Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troops
Israeli populism always finds totally marginal issues to pounce on, with a holy and incandescent fury, totally out of any proportion. This happened again over the weekend: Social media was in a flap after it turned out that not only did the prime minister appear on television with his son during the lockdown, but the country’s president celebrated the holiday with his daughter, in violation of Health Ministry orders.
It really is unpleasant to see a prime minister doing what he preaches to his people to abstain from doing, and it’s no less disturbing to see a popular and folksy president behaving as if he were more entitled. Unpleasant, but not that terrible.
This fury of the public relates to the personal fates and emotions of people who are always quick to protest. They never address their ire at much more fateful issues, ones that do not directly impinge on them.
They hate Benjamin Netanyahu in any case, mainly for the wrong reasons; they love Reuven Rivlin, but he too now finds himself in the line of fire, and for reasons of political correctness, protesters had to express their anger at him as well. Israelis straining under the weight of fear and a lockdown are searching for ways to vent their understandable frustrations. The dearth of leaders leading by example became a good channel for doing so. Good, but not that important. Correct, but not something critical.
In Israel, the president and prime minister are figures that are elevated above the common man. In very few democracies do holders of these positions have such a status. Shimon Peres did not drive a car, go to a repair shop or stand in a checkout line since he was 26 years old. This is just an example of the excessive privileges and exaggerated perks enjoyed by senior politicians in Israel.
They are protected in an exaggerated manner, as if their lives were truly more valuable than those of others, while other Israelis, including public figures and journalists who are at much higher risk, are abandoned to their fates. The Israeli prime minister’s convoy, which accompanies him wherever he goes, is a ridiculous and rankling phenomenon, a noisy and aggressive affair seen almost exclusively only in banana republics. This convoy seems fine to most Israelis, but coronavirus tests for the children of the president and prime minister are viewed as super-corrupt.
Angela Merkel does her own shopping at the supermarket. I once saw the residence of the Dutch prime minister, a modest home with one car parked beside it. The queen of Norway travels in economy class, as do many European politicians. Cabinet members in Denmark ride their bicycles to work, and the chairwoman of the Swedish Social Democratic Party resigned after it turned out that she’d used a party credit card to buy diapers for her baby. I once saw Ireland’s president in a theater lobby, walking around like everyone else. I saw the Austrian chancellor at a Yehoshua Sobol play in Vienna, also walking around unaccompanied, without any entourage or drawing attention.
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This could never happen in Israel, not just because of security requirements, which serve here as a baseless pretext for every privilege. In Sweden there was also an assassination of a prime minister and a foreign minister.
Israel likes seeing its leaders elevated above the masses. Very few people protest these issues in ordinary times. The president and prime minister never have just a wife, they have a spouse. They never live in a house, only in a residence. Now, all of a sudden, people are incensed about a differential standard, one of so many that already exist.
The Haaretz editorial is absolutely right – this was contempt, not leadership. Rivlin apologized while Netanyahu, as usual, made do with some questionable explanations. This should have been the end of it. These aren’t ordinary days and there are much more serious problems. Maybe these circumstances led to the disproportionate reactions: Rivlin, go home; Netanyahu, resign.
In Scandinavia this would have been self-evident, but in Israel, where so many excessive privileges are accepted, Rivlin’s daughter in the presidential residence and Netanyahu’s son in the prime minister’s residence are a pretext for a protest such as has not been seen here for a long time. One can only snort in ridicule.