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Corona in Israel

Like apparently in most other countries, life is coming to a near-standstill in Israel. But, as I’ve written before, unlike in most other countries, the corona crisis in Israel is interwoven with the political crisis that, after three general elections within a year, still has only a transition government with its long-serving prime minister desperately clinging to power.

Presumably with the former Italian dictator Mussolini in mind, Avraham Avichai, who has had a distinguished career in Zionist affairs here, has extended Prime Minister Netanyahu’s first name to BenITOjamin. He’s not the only one to suggest that, in order to save his skin and stay in power, Netanyahu, with aid of cronies, may be compromising democracy. His supporters, however, see his actions as ways of protecting the health and wellbeing of the population.

Being confused about Israeli politics is understandable. Perhaps less understandable is the apparent confusion over the proper way of protecting ourselves against the spread of the disease. People are beginning to ask which are sound measures, what is ignorance masquerading as expertise and how much should we ascribe to cynical manipulation by those in power. No wonder then that, in addition to being worried and afraid, we may also be befuddled.

And there’s little light relief around. Apart from the trite humor about the run on toilet paper, the only amusing aside that I’ve found so far is about the cleaner who called the family in whose home she works to say that today she will be working from her home instructing them what to do.

A lot of people do work from home. Others study Torah in ways they never did before. Some rabbis report that though relatively few members of their congregations attend their study sessions, many more are there now learning online. I’ve even read suggestions that the present crisis may change the way we will teach Torah in the future.

The same may be true about watching worship services on a screen: many more seem to be joining their rabbi in front of their computer in the privacy of their home than attending services when the synagogues were open.

Though the Israeli authorities seem to be strict about enforcing the rules, some people do break them. Government agencies are said to intrude into mobile phones to check up on potential offenders – a clear breach of personal freedom in a democratic society, some say a necessary one.

Others break the rules openly, including Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, the leader of the Lithuanian branch of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community: despite the prohibition, his very large yeshiva has stayed open. He seems to believe that studying Torah is the best possible protection. Perhaps he’s right.

However, we’re given to understand that most Orthodox authorities comply with government regulations advising people, perhaps other than very close relatives, not to turn up for weddings and funerals. We’ve even been told not to kiss the stones at the Western Wall.

People are asking about how long the present shutdown can last. Perhaps in another couple of weeks we’ll all return to our previous ways ignoring the consequences. For example, will we really celebrate Seder in splendid isolation away from family and friends? Only questions. No answers.

Jerusalem 19.3.20                                                                                                                            Dow Marmur

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