Does Naftali Bennett have COVID rage? - opinion

Cooped up, prevented from going about daily, routine life seems to cause people to react to minor stress factors irrationally, sometimes violently.

The almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2021.  (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
The almost empty Ben Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, on January 18, 2021.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Almost two years into this viral mess, we’ve all had multiple encounters with what will undoubtedly be an established clinical diagnosis in a few years: COVID rage.

Cooped up by government decrees, prevented from going about daily, routine life seems to cause people to react to minor stress factors irrationally, sometimes violently. Travel is prohibited and highly restricted, often with little, if any, advance notice. In spite of all the hyper-vigilance and government micro-management of  our lives, we seemed to have settled into a liveable status quo.

Until the afternoon of Friday,  November 26. Just before the onset of Shabbat, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett called a press conference to alert Israelis to the fact that things looked bleak. Very bleak.

Out of nowhere.

He was back at it on the following Saturday night, foreboding that Israel was on the “verge” of a “state of emergency.”

 A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) A SIGN at Ben-Gurion Airport directs passengers to the COVID-19 testing area. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

On the morning of Sunday, November 28, by all accounts, Bennett steamrolled his dissenting cabinet colleagues and rammed through a litany of extreme controls.

He urged Israelis not to travel abroad. He shut our borders to all “tourists,” including first-degree relatives of citizens. Done in one grand, dismissive swipe. Yet, not then, nor to this moment, has he shared with the nation any remotely credible scientific evidence justifying his over-the-top reaction.

Why Bennett lost his cool this time remains unclear. He shepherded Israel through a quite virulent Delta fourth wave and impressed the nation with his oft-repeated commitment to find a way through the COVID-19 minefield without resorting to extreme measures.

I dunno. Maybe he has advanced COVID rage.

Bennett and his new pal, UK PM Boris Johnson, were the first two world leaders to panic. Since then, much of the herd has followed along. And everywhere, it seems, the proverbial silent majorities are beyond taken aback and becoming emboldened to express their fury. This is not how things are supposed to go down in a liberal democracy.

TWO YEARS ago, we were all terrified and compliant. Even when law enforcement and public health officials overindulged their controlling tendencies, which were not infrequent, we obeyed.

We were told then, that health care resources had to be managed carefully to avoid an overwhelming demand and surge. Made sense.

Hang in, we were told, and once we reach a threshold of vaccination, things will become more manageable and routine. Also made sense.

So. Here we are. With very high vaccination rates. We have sorted out in the interim how to balance a reasonably normal life with doing our bit to manage contagion.

Suddenly, a new variant – Omicron – is detected. We now have approximately two months of data confirming that Omicron is highly transmissible and also that the resulting illness, if any, is light. Common cold light.

At the time of Bennett’s initial panic, South African medical professionals and public health officials had more than a month of clinical data. Again, it all supported the “mild cold” conclusion.

Why, then, did Bennett choose hysteria?

Even public health officials in Israel (and elsewhere), are saying that Omicron is no cause for extreme alarm. So, then, why?

“They just decide and think we are all stupid,” grimaced a middle-aged, Ra’anana-based purveyor of ceramic art in Tel Aviv’s Nahalat Binyamin Street art market recently.

“Half this country has a PhD,” she sneered, “and they think we will just go along.”

As if.

Bennett ought to pay attention. He’s lost the room.

THIS SEED of rebellion is neither unique nor should it be underestimated. Anecdotally, we are inundated with stories of passenger tantrums on airplanes, often related to mask enforcement; aggressive behavior in public environments stemming from increasingly widespread disregard for COVID protocols. People are angry and fed up with the contempt leadership seems to have for the population.

Schools, teachers, parents and students are likely now over the precipice, not on it. Speaking earlier this week with an experienced teacher working in an upper-middle-class-neighborhood school in central Israel, I was surprised by many of her observations. She was unflinching in declaring that this generation of schoolchildren has lost a year, at least. Even though they are back in the classroom now, teachers spend little time teaching curriculum, overwhelmed with managing quite basic social and interactive behaviors.

“After a year on Zoom and at home, they have forgotten how to work with rules, in a structured environment,” she said. “Teachers feel they have to be more indulgent to help them feel safe.”

This particular teacher works with 10- to 11-year-old students and notes that they worry. A lot. About killing their grandparents. About the state of contagion in the homes of their fellow students. “They have become very fearful,” she notes, and violent. Teachers find themselves dealing with significantly heightened aggressive behavior in the classroom and at recess. “They’ve forgotten how to share and compromise.”

