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Netanyahu Pits Protests Against Prayers. Compromise Won’t Come From Him

The tension between democracy and religion is imprinted in Israel's DNA – and the prime minister has chosen to mine political capital from it

Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht
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Ravit Hecht
Ravit Hecht

Like any especially brutal photo negative, the coronavirus exposes every blemish, cleft and weak link. It strips them of the cushioning that normally conceals them and enables us to somehow live with them, with some denial. The coronavirus crisis is exposing the kulturkampf in Israel, which as usual over the past three decades, revolves around a single person: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Protests versus prayers – that’s the equation. These people claim that protests are the life breath of democracy, those people say that prayer services are the essence of their soul and the foundation of their existence. It is no coincidence that the demonstrations are about Netanyahu’s legitimacy and take place with their greatest intensity across from his official residence. It is also no coincidence that those who are fighting to hold services – Interior Minister Arye Dery threatened to resign if synagogues are closed and the demonstrations continue – are those who are keeping Netanyahu in power.

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The tension between democracy and Judaism is imprinted in the DNA of Israel and will never stop popping up and annoying the country in various forms. But Netanyahu has not tried to control this tension or, and as much as possible,  calm things down – but has rather mined more and more political capital from it. Now, during one of the most difficult periods in Israeli history, in which the country is mired in a deep health and economic crisis, with uncertainty enveloping its citizens’ lives, we are facing a monster.

It is possible to continue on arguing, with each side claiming that its ideology and custom are more important, while cancelling the other. Beyond the blindness of it – after all, liberal and humanitarian values are also supposed to give birth to understanding, and in the same way that something that is important to you, something else is important to another and it defines their identity – it has no value. The only result is a further sinking into the dismal swamp, which will only add to the pain and chaos of an already bad situation.

Religious Jews pray outdoors in order to protect against the spread of the coronavirus, Jerusalem, September 9, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Instead of arguing and trying to achieve the further easing of the restrictions for their supporters, which in the end just means the creation of more centers of coronavirus infection, the leaders of the religious community, and especially the ultra-Orthodox community, need to look inwards into their own community to come up with a framework for prayer in pods outside in the open air, while maintaining social distancing. This is how they will fulfill their freedom of worship on one hand, and at the same time lower the risk of mass infection.

At the same time, the right to protest against the government must be preserved – but during the period of the lockdown, as the Black Flag movement announced in its wisdom – it can also change its format into one that takes into consideration the rules of caution, such as protesting on the bridges, or maintaining small, measured groups of protesters across from the prime minister’s residence.

In such a scenario, the protest against Netanyahu will not be worn down and lost. Instead, it will accumulate credit from other groups in the public who currently can’t relate to it. After all, Likud voters – minus the vociferous cult of Bibists – see Netanyahu’s failure in handling the coronavirus crisis. They are suffering like the rest of Israel – the virus and its implications does not choose its victims by who they vote for. They won’t continue to support someone who has been exposed in all his desolation by the crisis, at a time when their health and livelihood are suffering.

A protester wears a mask of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an anti-Netanyahu protest at a Tel Aviv beach, September 19, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

These pictures also alienate those who do support the protest. It is a mirror image of Netanyahu’s behavior. If Netanyahu proves that nothing interests him except for himself and his own political fate, these sideshows show that these same groups are not interested in anything but their hatred of Netanyahu.

This government will not be able to solve this tension, because it is especially incapable of getting anything accomplished – not even Ronni Gamzu, whose term as the “coronavirus czar” has been painted in tragic colors. External coercion, even if we assume it were possible, will not solve anything, but will only serve as fuel for increasing the friction. The solution needs to come from within the two camps themselves, which will have to find a way to fulfill their ideology within the limitations of the existing situation. Otherwise, we will never find a way out of this.

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