Israel's pitiful politics amid the coronavirus pandemic

Why should Deri do anything different than what he sees happening in Netanyahu’s consecutive governments since the virus reached Israel?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shas chairman Aryeh Deri.
 Ahead of the 2015 election, the Shas Party decided to produce a song. The idea was to highlight party chairman Aryeh Deri’s close relationship with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the party’s spiritual leader who had passed away two years earlier.
The problem was that when Deri came to the studio to sing alongside famous Sephardi singer Benny Elbaz, the tears weren’t coming.
Not good. This was going to be the first election since Ovadia’s death, Deri needed his party’s supporters to vote in big numbers, and the campaign was counting on Rav Ovadia to help out even from the grave. But for that, Deri had to get emotional.
So, what to do? The old Hollywood trick: someone brought Deri an onion, which he then used to rub along his eyes. Magic. The tears started to flow.
What happened in 2015 is worth remembering this week, after we saw Deri ahead of Yom Kippur push Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow synagogues to remain open for prayer services. What followed was obvious to begin with: people, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, violated the restrictions and packed the synagogues. The pictures that went viral showing hundreds of Hassidim without masks congregating after the fast in yeshivas and on street corners in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem were just some examples.
And while the Yom Kippur spike has yet to be felt in the infection rate, health officials are confident it is coming. Already on Thursday morning, the Health Ministry reported nearly 9,000 new infections, showing that the increased lockdown that started a week ago is not only not helping; Israel is going backwards.
In the haredi sector, the infection rate is out of control. According to the Health Ministry, haredim make up a third of all Israelis who are currently sick with corona, far greater than their current proportion of the population – 10%-12% of Israeli society. About 30% of haredim tested come back positive, while in the general population the number is closer to 8%.
IS DERI crying as a result of all of this? Sadly, not with an onion nor without one, and the reason is simple: for the head of the Shas Party, lobbying the government to keep synagogues open even when Rav Ovadia’s own son – Rabbi David Yosef – called for them to be closed is all about politics. He’s playing to his political base; and giving them what they want, even if it means putting their lives in danger, is what you do. Why? Why not is the better question.
Why should Deri do anything different than what he sees happening in Netanyahu’s consecutive governments since the virus reached Israel? From the beginning in March, Israel was plagued by political infighting that took priority over fighting the virus. One week the virus was used to convince Blue and White to enter a coalition, and the next it was used to explain why the coalition agreement they had just signed was no longer relevant. It wasn’t about the virus. It was about politics.
Take the protests as an example. Based on the time, resources and manpower the government has invested in trying to stop the protests, it would only be natural to conclude that these demonstrations are the greatest source of infections in Israel. And while it is hard to believe that 10,000 people gathering together – even if they are outside and wearing masks – do not spread the virus, the fact is that there is no scientific data to prove otherwise. The Health Ministry openly says that it does not know of the disease being contracted at the protests.
Of course, that is not accepted by the Likud. They have an answer for every inconvenient truth. If there are no infections at protests, Netanyahu’s party members will say it is because protesters shut off their phones or don’t bring them at all so they can’t be tracked. I’m sure some do, but it’s also clear that huge numbers don’t. All you have to do is look at Google analytics that shows a bump in Maps use every Saturday night on the corner of Balfour Street, or at the steady stream of photos coming from random protesters on social media.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about synagogues. In March, for example, when we celebrated Purim, a quarter of infections occurred in synagogues. The reason is simple: when large groups gather indoors, there is a far greater chance of contracting COVID-19. When they gather outside, the risk dramatically decreases. If you listen to the government though, the protests are far more dangerous.
Even if they are not, there is a logic to cut back on the protests at a time when the country is in lockdown. Despite the blow to Israel’s democratic character, this is something the country can tolerate when we are in the midst of breaking world records in infection and mortality rates per capita.
But we shouldn’t pretend that this is all so simple. Vigilance is needed to ensure that the restrictions don’t spread to other democratic rights. In a country that puts politics before a pandemic, what happened with the demonstrations is being done for one reason and one reason only: Netanyahu wants to stop the protests and limit them as much as possible, since of course they are directed at him.
In other words, keeping synagogues open helps Netanyahu politically since it keeps Deri and UTJ leader Ya’acov Litzman happy in the coalition. Protests, on the other hand, do not help him politically.
And that is the whole story.
One minister who came out against this situation was Yoaz Hendel, communications minister and head of the Derech Eretz faction within Blue and White. Hendel called on Netanyahu to hand over responsibility of the haredi sector to someone who will not be motivated by political considerations as is the prime minister, who, unbelievably, bowed to political pressure and decided to allow synagogues to remain open even when health officials opposed.