Psychologists report a sharp increase in intake requests which exceed capacity. Domestic violence is up, significantly. Economic uncertainty is widespread; witness the demonstrations earlier this week by licensed tour guides and other workers in the decimated tourism industry who blocked access to Ben-Gurion Airport for several hours.

Reasonably full disclosure: Until now I have been a solid citizen, following government direction even when I think it’s ill-advised. I’m fully vaccinated. I mask in public. And I do not dignify conspiracy theories with serious consideration.

But now, I’m getting to the point where I’m beginning to question the good faith of what is becoming more chronic and extreme “Big Brother” kind of control.

IF THE Omicron variant is anywhere close to the threat level Bennett would have us believe, then it is inconceivable that the recent luxury beach holiday taken by his wife and children would be permitted legally. But it was.

As the PM pleaded with Israelis to cancel non-essential travel, as he banished family members – like my daughter in Canada – from joining us in Israel, his own family popped off on what was an obscene indulgence, considering the circumstances.

We have heard the PM’s colleagues attest to the “good heart” of his wife. I have no doubt. But that is not the point.

What I, and many others question, is the soundness of his judgment. Even Bennett, at the apex of the decision-making matrix, must justify decisions, particularly those with a profound impact on a range of individual and collective freedoms.

Since the March 2020 global panic alarm was set off, many countries have been controlled by a class of public health officials; bureaucrats who have limited accountability and, by nature and training, are extremely risk averse. Unequipped or unwilling to counter their advice, domestic leaders have either deferred or gone all “wild west” – à la Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Boris Johnson, in his previous iteration.

Bennett started off quite rationally but seems to have lost his way. His restrictions on mobility are contradictory, undermining his credibility. The latest directives were downright unprincipled.

IF I were writing a fictional but historically-based account of these last few weeks it would go something like this:

Besotted with his celebrity status at the recent Glasgow Climate summit, Bennett returned to Israel all pumped. Among his conquests was Boris Johnson, the quirky intellectual leader who is a staunch supporter of Israel. Word is that the two men bonded. Why, upon his return to Israel to endure marathon Knesset sessions to pass the budget, Bennett was seen reading Johnson’s biography of Churchill. Sweet.

On Thursday, November 25, Boris flipped out, warning the public of the gravest public health situation yet. Bennett phoned his pal within hours and asked: “Boris. What gives?”

And Boris filled Bennett’s head with extreme scenarios, none of which were supported by early data from South Africa, or anywhere. Now, Johnson does tend to erraticism and we have watched him mutate from COVID denier to high-alert fanatic.

Meanwhile, in the ensuing few weeks, there have been reports in the media of Johnson having hosted several mask-less Christmas soirées at his residence(s) last year, as he was finger-wagging his subjects to cloister with masks. No merriment for thee, just for me.

Today, because of that insolent leadership, Johnson is fighting for his political life.

The hypocrisy is rank, putrid and everywhere.

All politicians must never forget two rules: Do not underestimate the public and never take the voter for granted. Do not treat the electorate like fools.

Bennett imported Johnson’s hysteria, with a few tweaks here and there to accommodate, well, beauty pageants and exotic beach holidays. He has given the “thumbs up” to Birthright trips.

He sent an obsequious apologia to the Jewish Federation of North America machers (big shots), expressing his pain and empathy at this temporary glitch preventing us from welcoming our Diaspora family during this challenging period.

This same, tormented Bennett appears unruffled by the fury of his own citizens, sidelined and ignored. Just as he did with scientific evidence and the advice of Health Ministry experts: Sidelined and ignored.

BENNETT has walked to the precipice on this one, and over, without blinking. His office, as of the time of writing, has not deigned to respond to a series of carefully crafted questions I submitted on Sunday, providing an opportunity of several days to clarify several of my observations.

That, regrettably, is so telling, and not in a good way. I understand that they’re busy bees in the Prime Minister’s Office. But they choose when and how to respond. The message?

The issues you little people raise are unimportant.

Bennett seems to have become far too comfortable in a very short time with exercising war-like powers in a time of peace. He also seems to have forgotten that the electorate is not stupid, nor is it to be disrespected.

Maybe I, too, have undiagnosed COVID rage, but I’m pretty sure that this high-handed swaggering will not end well for Bennett. 

The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.