Locked Down No More?

April, 27 2020

In my first coronavirus dispatch, I wrote that Israelis were playing by the lockdown rules for a number of reasons. The widespread military conscription, due to which Israelis are used to being given orders, is one of those reasons.

But I also put in a caveat: Not only are we used to being given orders–we know how and when to take them seriously.

At this point, the restrictions are being eased—and Israelis are becoming increasingly doubtful that we should be taking the remaining restrictions seriously.

Few doubt that Israel’s initial quick, stern response was effective. We were one the first countries to shut ourselves off from the rest of the world and one of the first to limit public gatherings (from no more than 5,000 in mid-March, to 100, to 10, to none by late March.) And as of today, by most international standards, Israel has been handling the pandemic well, in terms of both morbidity and mortality as well as logistics.

Since we did behave well, we are allowed out now, albeit with some limitations. We still have to keep six feet apart from each other, we are required to wear face masks (which don’t have to meet any particular standards) and we are told to be prepared for what appears to be an inevitable second wave of illness.

This time, the rules are confusing and unconvincing.

Outside, we can only be 100 meters (about 330 feet) from our homes if we just want some air, and we can be 500 meters (about 1650 feet) away if we are doing sports. (Is walking a dog a sport, we wonder, or just an opportunity to get some air?)

Housewares and furniture stores are open. Clothing stores are open. So is it okay if a jogger is two kilometers from their home because they are going to buy some new clothes?

The open markets are closed. But hairdressing salons and beauty shops, including cosmeticians and laser hair removal, are open. Gyms are closed, but personal trainers are allowed to meet with their clients (supposedly as long as they are outside, but who can enforce that?) Falafel and shawarma stands are closed. Restaurants are closed, but they can sell takeaway. Yesterday, as I was driving, I was stopped by a police officer. Truthfully, I told her I was going to fill a prescription at the pharmacy (which is, according to Google maps, 1700 meters (5,580 feet) from my house. But would it have also been okay if I had been on my way to get a haircut? And how did the sweet young police officer, who wished me well, even know I was telling the truth?

Up to 19 people can gather for prayer, as long as the service takes place outdoors and 500 meters from (someone’s? everyone’s?) home. Why 19? The answer is unclear. On Facebook, some have suggested that it’s to prevent the convened to set up two separate prayer groups in the same space, or to leave a spot for the Messiah, or to ensure that there isn’t an Orthodox women’s minyan.

The police used a helicopter, a boat and jet skis to order surfers to leave the water and comply with the regulations, but surfers say they are being unfairly targeted. So then the government said that surfing is okay, as long as surfers maintained the six-foot distance on land and on sea.

People 67 or older are required to stay at home and not to have any outside contact. But they, like everyone else, can go to a pharmacy or a supermarket. There doesn’t seem to be any target date for when the “elderly” (who decided 66 is still young and 67 is old?) will be allowed out. The employed elderly, who are not allowed to go to their jobs at any of the open places of employment (including the public service), have not been offered any appropriate assistance package.

And the question that seems to concern Israelis most of all: Why are all three branches of IKEA open, when the malls are still closed? (After all, IKEA is at least as big as some of Israel’s malls.)

Some on Facebook have facetiously offered an especially annotated copy of A Guide for the Perplexed (one of three classical books of Jewish philosophy and ideology written by Maimonides in the 12th century) to help us get through these times.

But even the sage of the middle ages could not help us overcome our troubling doubts and concerns about our leaders and their leadership.

It’s not just that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu violated the same regulations that he himself approved and, unlike the rest of us, observed the Passover seder with his son, who does not live at home with him. President Reuven Rivlin also flaunted the rules and shared the seder with his daughter. Rivlin, a recent widower, apologized. Netanyahu ignored the criticism in the press.

There are more serious reasons that we doubt the validity of the decisions and the decision-making process. First, we have discovered, according to media reports, no medical experts participated in the cabinet’s discussion and no in-depth data on the potential significance of the new regulations was presented when the cabinet made its late-night telephone-and Zoom-conference decision.

Furthermore, the body entrusted with making recommendations for mid-term and long-term policy is a National Security Council Committee, under the supervision of the prime minister’s office. The committee is made up of 23 men without a single woman (and is now the subject of a petition to the Supreme Court, brought by a coalition of women’s organizations.) So not only are decisions made in the dark of night, without analysis or data, they are not based on inclusive considerations that take into account the diverse needs of different sectors of the population either.

According to Professor Ran Balicer, founding director of the Clalit Research Institute and director of health policy planning at Clalit, which is Israel’s largest healthcare organization, the lockdown can be eased under three essential elements: investigating, locating and isolating those who are sick within 24 to 48 hours of a test. But Israel never put an efficient epidemiological testing system in place, and, in most cases, it still takes three to four days to get results of the tests. 

The conversation around the severity of the restrictions has changed suddenly—much too suddenly to be convincing. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been told to be worried about the daily toll in sickness and life. But in the past few days, we hear the government and its representatives talking almost solely about the economic cost of the virus. 

Of course, such decisions should reflect a balance between health and economics, and should be based on calculated risks. But did that balance change suddenly? Has some magic Archimedean Point suddenly revealed itself?

And what does it mean that decisions are being made for “the good of the economy?” Who are “the economy? Small business owners? Salaried employees? Large corporations? Is the point to prevent economic breakdown? Or to get people back to work, regardless of the risk, so that the government will not have to take any responsibility for the economic welfare of the lower and middle socioeconomic classes?

It would be easier to be less cynical and more trusting if I thought the government was worthy of my trust. But the government has been incredibly lacking in transparency during this crisis; Even in his frequent press conferences, Netanyahu has refused to take any questions from the media.

I am left concerned that politicians’ self-interest may be playing at least as great a role as the public interest. It’s hard to ignore that the crisis has served Netanyahu well. Not only did it offer him the opportunity, which he seized immediately, to appear in the role of leader while ostensibly avoiding the crass political maneuvering to establish the unity government that was going on around him, it also helped him delay the opening of his corruption trial.

Nor does it help that the prime minister has refused to fire his health minister, Yaakov Litzman, who has shown that he is unable to place the needs of the larger Israeli public above the interests of his community and, even worse, above his own personal interests. But Litzman is part of Netanyahu’s coalition, and he can’t survive politically without him. 

Sadly, Litzman may provide an answer —depressing and infuriating—about the pressing question about IKEA. Litzman is a leading figure in the Ger Hassidic group, which has received $1.1 million in donations in recent years from IKEA Israel’s owners. 

Litzman has left the health ministry for the housing ministry in the new government, and he denies that the reopening of Ikea was motivated by donations to his religious group. But we are left wondering if pressures and politics, rather than the public good, played a part in other decisions.

Cynicism and disillusionment take a heavy toll on society. In Israel, we entered into this crisis with a deep sense of social responsibility. I hope that we will be able to maintain that commitment, along with hope and humor. If we can, it will be no thanks to our leadership.

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