Olmert: Amid COVID-19, Israel in chaos and voices go unheard - opinion

Something basic in our culture and the way we live reveals restlessness, lack of self-confidence, lack of inner peace and anxiety.

Jerusalem's usually busy Old City is seen virtually empty during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Jerusalem's usually busy Old City is seen virtually empty during Israel's third coronavirus lockdown.
The best word to describe the atmosphere that is currently prevailing here in Israel is tumultuousness. For some reason, there is almost nowhere to go anywhere in the country where we don’t feel the hustle and bustle of life as we all go about our day.
People speak loudly and yell too much, and drivers in Israel honk their horns more than in any other place in the world. I’ve been stuck in really backed up traffic many times in Europe, the US and even in South America. In none of these places do people honk like drivers do here in Israel.
In cafés and restaurants (when they were still open), in stores and waiting on line to get a vaccination or for an appointment with the doctor, in line to get into a store where people are supposed to be maintaining a safe distance from each other so as not to infect each other with COVID-19 – there’s never a moment of quiet. There’s always some commotion going on, some kind of noise that indicates a person’s impatience, and a loud conversation between two people who are standing far apart from each other, or with someone on their cell phone. Sometimes they’re using a headset, other times they’re not. People don’t take into consideration that others are standing nearby who aren’t interested one bit in hearing their loud conversation with their family members, neighbors or co-workers. Everyone has to hear their entire conversation.
And yet, this commotion does not begin or end in public spaces. On the street, inside a store, or while waiting on line somewhere, we’re flooded with media options. There are countless radio stations, TV channels and Internet websites. Not a single one of them maintains a subdued tone. If you can shout, raise your voice, scold and pour out your heart – then why not?
In the discussions that are held on the various TV channels, people don’t make any effort to listen to each other, pay attention to what someone else is explaining, or show restraint when someone else is talking. Instead, they jump right in and attack the other person participating in the panel. And the hosts on these shows aren’t themselves any better. Have you ever seen a host who’s interviewing a public official, a novice MK, a senior minister, a mayor or any other random citizen, who lets the guest speak more than two sentences before attacking them?
Something basic in our culture and the way we live reveals restlessness, lack of self-confidence, lack of inner peace and anxiety.
The events that are taking place around us certainly contribute to the atmosphere of anxiety, which then lends to the tumultuousness that amplifies the noise. The COVID-19 epidemic – even the more restrained version of it – is a real threat to our health and to the health of our loved ones. Seeing the high rate of infection and large number of sick patients does not fill us with a feeling that everything is going to work out okay in the end.
IN FACT, the opposite is true. There is a growing gap between the expectation that everything will go back to normal and to the way things used to be and the worry that maybe this crazy life is actually the new standard.
We’ve reached this most impressive achievement of having the highest rate per capita in the world of citizens who’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine. Many Israelis have already received their second dose of the vaccine, and yet the lockdown is being expanded.
Our freedom of movement has been greatly limited and we are not currently allowed to lead a regular life. Israel’s skies have been closed and the airport is now sitting dormant. The experts are convinced that we are nearing new highs in the number per capita of people infected as a percentage of the number of people being tested. None of these numbers are going down yet – they are all still rising. The number of people getting vaccinated, the number of vaccines, the number of people being tested, as well as, unfortunately, the number of people who are dying from the virus.
And in the midst of all this hustle and bustle, the financial situation of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens is deteriorating. In no other country were more plans formulated to save and rehabilitate the economy, to improve the situation for so many people who’d lost their jobs. However, not one of these plans has been approved or implemented since the powers that be could not come to any agreement. The finance minister fights with his aides, the prime minister scolds his subordinates, the health minister disagrees with his own experts and our doctors are clashing with one another.
The noise and commotion are not letting up. Israel’s citizens are having a hard time understanding if the situation is actually that bad or if the country is doing quite well. But, if we’re doing so well, if we are really the world champions, then why do we need to have such a strict lockdown that is extreme compared with almost anywhere else around the world? Why aren’t our children going to school? Why are all the restaurants, cafés, theaters and cinemas closed and locked up? If our situation really is so fantastic, then why does it look so terrible? And most importantly, why does everything sound so awful?
And if, as many of us fear, the situation is not good, and not only are we not world champions, but perhaps we are at the bottom of the list and it doesn’t seem like the situation is going to get any better anytime soon. So, then why are things not presented to the public as they are? Why all the confusion, misunderstandings, disagreements, lack of discipline and random enforcement of the lockdown? Why is the secular community expected to sit at home and keep the strictest quarantine while the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) blackmail the prime minister and force him to obey their commands, even at the cost of mass contagion, riots and clashes with the police?
AND THIS commotion is loud, blaring and full of panic-stricken voices that make it sound like the situation is completely out of control.
And in the center of all this stands one man who doesn’t know how to speak - not growl or preach. What we have is a man who can’t open his mouth without creating a perception of dramatic disaster the likes of which did not take place since the Middle Ages. He is someone who provokes panic, who thwarts any chance of quiet discussion, and meticulous preparation and a chance of getting back to our regular lives, normalcy and sanity in Israel. The noise is insufferable. The commotion is unbearable.
There’s no simple solution. None of the people who are justifiably criticizing the prime minister have come up with a magic formula that can bring about a dramatic and quick change in the difficult situation in which we find ourselves.
In all this chaos, many people yearn to hear a voice that is calm, clear, confident, that’s full of humanity and compassion and also radiates power and strength. They crave a person who will not preach morality, will not punish, will not seduce and who will not pretend. A person who can simply talk to the Israeli public from a place of someone who has lived through hardships, but who is capable of creating an atmosphere of hope, opportunity and a better horizon.
I’ve been thinking about all of the whose voices we’ve been hearing, who have been running to every radio and TV station and news website, where they are trying to say something that no one really hears. I haven’t been able to identify even one voice that anyone really wants to listen to, that people whose situation is deteriorating day after day and who are falling into even deeper despair would want to hear.
I’ve been thinking about all these voices that aren’t being heard. I feel such a voice inside of me. This is the voice of Amos Oz. His voice was of someone who was not trying to gather political support, who wasn’t fighting to receive credit for anything, who wasn’t searching for appreciation from anyone and who didn’t doesn’t want any privileges. The voice of someone who spoke from the depths of a sense of solidarity, partnership and unity, that once connected all the people who live here in Israel.
But this voice is not being heard, because Amos Oz is no longer with us. Any of the people who could speak these words are no longer with us. Just when we needed to hear him the most and when his voice was so vital, Amos Oz left us. His clear, bright, humane, Zionist voice could have overcome all of the noise. We would listen to him if only he was still with us.
Instead, we’ve been left with all the noise.
The writer was the 12th prime minister of Israel.