The pithiest description of the Trump administration was coined by the American journalist Adam Serwer in 2018: “The cruelty is the point.” Serwer described how Donald Trump found a community of supporters who delight in cruelty against those they consider to be their enemies, including immigrant children the administration separated from their parents. The cruelty of the Trump administration was not an incidental result of its policies: The cruelty was the point.
An heir to Trump has arisen: Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who ordered the Israel Prison Service not to vaccinate incarcerated persons against the coronavirus. The initial goal was to punish security prisoners, but in the end he decided to hurt everyone. The decision was wrongful, but also stupid. Wrongful, because incarcerated people are wards of the state. Some have not yet been tried, and thus are presumed innocent. In depriving them of the ability to protect themselves, the state took it upon itself to protect them, whether they are still awaiting trial or are serving out a sentence.
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It’s important to stress that Israel does not have capital punishment. Convicted prisoners – including even rapists and murderers – are still human beings. They have basic rights, including the right to medical care. Torture and maiming are illegal, and some survivors of COVID-19 remain disabled for life.
Beyond the cruelty there is the stupidity. Viruses do not differentiate between prisoners and guards. Infected prisoners who are furloughed can infect members of the community. And in fact, in the wake of Ohana’s directive there have been outbreaks of the coronavirus in Israeli prisons. Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and other organizations petitioned the High Court of Justice against Ohana’s order. The attorney general declared it unlawful. In a departure from convention, President Reuven Rivlin also assailed Ohana’s directive.
The High Court ordered the removal of the petition after the prison service accepted the position of the attorney general. All of the actors played their roles in Ohana’s grotesquerie: In the Likud primaries, he can boast that the human rights organizations, the attorney general and the High Court of Justice all lined up against him. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the cabinet minister who is responsible for enforcing the law in Israel. We were already accustomed to his siccing the police on protesters against his lord and master, who has been charged with fraud, bribery and breach of trust.
Why now? Because Ohana knows the clock is ticking for the resident of Balfour Street in Jerusalem. He knows that Benjamin Netanyahu cannot remain prime minister for much longer. Ohana is jockeying for position. Who knows, maybe he’ll give Netanyahu a little shove. Behind the scenes, of course. Ohana is not suicidal.
Ohana learned from Trump that in Israel, too, there are many who delight in cruelty: toward Palestinians, asylum seekers, poor people, leftists. He gives them what they want so as to win their votes. Under Likud rule, Israel has become a cruel society that scorns the weak and applauds the strong. It isn’t alone, of course. This entire global Colosseum, with its viewing windows, seeks to persuade us that the world is a jungle, it’s kill or be killed. What is killed is our humanity.
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We still have a choice: We don’t have to be the predators. In the words of Isaiah: Seek justice, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.