Netanyahu then posted a video just before Yom Kippur calling on people to avoid synagogues – even though he had moved to keep them open! In other words, he votes in the cabinet to open them, but then leaves the room and makes a video appealing to people not to go.
“We have a responsibility to save lives,” Hendel said this week, “not to play politics.”
He is right. Unfortunately, for people like Deri and Netanyahu, political considerations continue to come first. Only when that changes will the tide finally turn in Israel’s war against the virus.
About three weeks ago, a man in Mitzpe Ramon was arrested for allegedly attempting to murder his wife.
The woman, Shira Moshe, was stabbed multiple times and beaten with a kitchen rolling pin, leaving her in serious condition. A picture circulated by her family showed her intubated, on a ventilator and sedated.
Her husband Aviad Moshe, the alleged attacker, was apprehended, but the Beersheba Magistrates Court where he was arraigned surprisingly accepted his request to ban the publication of his name. It wasn’t the first time the police had been alerted over domestic violence at their home. This time though, Shira almost died.
Nevertheless, the court granted the husband’s request. His argument was that publicizing his name would distress his elderly parents. In other words, while Shira was lying in a hospital bed fighting for her life, her husband could hide behind his anonymity. Thankfully, after a public uproar, an appeal was filed to the District Court, which overturned the earlier decision.
This week there was another shocking court decision, this time in Petah Tikva, where the court sentenced a teacher who sexually assaulted an eight-year-old female student repeatedly to just nine months of community service. This was his punishment after he took her into a side room in school and among other revolting things, pulled down his pants and forced the young girl to touch him.
What in God’s name is going on in our justice system? Why are judges handing down rulings that seem disconnected from reality? How does a husband get to allegedly beat his wife to a pulp and have his reputation protected by a judge? How does a teacher sexually assault his eight-year-old student and receive a “get-out-of-jail free” card?
It’s not just the courts. Also missing are the police. Take the case of Diana Abu Qatifan, an 18-year-old Israeli-Arab from Lod. Abu Qatifan fled Lod with her fiancée last year because her family was threatening her life in an effort to stop the wedding. Police convinced her to return to the city, and then mediated an agreement with some of her family members that were supposed to protect her. Two weeks later she was shot in the head, one day before her wedding.
SOMETHING BAD is happening in the Israeli justice system when it comes to domestic violence, sexual assault, and the murder of women in the Arab sector. Last year I wrote about the lack of police enforcement in the Arab sector, which is plagued annually by over 70 murders – 60% of the murders in the country. So far in 2020, 63 Israeli-Arabs have been murdered, 12 of them women.
According to Sharon Keisar, a former judge who now serves as executive director of the Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center, one out of five women in Israel is raped; one out of three women is sexually assaulted; and one out of six kids – boys and girls – is assaulted as well.
Pause for a moment and take in those numbers. Six percent, Keisar said, file police complaints, and out of those only 15% end in an indictment.
Keisar wasn’t surprised by the recent court decisions. “Everything connected to punishment and enforcement of sexual assault and violence against women is simply not enough,” she said. “It is not a national priority.”
One of the ways to check if that is true is whether the rape center receives funding from the state or the municipality. Unfortunately, Keisar pointed out, it currently doesn’t. “We used to get something from the Welfare Ministry and a smaller amount from the city, but now with the coronavirus and no state budget, we are not receiving any help,” she said.
To get a sense of what is happening in the Arab sector, I spoke to Ola Najami, co-director of the Safe Communities Initiative at the nonprofit Abraham Initiatives. According to Najami, while there are 13 shelters for abused women across Israel, only one is for Israeli-Arab women, and that one is locked, meaning that the women cannot leave.
“Action to stop domestic violence in Israel – against Jews and Arabs – is missing in the state system,” said Najami, adding that close to 40 Arab women have been killed in the last three years, some involving cases where it was obvious what was going to happen.
For the situation to change, both Najami and Keisar agree, there needs to be not only more enforcement and protection, but also a clear directive regarding minimum punishments in cases like sexual assault or domestic violence.
Keisar’s rape center does hold seminars to train policemen and judges about the special nuances of sexual assault, but not always are they successful in moving the needle.
This has got to change. Women like Shira Moshe and Diana Abu Qatifan need to know that they have a place to turn if they feel threatened, and that if a crime is committed, the state’s justice system will do everything – literally – to protect them. Right now, that’s not happening.