The coronavirus does not discriminate between people, it is egalitarian, and only together – by following the government guidelines – will we be able to defeat it.
This statement, which decision makers have been repeating incessantly, is supposed to provide a sense of a shared fate regardless of differences of race, religion and gender. But it turns out that this is just a ruse. Maybe the virus doesn’t differentiate between people, but the policy for fighting it certainly does.
It began with an attempt to blame the Arabs for the coronavirus outbreak even though, in fact, Arab communities had only a few cases of people who were ill with COVID-19. A lot was said about the risk of an outbreak in the Arab community, mostly in order to “counterbalance” the harsh statements about the behavior of Haredim – and because Israeli ears are used to hearing the Arabs being blamed for every injustice.
What made it clear that concern for our wellbeing during the pandemic was not sincere was the small number of tests conducted in Arab communities, a lack of information in Arabic and the non-allocation of resources to Arab local governments to fight the virus – even though they are in financial distress that has worsened with the crisis. Only under pressure was the Health Ministry so kind as to “change its policy,” and a decision was made to earmark resources for testing, and mostly for an advertising campaign before the holy month of Ramadan.
But the hope for change was dashed when the first ad campaign was launched. Its purpose was to set down rules for Ramadan – preserving social distancing, breaking the daily fast only with members of the nuclear family, maintaining hygienic conditions, etc. But the illustrations chosen to demonstrate the guidelines, exemplifying a family, looked as if they were directed at the citizens of Saudi Arabia: The style of dress is traditional Saudi, the women and girls are covered from head to toe, and a woman is pictured at the table serving the family while they break their fast.
The use of humiliating stereotypical representations sparked an emotional uproar among the Arab community, and the ads were removed immediately.
We thought this was an accident and stemmed from ignorance, but the next day another humiliating and stereotypical informational video clip was released – and this time it was purely chauvinistic and denigrated women. The goal was to address women, encouraging them to stay home and to ensure that the rest of the family remained there, too.
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In the clip we see two women, grandmothers, wearing traditional garb, preparing stuffed “grape leaves.” They are calling on all other women, using all sorts of demeaning terms, to prepare grape leaves only at home. Is this the way the role of the Arab woman is seen? To remain at home and work diligently on preparing food? Are Arab women so stupid that they understand only simple language?
This clip, too, was taken down as a result of criticism.
Is the Health Ministry really that ignorant? If so, then it is a dangerous ignorance. But how could all this happen to begin with? After all, a substantial number of Arabs is employed by the ministry: Indeed, 30 percent of all medical staff in Israel are Arabs.
It is clear that those at the top at the ministry do not see the Arab employees as partners in determining policy. Maybe it is more convenient to shift the responsibility to outsourcing – an advertising agency – because why should we bother to deal with “those Arabs”? These people have not succeeded to understand that the Arab public is much more intelligent than they are. This public is willing to follow instructions, but only if they are convinced that the rules are professional and adapted to their lifestyle.
Maisam Jaljuli is a veteran feminist and political activist, chairwoman of the Na’amat women’s organization in the southern triangle region, and a member of the coronavirus crisis experts group.