Protektzia at the airport: solidarity’s antithesis - Analysis

Protektzia has long been a fixture of Israeli life, but not a constructive fixture contributing to equality or fairness.

A face mask is seen on the bust of David Ben-Gurion at Ben-Gurion Airport. (photo credit: ANTON DELIN)
A face mask is seen on the bust of David Ben-Gurion at Ben-Gurion Airport.
(photo credit: ANTON DELIN)
Sometime between 1943 and 1945, before the establishment of the state, some students at the prestigious and very-difficult-to-get-into Kaduri Agricultural High School in the Lower Galilee penned the following song, about how to get into the school:
It’s easy! It’s simple! It’s really guaranteed.
Tests don’t help, nor buffing the chairs [by sitting and studying around the clock]

If you have protektzia – you’re safe!

If you don’t have protektzia – fly away!

Fly here! Fly there!

Because the main thing in life is protektzia!
Those lucky passengers currently flying into Israel on special flights could be excused for singing that song as they land, because – with an Exceptions Committee that is headed by Transportation Minister Miri Regev and about which very little else is known – apparently the most expedient way to arrange for a special pass to enter the country is through protektzia, a Hebrew-bastardized word meaning connections, preferential treatment, favoritism.
A Channel 12 report on Friday night showed flights coming into a ghost-like Ben-Gurion Airport – which has been closed since January 25 to stop the spread of COVID-19 variants – bringing predominantly haredi passengers, who spoke about how they secured special permission to enter the country through pulling strings, contacting aides of haredi politicians, and in some cases forging documents.
Protektzia, as the pre-state song from the Kaduri school indicates, has been an integral part of the Israeli landscape since before the state was established. Knowing somebody in the right place able to put in a good word has long been the reason why some people get cushy jobs – both in the army and civilian life – and others don’t; why some get faster access to an MRI test, while others have to wait for months; and why some can attain prized tickets to certain events while others will forever have to watch those same events from television at home.
Protektzia has long been a fixture of Israeli life but not a constructive fixture, contributing neither to equality nor to fairness. The lack of protektzia for new immigrants and for Israeli Arabs has long been viewed as an impediment to full acculturation – and oftentimes optimal advancement – in Israeli society.
One can argue that the political revolution of 1977 – when Mizrahim voted overwhelmingly for Menachem Begin and the Likud – was to some degree fueled by Mizrahi resentment that they were on the wrong end of the protektzia equation during the first three decades of the state, when the country was under Mapai rule.
During those years, the best public housing and the best jobs were handed out by Mapai party functionaries to cronies – and the Mizrahim to a large degree were left out in the cold.
Talk to people in the periphery to this day, in places like Dimona in the South or Shlomi in the North, and you will still hear resentment over that system, where if you did not have a red Histadrut card it would be difficult finding work or even gaining membership into a health fund.
Since then, however, the tables have turned, and now it is the Likud and its haredi party allies – having been in power for the better part of four decades – who are in position to distribute favors to cronies and bump supporters up to the head of the line.
And, if the Channel 12 report is to be believed, that is why some Israelis are allowed into the country while others – with heart-breaking stories of sick relatives abroad – are not getting the special dispensation.
Yesh Atid and Yisrael Beytenu have sent a letter to the attorney-general saying that those being let in are those who will surely vote in three weeks for a party that will make up a Netanyahu-led right-wing coalition. Even if this may be a stretch, there is no doubt that protektzia has a corrosive effect on society.
Protektzia ensures that the playing field will be forever uneven, and that those with connections will always have a leg up on everything – from job choices, to schools, to preferential treatment in the time of a global pandemic.
One of the keys to fighting the pandemic is solidarity – that everyone is in this together and looks out for one another, that we all have a sense of common purpose and shared destiny.
Protektzia, also known as “Vitamin P,” is the antithesis of solidarity. It works against solidarity. Protektzia does not advance the idea that everyone is in this together equally, but rather that some – by virtue of who they are or whom they know – are more equal than others.
When the government decided last month to close the airport, it invited trouble by setting up an Exceptions Committee headed by a politician, rather than a health official, to deal with individual cases. That unhealthy situation has been compounded by a complete lack of transparency into the process of attaining an exemption and being able to fly in or out of the country. It is not clear to the public who sits on the committee, how it works, or what are the guidelines governing why one person will be allowed in while another must remain abroad.
Moreover, that very lack of transparency fuels conspiracy theories, such as that this is all a way of letting right-wing voters back into the country in time for the election, while keeping out supporters of other parties.
Open up the discussions of the Exceptions Committee, let the public know who the members are and how the decisions are made, and some of those theories will not spread.
But the country’s disturbing lack of solidarity predated the decision to close the airport. In fact, it is one of the reasons why the country’s gates are closed to returning Israelis in the first place: because people returning could not be trusted to abide by the quarantine regulations after they landed.
Had more Israelis gone into self-inflicted quarantine when they returned to the country, and had more people actually gone to the corona hotels as required when they returned, then the airport could have remained open.
But too many people opted to break those regulations, displaying a lack of mutual responsibility and solidarity that runs counter to the image Israelis have of themselves and the country: that when push comes to shove, when people really need one another, they are always there for each other. Over the past year, the coronavirus has shown that, sadly, this is not necessarily the case.
The closure of the airport unraveled another ideal that was long viewed as an integral part of the national ethos: that Israel will go to great lengths to bring its nationals back home.
Think back to the start of the pandemic a year ago, when special flights were sent to the far-flung corners of the earth to retrieve Israeli backpackers and tourists unable to find a way home. This is Israel, we were told, and many took pride in a country that looks after its own, no matter what.
Now, however, it is a country that is forcing its own people to look after themselves around the world – even if they went there not on vacation or for an adventure, but rather to visit sick parents or for other humanitarian purposes.
 And how are those abroad looking after themselves? By pulling strings here, by using protektzia, by jumping to the head of the queue in a manner that pushes those without similar recourse further down the line.
It is time to open the airport and let our people in – while figuring out a way, through electronic bracelets or other types of effective monitoring, to ensure that returnees remain in quarantine for as long as the state determines, to ensure that they do not import any new kind of corona variant.
Keeping the airport closed will only cultivate and promote more ugly behavior, which will further erode the already badly frayed – but still desperately needed – national solidarity.