides to bring down the government and head to the next election, it will not come as a surprise. Everyone will expect it.
Are these the best circumstances for a government to be in to fight a pandemic? Of course not. But this is what we have. It’s time to start working.