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How Special Interests Are Influencing Israel’s Coronavirus Restrictions

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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A man rides a bike at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market on March 22, 2020.
A man rides a bike at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market on March 22, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

Many Israelis who tried this past week to observe the guidelines meant to protect them and their loved ones from the coronavirus were forced to deal with a flood of conflicting, confusing information from the authorities.

On one hand, the Health Ministry has been issuing its recommendations directly to the public through illustrated and accessible digital documents. On the other, these recommendations, clear and user-friendly as they may be, have no legal validity until the government codifies them in emergency regulations. Nor can enforcement agencies operate without clear regulations, which must be published in the government gazette to go into effect.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 70

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But the government isn’t rushing to resolve this chaos. It doesn’t help that in the dead of night, ministers are suddenly approving new versions of the Health Ministry recommendations and of the regulations drawn up by the Justice Ministry advisers. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also contributing to the disorder by continually telling the public to “stay home” without explaining exactly what is permitted or forbidden.

Cabinet meetings nowadays are done by conference call or videoconference. As a result, it isn’t always clear when the ministers are convening. During these conversations the ministers argue with each other far from the public eye and without any public protocol. It seems that as a result, exceptions to the regulations are promoted in line with the pressures being brought to bear on individual ministers.

Thus, for example, the most blatant example was the decision to keep all ritual baths (mikvehs) open. Last Saturday night the Religious Services Ministry announced that the ritual baths would remain open as usual. But the following day it emerged that the Health Ministry wanted to limit this exception to women, and that men’s ritual baths should be closed.

While women are mandated by the Jewish laws of family purity to immerse themselves in the ritual bath after every period so they can have intercourse with their husbands, only some men, particularly fervent Hasidim, immerse themselves regularly; most other religious men do so only on special occasions, like before holidays. Moreover, many men’s ritual baths are in private institutions that are hard to inspect to make sure they are following the Health Ministry’s coronavirus guidelines.

Indeed, the Health Ministry’s guidelines issued last week stated that men’s mikvehs should be closed. But less than a day later, this decision was reversed, and the Religious Services Ministry reiterated that men’s ritual baths would indeed be open. In the United States, for example, even the most stringent Hasidic courts have closed their ritual baths for now because of the risk to life.

So what changed? There is another group of religious men who immerse in ritual baths – those who visit the Temple Mount. They launched a campaign to permit immersion because “the Temple Mount is no less important than family purity,” as one of the leading Temple Mount activists tweeted. When asked why he couldn’t immerse himself in any body of natural water, as Jewish law permits, he replied, “This is a declaration by the state. Family purity is important and the Temple Mount can go to hell.”

And so, in the final regulations approved by the cabinet, an exception was made for ritual baths for both genders. Ministers who participated in that meeting told Haaretz that it was Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich who pushed to make an exception for men’s ritual baths. He denies that the Temple Mount even came up and that as far as he’s concerned the important exception was for women’s ritual baths.

But ritual baths were not the only issue influenced by pressure groups. At that same meeting there was a debate about open-air markets and shopping centers. Vendors launched a massive campaign to be allowed to stay open, arguing that they are no different than supermarkets and might even be preferable because they are outdoors. Culture Ministry Miri Regev argued that vendors in the markets must at least be given the chance to sell all the produce they had already purchased. In the end, it was decided to close the markets, but to leave the shopping centers open under certain restrictions.

Likud ministers, particularly Netanyahu, were also very interested in imposing the Health Ministry restrictions on the Knesset, where they don’t have a majority. Only after the attorney general intervened, noting that under Israel’s separation of powers the government cannot control the legislative or judicial branches with emergency regulations, both the Knesset and the courts were exempted from most of the new rules.

These examples show that in an emergency situation such as the one we are in, cabinet debates and the decision-making processes must be fully transparent. It’s inconceivable that the interests of groups or individuals influence public health decisions in a manner that is unprofessional and that undermines public confidence in the way they are made.

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