Who benefits from the coronavirus crisis?

Unless there is a rational, coherent, long-term strategy for how to handle this crisis, we will just keep sputtering along, inflicting pain for no purpose.

ISRAELIS DEMONSTRATE against the three-week nationwide lockdown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a Tel Aviv beach, September 19, 2020 (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
ISRAELIS DEMONSTRATE against the three-week nationwide lockdown and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on a Tel Aviv beach, September 19, 2020
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
There is a photo going around of a public square on which the words, “The lockdown is Bibi’s fault,” appear on the pavement. I don’t know if this photo is real or photo-shopped but for my purposes, it doesn’t matter.
By so utterly mishandling how we came out of the first lockdown – opening things up with no plan about how to do so without spurring another round of infection, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s call last spring to everyone to just go out and have a good time – we paid a terrible price for that lockdown, for nothing, and are now doing another ruinous lockdown, for nothing. Because unless there is a rational, coherent, long-term strategy for how to handle this crisis (and clearly, there isn’t) we will just keep sputtering along, inflicting pain for no purpose.
Except one. The consensus will grow, it already is growing, that demonstrations against Netanyahu should cease. Did he plan this from the beginning or is he just seizing the opportunity of his country going to pieces to achieve what is, to him, so welcome an outcome?
The overwhelming majority of participants in the demonstrations – hundreds of thousands of people over months – have worn masks, properly, not on their chins or necks but covering mouth and nose. Over Rosh Hashanah, apparently, there was a terribly stupid and irresponsible event by some dozens of people doing a holiday meal in Paris Square, site of the main Jerusalem demonstration, with the participants at the table without masks. That was inexcusable on multiple grounds: health, of course, and colossal political stupidity, if the goal is to have public sympathy for the demonstrations and not feed opposition to them. Because that stupid act will be used to tar the tens of thousands who did nothing of the sort.
Now, we have haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, “demonstrating” against the restrictions, which in any case cut them a huge, politically-driven swath for Rosh Hashanah in hair-splitting directives that no one could understand: If there is a synagogue with X meters and one entrance then there can be Y numbers of (of course, male) worshipers in some configuration, if inside. If outside, some other numbers. If there is a synagogue with some other number of meters and two entrances, inside/outside, etc. etc.
The thought that people followed this, in understanding, much less execution, is laughable. Public policy that is laughable invites contempt and disregard, at a time when public compliance with rational policy is imperative during an epidemic.
But the haredi powers pushed and Netanyahu caved and the plague rages and consumes us. Now, some haredi elements are cynically using the right to demonstrate in order to demonstrate against the lockdown. Go take your tayneh (complaint) to corona, I am sure the virus is all ears.
This is the price we pay for decades of allowing an entire segment of the population to have no education in basic science, or in civics.
NO ONE has suggested that the right to pray be infringed. The only question is where and how to pray. People can, of course, pray on their own, or in small groups, two meters distant from one another and with all properly wearing masks, outside.
Is this inconvenient and a far cry from the normal on such major holidays as Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? As said, take your complaint to the virus. Or maybe grow up. In civic terms: Do what is required this year so that next year, perhaps (it depends on us), things can approach being normal.
Political demonstrations against the government are a basic, constitutional right in a functioning democracy, and are public by definition. Outdoor space, we know, is very different than indoor space, regarding transmission of infection (and yes, being outdoors still requires proper mask-wearing, never mind at a demonstration).
There is no indication that the spread of corona is because of the anti-Netanyahu demonstrations, as opposed to what we know for certain about the connection between the spike and the opening of schools a few weeks ago – also a politically motivated decision – and mass weddings and other celebrations. And no, the virus pays no attention to whether the schools are religious or secular. The same goes for weddings and other festivities.
Who benefits from the chaos and the heightened social divisiveness of the current circumstances, from the growing sentiment to ban demonstrations? To quote the jurists, cui bono?
Once the new lockdown was announced, the heads of the Black Flag demonstrators had called for a moratorium on gatherings for its duration. The demonstrations, despite Netanyahu and his cronies’ attempts to portray them as Soros-leftist-funded and oh-so-organized, are nothing of the sort. They are not composed of people of a single ideology or even purpose; would that they were. The one common theme among the diverse demonstrators is the demand that Netanyahu “go home.” We have not heard concrete and implementable proposals in the affirmative. What do we wish in his stead? He leaves (not a likely scenario in the foreseeable future), and who and what comes in his place?
What about term limits, which are politically neutral and would affect any prime minister.
What about direct elections instead of voting for parties?
What about non-Knesset and gender-equal representation on committees that fill appointments for offices like the state comptroller and ombudsman, and the national police commissioner, processes that Netanyahu has politicized overtly, while dismissing, with shocking arrogance, the need for equal women’s representation on such committees, including that which decides corona policy (such as that is)?
To whose benefit is it that there is open public contempt for government and its functions, and a raging infection, leading to growing consensus that demonstrations against a sitting government, headed by a man indicted on three serious criminal charges, who has waged an incessant campaign against the organs of justice and their credibility, and against leading figures in the justice system, including a judge on his case – that such demonstrations be suspended – for who knows how long?
Whether by prior design or reaping the opportunity of rank incompetence in domestic policy, Netanyahu laughs.
The writer is an award-winning historian and professor emerita of Jewish studies and history at Oberlin College.