Israel's coronavirus response sets a dangerous precedent

The panic over the virus has insidiously impinged on not only the freedom of movement and assembly, but on our freedom to speak out.

Israeli border policemen wearing protective gear as a precaution against the coronavirus, guard at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS/RONEN ZEVULUN)
Israeli border policemen wearing protective gear as a precaution against the coronavirus, guard at an Israeli checkpoint in the West Bank on the outskirts of Jerusalem
“I don’t think I can make it,” an Israeli friend of mine said about her trip to Berlin even before all the travel restrictions. It wasn’t a leisure trip but a babysitting mission to help me – a single mom – with my 7-month-old. She explained that she was afraid that airplanes are incubators for viruses, and she couldn’t take a risk of either contracting the virus or being quarantined upon return.
“But you live in Israel!” I countered. “You risk terror attacks all the time and you don’t stop your life.”
She wouldn’t budge. Something about the novel coronavirus – or media hysteria about it – compelled her to postpone. She proved wrong my accusations of paranoia because days later, the Israeli government announced that all passengers from Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, and France would face a mandatory two-week quarantine on pain of fines or imprisonment. No reason was given for the selection of these specific countries, which had a relatively low number of cases.
I was bummed. I really could have used her help as well the help of the friends and family awaiting me in Israel. I, too, had to cancel an upcoming trip. Now, I’d have to find other solutions for help with my daughter while I worked – at a hefty financial price.
My anger, however, wasn’t personal, despite the temporary hardship this caused. I could manage. I’ll go to Israel another time.
My anger was towards a government that could willy-nilly, without adequately articulated rationale, order anyone arriving in Israel – eventually from anywhere – to enter quarantine. That’s not to say the rationale doesn’t exist, but we heard it in vague, broad strokes: “This is a difficult decision but it is essential to maintaining public health, which takes precedence over everything,” Prime Minister Netanyahu said.
For a man who prides himself on oratory skills, he could have done better. He could have utilized charts, like he deftly did at the United Nations when he argued against the Iran nuclear deal, including scientific information defending the isolation of tens of thousands of people. I heard more detailed rationale from social media comments than from Israeli government officials. For a government to take such a decision without rigorous argument strikes me as a broad overreach of power.
But Netanyahu didn’t need to provide rationale; enough hysteria was created to convince the public that their lives should be completely disrupted by government intervention for this unknown, which is believed to be an unserious illness for the normally healthy person. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Passover reunions were canceled; people and business stand to lose vast sums of money; families have to worry about taking care of their children in isolation.
I wouldn’t be so skeptical had Israeli leadership treated known threats with such extremism, particularly the constant rocket barrage into southern Israel, where border communities experience chronic trauma and safety threats – serious public health issues. Shutting off travel for a health virus, it seems, is much easier than purging the entire Palestinian territories from the far more deadly, evil virus: Jew hatred.
I fear that this is a test: not about how Israel reacts to a possible pandemic, but about how much Israelis (or citizens nationwide, for that matter) will submit to government decrees made for the sake of the “public good,” which can always be subjective unless vigorously proven and debated.
The Israeli government takes its citizens for granted because the people of Israel have become too trusting and forgiving of the Jewish government. How else could politicians get away with three elections in one year – another disruption to citizen’s lives? Constant elections delay government services, Israelis are mandated to take the day-off on Election Day, and, worst of all, voters have to suffer empty political slogans all over again.
Barely a few months ago, I experienced another type of quarantine encouraged by the Israeli government. I had to stay put (and the babysitter canceled), because Hamas decided it was time to engage in their hobby of lobbying rockets into the center of Israel. Schools were closed for the day; people were advised to stay at home if their offices didn’t have shelters.
And most Israelis just took it. They didn’t question that maybe it’s high time the government conquer the source of these disruptions: nasty, antisemitic terrorists. If Israel could basically close the country to the outside world to stem a few uncertain deaths by coronavirus, couldn’t it also impose a curfew on all of Gaza (or the like) to stem a few certain deaths by terror? But if Israel acts against other people, the entire world complains. If it acts against its own citizens, no one complains. It’s the Jewish-Zionist duty not to complain.
I have already been accused of being irresponsible for calling on a curb to government power in the commerce and day-to-day lives of citizens, even in the face of depressing coronavirus, but that’s because I put more trust in the people. People have access to the facts or the lack thereof. They can make decisions about the prudence of travel, for themselves and others, and take precautions. The most vulnerable would be advised to take the utmost precaution.
Let the free market dictate people’s actions because most people don’t want to get sick and die or cause others to die. Let the airlines and employees decide on the feasibility and safety of “business-as-usual.” Let passengers decide if their destination to a wedding, vacation, or business meeting is worth the risk to them, their loved ones or complete strangers.
As for the medical system, Israel has become a master at setting field hospitals in different countries in times of crisis. Let it use its massive expertise to set up a model of a coronavirus field hospital that can be duplicated everywhere in the world, especially in Italy. That would be truly heroic.
Israel has set a dangerous precedent in its handling of the virus by assuming too much, undefended control over the lives of citizens who will no doubt suffer great mental, financial, and even physical hardship from such punishable restrictions on their movement. Stress caused by unwanted and possibly unwarranted self-isolation can feasibly be just as unhealthy as the mysterious virus.
Israel seems to be enjoying public praise for essentially closing its borders, although people tell me privately that they think it’s an overreach. Say so, however, and you’ll be accused of killing the sickly and elderly. Maybe that’s the scariest part. The panic over the virus has insidiously impinged on not only the freedom of movement and assembly, but on our freedom to speak out.
The writer is an American-Israeli journalist and author based in Berlin.