Israelis across the political spectrum were outraged at the news that Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman allegedly violated the rules his office had imposed on the public to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay. The story of his having prayed at a packed synagogue – a practice that the government banned as part of its battle against the spread of COVID-19 – emerged last week when he and his wife were diagnosed with the contagious virus.
A petition calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire Litzman – and certainly reject his receiving the health portfolio in the budding coalition – promptly began to circulate on social media.
If it is true that Litzman defied the very regulations that the rest of the country is forced to obey, he should resign, not stubbornly demand to retain his post in the next government. Apparently, however, even falling ill and compelling many of his high-profile colleagues to spend two weeks in quarantine were not sufficient cause for remorse or introspection.
On the other hand, the media’s relentless ridicule of the Gerrer Hassid with his trademark fur shtreimel, Yiddish lilt and tendency to mumble may have contributed to his doubling down and putting up his dukes. It’s understandable for someone who witnesses his peers in the Knesset and underlings on the street tweaking – if not outright flouting – the corona rules.
This is no excuse, of course. As head of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael Party in the United Torah Judaism alliance, Litzman must be versed in the concept of “marit ayin.” According to this principle of Halacha (Jewish law), if an action gives the appearance of a violation of Jewish law, it is forbidden, even when it’s actually kosher.
Whether or not Litzman technically committed the transgression of which he is being accused – the one that sadly led to his and his spouse’s unfortunate infection – his behavior sure doesn’t look good. By his own religious and ethical standards, then, this in itself is a big non-no. He is Israel’s highest health official, after all, which is why most Israelis are so livid about the prospect of his continued tenure.
TO BE FAIR, Litzman is by no means the only prominent figure who seems oblivious to the message he has been conveying. Take all the medical and epidemiology experts who repeatedly explain the impetus behind the two-meter social-distance rule, for instance. You don’t need a tape measure to see that very few of them sit six feet apart from their fellow TV panelists while preaching to a country of unwitting couch potatoes living in a prolonged state of anxiety-ridden limbo.
The same goes for the anti-Litzman crowd – those black-flag wavers on the Left who enjoyed literal and figurative field days outdoors last month to demonstrate against Netanyahu and call on Blue and White leader Benny Gantz not to join a unity government with the PM. Even someone with a severe spatial-perception problem could see that the angry protesters were closer together than the legal limit.
Ditto for the police officers and IDF soldiers working tirelessly to enforce the emergency corona measures and assist in delivering care packages to the needy and elderly in home isolation. The highway cops stopping cars and handing out tickets to drivers and passengers violating the prohibition to travel for reasons other than work and doctors’ appointments also seem to have been congregating too cozily while performing their thankless job.
Then there are the less visible members of society who complain about the laxity of the citizenry. These include the self-anointed holier-than-thou set, who snap photos of the Western Wall Plaza in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Promenade or the Jaffa Port to express disdain on Facebook for all the miscreants milling around who should be at home in pajamas to prevent the spread of infection.
Some amateur photographers do the exact opposite, posting pictures of empty parks and beaches to illustrate the effects of the lockdown. In both cases, observers might be tempted to ask what the person behind the cellphone camera lens was doing in any of those forbidden public areas in the first place.
NOR DO MANY of my own friends notice the inconsistency of their views vs. activities. In the same breath, they criticize haredim for having broken the rules by attending funerals or communing at shops in Bnei Brak and mention in passing that they themselves meet their pals on stoops and benches – sometimes going as far as to schedule dates at the supermarket – to shoot the breeze and enjoy the sunny weather.
They also bemoan the way in which “inconsiderate gluttons” have been hoarding certain products – initially toilet paper and now eggs – while engaging in their own panic buying.
Typically, the practice of “do as I say, not as I do” is defined as hypocrisy. In the case of the coronavirus crisis, however, something more worthy of empathy is at play, which is both universal and particular.
Let’s begin with the latter.
The often-comic downside of the Jewish concept of communal responsibility – “All of Israel is responsible for one another” – is that it creates a culture of busybodies. Indeed, while looking out for our neighbors, we tend to stick our noses smack in their business. It is virtually impossible to separate the annoying aspect of this trait from its endearing counterpart.
Not surprisingly, nothing brings out each in full force like a shared trauma. A global pandemic certainly qualifies, especially since battling it requires herd behavior.
The trouble is that while providing us with a comforting sense that we’re all in this together, it also gives us an excuse to place blame on sheep we deem as delinquent.
Which brings us to the universal nature of the cognitive dissonance that is as rampant these days as corona particles. An anecdote directly related to these pages perfectly encapsulates the phenomenon.
When Bret Stephens arrived in Israel 18 years ago to take over the editorship of The Jerusalem Post, he asked me to review a memo that he was preparing to send to the staff, of which I was a returning member after a brief hiatus. Among a list of points in his beautifully crafted letter was a warning against self-indulgent prose that makes for poor writing.
One example he gave – directed at the op-ed section that he intended to expand – was the invoking of one’s children as a lazy way of replacing a well-constructed argument with sentimentality.
It was excellent advice coming from a great writer, and I told him so. I also bet him that nobody reading it would think it applied to his or her own articles.
I was right and with good reason. My colleagues and I did not fancy ourselves purveyors of “self-indulgent prose.” If we had, we would have chosen a different profession. Or left the building to go stick our heads in the nearest available oven.
About a year later, Stephens became a father for the first time. It didn’t take long before he wrote a column in which he recounted a sleepless night with his baby daughter cradled in his arms. It was inevitable. So was his utter ease at having breached the rule of thumb he had established for the rest of us. This was neither hypocritical nor the application of a double standard. It was simply an absence of self-awareness.
As a health hazard, Litzman’s similar lack of consciousness – like that of many politicians and members of the public – is in serious need of a quarantine. In the meantime, while holding their tongue temporarily to wish the ailing minister a painless recovery, the sanctimonious among us would do well to look in the mirror.