When the reports of the coronavirus outbreak in China began, reporters, commentators and news anchors repeatedly praised the harsh response of the Chinese authorities, particularly the “draconian measures,” as they were called in Israel at the time, employed against residents of the affected areas.
A deep respect was heard for the Chinese authorities in Israeli television, radio and written media, as well as a degree of regret, if not sadness, over the presumption that Israeli authorities would be prevented from introducing similar measures. “Of course such methods would be impossible to take in a democratic country,” went the boilerplate summary wrapping up these reports and discussions. That “of course” contained more than a pinch of envy and admiration for the liberty enjoyed by the Chinese authorities in emergencies. The speakers were not necessarily supporters of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Two months later, the Chinese model no longer seems so unattainable. It’s no longer necessary to sigh when mentioning that Israel is a democracy, as if that were a birth defect that hinders the state’s ability to protect its citizens in an emergency.
But when wasn’t Israel in an emergency? Emergencies are the only normal that Israeli society knows. The War of Independence, the austerity period, military rule, the fedayeen cross-border attacks and the reprisal operations, the Sinai Campaign, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe, the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, the first Lebanon War, the Gulf War, Rabin’s assassination, the post-Oslo terror attacks, the second intifada, the Gaza Strip withdrawal, the military operations in Gaza, the Iranian nuclear threat, the constitutional and governmental crisis surrounding Netanyahu – and now the coronavirus lockdown. The list is very partial. And looming above it all, always, is the cloud of the Holocaust and the constant existential threat stemming from it.
When Israelis look ahead now, what do they see? A “war” against COVID-19 whose end is not on the horizon, a catastrophic economic crisis and the continuation of the repressed civil war surrounding Netanyahu’s corruption trial and the structure of government in Israel. After that: the continued conflict with the Palestinians, which will escalate after the expected imposition of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements, as well as the continuation of the tensions with Iran and Hezbollah.
A lockdown and subsequent economic devastation have been in the air for a long time. The thought was that it would come about amid a war against Hezbollah and Iran, when thousands of missiles would be fired at Israel. Surprisingly, it is taking shape in a different context, in the face of an “invisible enemy,” as Netanyahu termed it. But the imagined Hezbollah and Iran horror show wasn’t canceled, it was only postponed. The same is true for the scenario involving a civil war over changing the system of government in the wake of Netanyahu’s refusal to hand over power and face prosecution – with the support of half the nation and an overwhelming majority among Jews, who are inclined toward stripping Arabs of their political rights. Israelis cannot even imagine not being in an emergency.
Israel will come to resemble China. It’s very possible that a large majority of the public will ask to adopt – in effect, is adopting now – the main planks of the Chinese system: capitalism with an undemocratic regime located somewhere along the authoritarian/dictatorial spectrum. Israelis live in a constant state of emergency, they don’t know any other reality and they are convinced this eternal state of emergency is dictated by circumstances. When wasn’t there a broad consensus regarding the need for emergency rule in order to protect “the state” or its citizens? Democracy is perceived as weakness, a recipe for chaos, and as damaging national unity and “togetherness.” A tiresome, complicated and inefficient method of government. The coronavirus proves to Israelis that since reality is so dangerous, they’d be better off forgoing their liberty for the sake of quiet and security.