The ‘freier’ and the coronavirus

With the “revolt of the freiers,” the second wave of the COVID-19 virus in Israel turned into a raging plague, infecting tens of thousands, exploding the rate of death from the virus.

THE STREETS during ‘Simhat Beit Ha’Shoeivah’ outside the Toldot Aharon synagogue last week in Jerusalem, October, 2020. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
THE STREETS during ‘Simhat Beit Ha’Shoeivah’ outside the Toldot Aharon synagogue last week in Jerusalem, October, 2020.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
 When America’s founding fathers set up the new nation, they stated that the continuing success of a nation founded on the principles of democracy was dependent on the religious ideals and moral habituation of its citizens. They did not mean any specific religious belief or doctrine, but rather on the continuous efforts of its citizens to support one another, deliver voluntary aid to the less fortunate, while relying on an ingrained self-discipline to keep passions and self-interest in check. 
They recognized that the gossamer web of mutual responsibility and self-control interconnecting every citizen was the key to the survival of this first-time-in-history experiment in popular sovereignty and democratic government.
They also realized that democracy needs to have forums where the pulse of the people, or at least the pulse of substantial groups of the people, can be freely and openly expressed. The very First Amendment to the US Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law... abridging... the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for redress of grievances.”
These two ideals formed the backbone of American democracy: a free people responsible for the common good, capable of assembling to demonstrate their passion regarding an issue, yet mature and disciplined enough to keep those passions in check. The founders were keenly aware that giving vent to the citizens’ passions resulted in the downfall of all previous experiments in democracy, affirming Plato’s and Aristotle’s views that democratic governments always ended tragically, with a tyrant taking power.
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic is turning out to be one of democracy’s greatest tests. Lockdowns, business and school closings, forbidden religious gatherings, social distancing, mask requirements, and even a limited freedom to walk beyond a certain distance from one’s home have frayed citizens’ nerves, bringing consequences that threaten the economic welfare of the country as well as the actual physical health of its citizens.
How does the freier fit into this picture? He (or she) is a key to understanding today’s disintegrating society in Israel. What is a freier? A freier is a Hebrew word describing a “sucker” or “fool” (claimed to be derived from Russian slang); a person who is always being taken advantage of by someone or some institution.
This feeling of being a freier is the key to understanding our current crisis and is best illustrated in Israel’s present handling of the COVID-19 crisis. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Israel in February 2020, the Knesset quickly closed the borders to keep the virus from entering the country, and in March, the Knesset passed strict regulations affecting the behavior of its citizens: social distancing, hand washing, face masks, closing businesses and places where the public could gather, such as shopping malls, parks, pools, athletic contests, concerts, cultural events, etc. 
The Israeli public, disciplined as it was from living through multiple wartime and terrorist attacks, responded immediately, and the streets, stores, parks, etc. became empty. The result was a miracle in medical effectiveness. In the entire first wave, three months long, less than 400 persons had died out of a population of nine million.
Today Israel is experiencing a second wave of the virus which is proving to be a catastrophe. Hospitals are at 100% capacity, with beds overflowing from rooms into the corridors. Deaths have skyrocketed to nearly 1,800 as of the time of this writing, and new infections give Israel the highest infection rate per capita of all the major nations in the world: a total collapse, a medical disaster caused by the very freiers we just talked about.
Following the first wave, when the cases in Israel dropped to a very low number, thousands of citizens whose feelings of righteousness were wounded by the prime minister’s indictments, went out to the streets to demonstrate against his remaining in office. They were soon joined by many whose businesses had been forcibly closed by government order and those out of work because the businesses they worked for had been closed – both groups suffering terribly from lack of income. 
THESE DEMONSTRATIONS grew in size with protesters covering many city blocks of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The demonstrations were protected from government regulation by ministers who claimed the right to demonstrate and protest to be the cornerstone of democracy that could not be abridged. In addition, the prime minister was frozen into inaction as the protests were directed at him personally.
As thousands gathered every night to protest, holding signs and shouting slogans – younger and older individuals mingling together, socializing, dancing and singing – a grand “party” emerged, a celebration that went on night after night, playing in prime time on every TV station, with people banging drums, wearing costumes and Purim masks, shouting and standing shoulder-to-shoulder. This nightly Mardi Gras on Balfour Street was broadcast into every home in Israel courtesy of the news shows and TV networks.
However, the effect was not entertainment. The unintended consequence made every viewer understand clearly that they were a freier. They had been played for fools or suckers. While TV showed the politically protected thousands partying every night on TV, those citizens following the rules were locked in their houses or apartment, unable to go to a restaurant, a cultural event or movie, and more significantly, unable to get in their car and visit their children or parents. 
In addition, the religiously observant were officially barred from gathering together to pray. Parents, unable to go to their workplace were being forced to live with four or five young children who could not even go out to play. As a freier, many even gave up attending once-in-a-lifetime events, such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, graduations, military inductions, etc. To find yourself a freier was an insult not to be endured.
Our politicians little understood that once the gossamer web of mutual responsibility, self-restraint, and self-discipline was broken, no one wanted to be the freier. It was every man or woman for their self. Citizens asked themselves, “Why am I stuck inside following orders, when others are enjoying themselves?” To the newly-awakened, self-questioning freier, there was no difference between a political protest that turned into a party, or a party that started out as a party and stayed a party. 
In both cases, they were not at that party, and they assured themselves they would be at the next party. For the religious, this went even further, as they saw the government enforcing discrimination against the free exercise of their religion, seriously curtailing the individual’s religious rights, while political protests (although in America both are guaranteed in the same Article 1 of the US Constitution) were not at all regulated or forced to follow specific guidelines ensuring its political nature.
The thin web of mutual responsibility and self-discipline was broken. With the “revolt of the freiers,” the second wave of the COVID-19 virus in Israel turned into a raging plague, infecting tens of thousands, exploding the rate of death from the virus. No one would play the freier anymore, and civic discipline broke down. Teens and college students went back to partying, high school and lower school students hung out together, young adults flooded back into the bars, those who were married with children went out to eat and socialize with friends. 
Even the elderly, who in fear had so carefully barricaded themselves in their apartments during the first wave, now socialized and met with friends. It was over. The experiment in civic responsibility and discipline was over, and the government could now do nothing except enforce a draconian shutdown that would have disastrous effects on the national economy, individual workers, and thousands of businesses – as well as on the education and possibly the future of an entire class of students of all ages.
Politicians, uneducated in the underlying principles upon which democratic government depends and fearful of powerful lobbying groups and voters, still lack common sense and remain frozen in inaction. They refuse to assure and protect that fragile web of assurance of fairness that binds the citizens of a democratic nation together through mutual responsibility, individual self-discipline, and self-restraint. Now the genie is out of the bottle – and we will all pay the price.
The writer is former editor and manager of US News & World Report’s book division and editor/author of 25 books.