A Half-baked Idea? Israelis Grumble as Government Closes Bakeries post-Passover

Some members of a public growing weary of coronavirus lockdown restrictions see government move, aimed at preventing crowds, as overkill

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Baked goods at a Tel Aviv restaurant, December 2019.
Baked goods at a Tel Aviv restaurant, December 2019.Credit: Moti Milrod

“Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt.” This ancient Roman political axiom, like many things, is being upended in the age of COVID-19. 

In Israel, nearly all of the enjoyable entertainment “circuses” the public is accustomed to enjoying over the Passover holiday have been outlawed due to the need to socially distance and prevent the virus' spread. There have been no families gathered around the seder table, no overseas vacations, and no picnics in the hills of the Galilee, Negev desert or Mediterranean shores.

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As the holiday draws to a close, the venerable tradition of Mimouna – the North African meal at the end of Passover, where families welcome friends and neighbors into their homes for elaborate spreads of marzipan pastries – has been banned.  

And now, in what feels like the last straw to many, the government is also taking away the bread – literally. 

A very specific clause forbidding the opening of bakeries has been included in lockdown restrictions for the second Passover holiday. As on the night of the seder, a curfew confining Israelis to their cities and neighborhoods from Tuesday afternoon until Thursday morning has been put in place in order to prevent extended families from gathering to mark the holiday.

Technically, Jews are liberated from matza eating and are free to consume leavened bread on Wednesday evening. But senior government officials are so fearful of crowds hitting bakeries and grocery stores that they have ordered these stores shut down until 2 A.M. on that night. Stores that open will be subject to a 5,000 shekel ($1,400) fine.

The decision was made following a debate among top government officials, which reportedly lasted half an hour, as to whether to simply police purveyors of yeasty products Wednesday evening in order to make sure they followed social distancing guidelines, or shut them down completely. The latter option won out.

The destruction of yet another tradition – the post-holiday pilgrimage to score a fresh pita, baguette, cake or croissant – has made many Israelis quite unhappy. Restrictions on leaving one’s municipality will interfere with travel to the places that many Israelis can immediately locate fresh bread: in neighboring Arab cities and villages. Now, with the bakeries closing, even waiting for Jewish-owned, kosher bakeries to get their ovens running is out of the question. 

Pastries at a bakery in Haifa. Credit: Rami Shllush

“HAVEN’T THE JEWISH PEOPLE SUFFERED ENOUGH?” lamented one person on Twitter. 

It was minor consolation that, after high-level government intervention, one tradition was salvaged: a post-Passover pizza. At the overnight government meeting to discuss coronavirus regulations Monday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan successfully battled for people’s right to order pizza delivered to their homes on Wednesday night, according to Israeli media outlets. 

The sarcasm across social media was palpable. If bread was off-limits but pizza delivery was fine, then “where exactly does garlic bread fit in?” one person mused. And “what about the falafel shops?” asked another. Might their provision of pita bread serve as a loophole? 

The ridicule was accompanied by grumbling that at a time of crisis, the police should allocate resources to policing the sale of pita bread. 

Consumption of bread at home, of course, is permitted, and those with freezers stashed with bread or taped-up cabinets containing yeast and flour, in order to whip up a quick batch of muffins. were home free. 

But many view the bakery shutdown as overkill, pointing out that the Wednesday night ban merely postponed the problem – bakeries and supermarkets would now be jammed on Thursday morning, heightening an expected crowding problem as people stock up between the holiday and the weekend, which in Israel begins on Friday afternoon.   

The grouchy reaction reflects a growing feeling of cynicism and exhaustion among the Israeli public as they began their second month under stay-at-home orders. 

While Israelis were initially obedient regarding the restrictions, during the week of Passover there was a noticeable uptick in intercity traffic as the holiday wore on. On Tuesday, 9,000 police and soldiers were deployed and over 40 checkpoints set up across the country to enforce the curfews and travel bans. Enforcement efforts were expected to continue into the weekend, as the month of lockdown has tempted some Israeli families to attempt to head to beaches, parks or other locations and enjoy the spring weather. 

Some of the weakening of national resolve can be traced to widespread public discussion of an exit strategy and a return to “normalcy.”

It is also clearly traceable to the undermining of faith in the credibility of politicians, which was seriously undermined by revelations that the country’s top leaders – including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin and Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman – had shared their seder meal with family members who did not reside with them, This was in violation of restrictions and their own public exhortations to restrict seders to in-house nuclear family – and in Netanyahu’s case, while he was supposed to be in quarantine. 

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