If Israel's leadership was responsible it would look after everyone

These men are making a calculated decision that prefers a high infection rate, death, and economic ruin over the health and well-being of their followers and Israel at large.

HAREDIM BURN garbage and protest enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Mea She’arim earlier this week.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
HAREDIM BURN garbage and protest enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Mea She’arim earlier this week.
Last Friday night, my family celebrated Sukkot by eating alone in our Jerusalem sukkah.
On Saturday we ate lunch alone as well. My mother and her husband were home alone across town, and my in-laws were also alone.
On Yom Kippur, my neighbor and I helped organize an outdoor prayer service (I even had the chance to lead one of the services, and blow the Shofar at the end of the fast day). Like most Israelis, this is not how we usually spend our holidays (and definitely not with me leading a service).
Most Yom Kippurs, my wife, Chaya, and our children stay in the Old City, where they sit in services with my mother-in-law for a day of moving prayers at the yeshiva headed by my father-in-law.
On Sukkot, we hop between family and friends, we host in our spacious sukkah, and we enjoy the holiday in the great outdoors.
This year, of course, we could not do any of that. We stayed home. We prayed outdoors. We ate our meals alone. And we did so because that is what was required of us as citizens due to the continued spike in coronavirus across the country. We stayed away from people because that is what our government asked us to do, and we held back from inviting good friends who had just moved to Israel, because that was against regulations.
Like most Israelis, we do our best to adhere to those protocols. Sometimes we make mistakes, but we try hard to follow the rules because that is what people need to do when a pandemic is raging across the country. Is it fun? Obviously not. Is it the holiday we wished for? Of course not. But it is being responsible, in our view, that still stands for something.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of some of our elected politicians and senior government officials. They continue to look for ways to avoid the restrictions they themselves helped pass and impose on this nation of nine million people.
Israelis were told they could not travel more than 1,000 meters from their homes, but that didn’t apply to Likud Minister Gila Gamliel. She drove more than 150 km from her home on Yom Kippur eve so she could spend the fast day with her in-laws in Tiberias, where she prayed indoors and contracted COVID-19.
Barber shops and hairdressers were ordered closed because of the potential for infection, but that didn’t apply to Sara Netanyahu. She had a hairdresser come to the Prime Minister’s Residence so she could have her hair done.
Families were ordered to stay home and eat their holiday meals alone, but that didn’t apply to Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Nadav Argaman. He hosted his new wife’s married daughter, spouse and child for a holiday meal.
Some of the responses to these recent violations were ridiculous. Gamliel at first tried to avoid Health Ministry epidemiologists, and then allegedly tried to deceive them. Sara Netanyahu claimed that she needed her hair done for a pro-mask film she was participating in, but just to be safe, she asked the hairdresser not to talk while he worked on her hair. Argaman’s office went a step further, claiming that the Shin Bet does not comment on its director’s private life.
Argaman must think that the Israeli public is part of his spy agency, and that when he says something their role is just to salute, smile and obey his orders. But he would do a good favor for himself and the organization he leads by showing some humility, and recognizing a concept called accountability. What did he do instead? He initially hid. Only three days after the original revelation, did he issue an apology.
In the first wave of the virus in April, violations were committed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Yaakov Litzman, then health minister. Netanyahu and Rivlin hosted family members for the Passover Seder, and Litzman went to a communal prayer service.
All three came up with excuses: Litzman denied going to prayer services, even though the person who hosted the service said he was there; Netanyahu claimed that though his son lived in a separate apartment with his girlfriend, it was close by; and Rivlin, the only one who apologized, claimed that his family helps him over the weekend when his office staff is at home.
All we heard then were excuses, but at least the officials tried to explain their behavior. Nowadays, they don’t even bother.
If there was ever still some shame, that has been completely lost.
In addition to simply being insulting, what the conduct of these officials also shows is a deep disconnect from the people. Argaman is in charge of the Shabak’s tracking system – which is on loan to the Health Ministry as part of the (quite pathetic) effort to cut the infection chain – and he owed the public that he is now tracking an immediate explanation. He should have known better.
Gamliel is a government minister who specifically voted to impose draconian limitations on travel between cities. She should have known better than to violate something she helped pass.
And Sara Netanyahu, who holds no official government role, is certainly a symbol – if the person closest to the prime minister cannot abide by the directives, why should anyone else?
Sadly, as has previously been written here, this crisis is no longer just about health or the economy. This is a crisis of trust between a people and its elected officials, which has led to a complete breakdown in society. People who refuse to wear masks, who refuse to adhere to directions and just continue participating in large gatherings aren’t just endangering themselves, they are endangering others.
The old Talmudic saying of “Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh Bazeh” (all Jews are responsible for one another) seems no longer relevant in 2020 Israel.
As an example, some haredim live as if they are an autonomous group, as if what they do does not impact anyone else. They behave like they don’t care about their fellow Israelis, Jews and Arabs alike.
Until a few weeks ago, the same could have been said about Israeli-Arabs, but they learned the lesson, bringing down the infection rate in their communities by 50% in recent weeks.
The opposite is happening in haredi communities, where the numbers are out of control. Haredim today are about half of all the infected cases in Israel. Not only is this reckless and irresponsible, it is a Hilul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, an historic idea that should still stand for something in the ultra-Orthodox community.
But it doesn’t. Instead, these haredim prefer to continue infecting others.
The problem is not new. Since the establishment of the state 72 years ago, many haredim have functioned as if they are above the law, a community for whom rules do not apply – not taxes, not military service and not employment.
They have been able to do this through political capital that they have created in the Knesset, extorting prime minister after prime minister to give them the budgets that they demand, on the terms that they demand, and with the exemptions that they demand.
The state is equally responsible for this situation. After having allowed the ultra-Orthodox to do what they want for so long, it is laughable to suddenly expect that they will adhere to coronavirus restrictions. For that to happen, the government must roll out a master strategic plan that will work on integrating the community into general society, make them feel part of the state. Only then will they feel responsible for others.
But there is another catalyst behind the haredi disobedience - the control manifested by some rabbinic leaders over their communities.
These men are making a calculated decision that prefers a high infection rate, death, and economic ruin over the health and well-being of their followers and Israel at large.
They do so because they are afraid.
They are afraid that they will lose control, will lose authority and influence.
They are afraid that if they agree to the regulations and accept the rules – closing down synagogues and yeshivas as examples – they will lose people to external desires and ambitions. If there is no yeshiva, a 17-year-old haredi boy might see opportunity lying outside the confines of Mea Shearim or Beitar Illit. He might be tempted to join the IDF, to get a job, to get a high school diploma.
These rabbinic leaders are no different than their representatives in the Knesset. Shas Chairman Aryeh Deri and UTJ Chairman Yaakov Litzman knew it was wrong to allow synagogues to remain open on Yom Kippur. But they were also afraid of losing control and power.
The same can be said regarding Netanyahu, who worries more about his political survival than defeating the virus; or regarding Benny Gantz, who prefers to sit on the sidelines praying that the rotation takes place next year, instead of standing up and taking responsibility in the government he said he joined for the express purpose of fighting COVID-19.
Only when these people – government officials, haredi rabbis and politicians – begin to put the people first will anything change. Until then, it might be time to put to rest the Talmudic dictum of “Kol Yisrael Areivim zeh Bazeh” and choose another one that is unfortunately more appropriate for Israel today: “Kol D’alim Gvar,” whomever is stronger prevails.