Opinion |

Israelis' Much-vaunted Solidarity, Honed by War, Has Failed in Time of Plague

Israelis are grimly reaping the result of decades of Netanyahu’s divide and rule and incitement: We can no longer come together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the coronavirus during a protest against him outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020.
A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as the coronavirus during a protest against him outside his official residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

An American friend asked me the other day if I had any idea where the term freier originated. I didn’t and after doing a bit of research online I discovered the etymologists don’t either. I found at least eight theories on where the word comes from including possible sources in German, Yiddish, English, Polish and Romanian.

I also found a whole load of arguments over whether being a freier, a sucker, the kind of person who carry out all their civic duties, pays taxes in full and on time, accepts whatever is coming and gets taken advantage of, while so many others take short-cuts and use their connections to get ahead in life, is a good and honorable thing.

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Or does the so-Israeli aversion to being a freier, doing everything to avoid the freier’s fate, actually exemplify a positive individualism and healthy departure from suffocating old-school Zionist conformity?

They both have their place, the freier and the Israeli who will never under any circumstance allow himself to be a freier. The non-freier is constantly measuring himself by checking out where the freierim are and then overtaking them. Sometimes its sheer selfishness. Sometimes its called innovation and entrepreneurship.

But this year, the non-freier has evolved. Avoiding freierdom is no longer an individual pursuit, the man against the system. Under COVID-19, we now have entire sectors of the Israeli population determined not to be freierim.

Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a police cordon in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.
Ultra-Orthodox men walking near a tape cordoning off a high coronavirus infection area in the central Israeli city of Bnei Brak, September 6, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The overriding motivation of the disparate communities in Israel during the pandemic is not to preserve their own health and keep levels of infection down, but to make sure they are not singled out for more stringent restrictions than the next community. It’s a unique mutation of human mass-psychology, which has rejected self-preservation from illness for seeking reassurance in numbers of infections.

Israelis of course are not the only nation rebelling against the impositions of pandemic life, but while in countries like the United States and Britain, where objectors to mandatory face-masks cite the infringement on their personal and individual liberty, in Israel the insurrection takes the shape of insisting on gathering together in significant numbers.

Whether it’s the ultra-Orthodox in their synagogues and yeshivas, Arab Israelis at weddings or the secular middle-class at the Balfour protests in central Jerusalem, obstinate defiance of the coronavirus strictures has become a communal event, even a mass movement.

The insistence on not being treated like a group of freierim is the reason a series of targeted and localized lockdowns of "red" towns, which was the preferred policy of the public health experts for combating the second wave of COVID-19, has been rejected, and has now been replaced by a nationwide lockdown.

It’s not enough to blame just the power of the Haredi parties in government. Forcing ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak to close down while coffee-shops and restaurants in neighboring Ramat Gan remained open was never going to work. It would have been unenforceable and would have led to mass civil disobedience. While every country in the world is hoping to develop a herd immunity to the virus, Israel has developed instead a warped herd mentality.

No one is really trying to work out what’s the best way to allow Israelis to shield themselves from infection while trying to minimize the impact on normal life. They’re too busy looking at other sectors and demanding "equal" rights to be infected.

On Thursday, a group of Likud mayors petitioned the High Court to allow those gathering to pray the same rights as protestors. It was a moment that epitomized everything that has transpired in Israeli life this year and Justice Neal Hendel wasn’t having it.

"Let’s be honest," he told the petitioners. "You haven’t come here to expand the regulations referring to prayers but to change the regulations of protests. Don’t come here in the name of those who pray, you are using their situation to clamp down on protests." It’s this kind of common-sense that has made the High Court such a reviled institution for the right in today’s Israel.

People wearing masks in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2020.
People wearing masks in Tel Aviv, August 2, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

The much-vaunted Israeli sense of solidarity in times of war has failed it in time of plague. It turns out that the unifying instinct in the face of external enemies is useless when the foe is an invisible pathogen we carry on ourselves.

We’ve turned in on each other under the leadership of prime minister, fighting for political survival, whose strategy has always been to divide and rule through a coalition of angry minority groups, held together by shared resentment against a non-existent elite. A society that has been intentionally divided and incited against each other can’t come together to fight a pandemic.

One of my editors suggested I try and write something optimistic for the new year, but as Israel enters its self-inflicted Rosh Hashanah lockdown, there is no optimistic way out of this predicament. No signs that its communities are prepared to work together. Just angry recriminations and brazen plans to evade the restrictions and God forbid not be freirerim.

Jews abroad and non-Jews who have admired Israel are looking on in horror at the dysfunctional and clueless mismanagement and the total absence of any good faith in this war.

It’s instructive that the hasbarists who always have an excuse for Israel’s conduct, no matter what, have finally fallen silent. When Israel has had for over two weeks now the highest daily infection rates in the world and is about to become the first developed country to go in to a second nationwide lockdown, there’s absolutely no way of polishing this turd.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu visit the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, August 6, 2020.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu visit the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, August 6, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

Still, something optimistic for the new year. The one glimmer of hope is that the charade is finally ending. A veteran aide of Benjamin Netanyahu admitted to me last week that "he is becoming irrevocably tainted by his coronavirus failure," and the polls bear this out.

The agreement to establish diplomatic relations with the United Arab Emirates, followed on by Bahrain, was inarguably the greatest triumph of his long career, his most important legacy for Israel. But it has failed to stop his plummeting in the polls.

The resentment and anger Netanyahu has stoked and unleashed within Israeli society is finally beginning to turn on the super-spreader of discord as well. When this pandemic finally recedes, there will also be a reckoning with the source of the political virus that weakened Israeli society’s immune system so drastically.

Israelis end 5780 in lockdown, and more divided than ever. No-one is going to wager a bet on when we can emerge and find a better 5781. But perhaps when a vaccine is finally found for COVID-19, Israelis will finally find it in themselves to queue in an orderly fashion for their innoculation, just like good freierim.

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