Tuesday 14 April 2020

Leading By Personal Example

Attribution:  United States Department of State
 The problems that we have had in holding Israel's leaders to personal accountability is not new.  The notion that politicians are above the law and not subject to the same rules as everybody else is unfortunately one that pervades Israel's political system.  This has reached the highest echelons in the hierarchy with a former president and a former prime minister having already served jail time for criminal offences committed.  The current list of charges levelled against Prime Minister Netanyahu do not help in any way to restore our faith in politicians and their behaviour.

Against this backdrop, little should surprise me in the way of politicians and leaders misbehaving.  And yet, some things over the past few weeks have surprised me into giving this matter some further thought.  My disgust has finally reached levels that have compelled me to air my thoughts in public.
Attribution: Kobi Gideon / GPO Israel

I was absolutely horrified at the inaction of the ultra-Orthodox leadership on the issue of the Coronavirus, both in Israel and around the world.  While doctors, scientists and international leaders were pronouncing the necessity of social distancing as a way to avoid the spread of the virus and to save lives, the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community were imploring their followers to continue life as usual.  Their communities were advised to continue to attend wedding parties, brit celebrations, attend shiurim and study classes and to pray in a minyan, a quorum of at least ten men.  This extended even to Israel's Minister of Health, Yaakov Litzman, himself a follower of the ultra-Orthodox Ger Hasidic dynasty.  Soon after appearing live on the news laying down legal restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather in any place, he was attending wedding functions that hosted many more than the permitted maximum that he had earlier been responsible for imposing upon the nation.

By the same token, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, one of the senior leaders of the Israeli Haredi community, refused to consider the pleas of the civilian authorities for social distancing.  Instead, he instructed his followers to continue to pray in a minyan.  A number of weeks after the social distancing rules had been implemented in Israel, he was finally convinced to instruct his followers not to pray in a minyan.  In spite of this,  he was seen praying in a minyan himself at his home in Bnei Brak not long after that.  These life-threatening actions not only violated laws of the land that he lives in, they also directly contradicted his own instructions.  Perhaps, more tellingly, the act of endangering humans and taking action that could threaten human life goes against the highest-ranking principle in the religion of preserving human life at any price.

Prime Minster Netanyahu appeared on prime time TV on two separate occasions to prepare Israelis for the Pesach (Passover) holiday.  He told the nation that the government had taken decisions that would not allow Pesach to be Purim.  It was believed that Purim parties were attended by many carriers or sufferers of the Coronavirus, perhaps unknowingly, and were a source of many secondary infections.  The Pesach Seder is usually a time when friends and family gather together to celebrate the start of the holiday.  But not this year, said the prime minister.  "A small Seder is a healthy Seder", were his words on TV to convince people that they would be allowed only to celebrate the Seder at their registered place of residence and in the attendance of their nuclear family.  A full lock-down and curfew was imposed on the whole country to prevent anybody from venturing more than 100 metres from their residence on Seder night.  Police were deployed across the country to enforce the lock-down in the most determined manner possible.  Apparently, that applied to everybody except for members of the families of the prime minister himself and the president of Israel, who both hosted family members who were not part of their immediate household for Seder night.  Yisrael Beiteinu leader Avigdor Lieberman was also apparently exempt from the restrictions after it was alleged that he hosted members of his family at his Seder who do not live in his household.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was forced to pay the price for his indiscretion having contracted the Coronavirus and passed it onto his wife.  He also succeeded in sending many members of the Ministry of Health into self-isolation to prevent them from the possibility of passing his virus onto other unsuspecting and innocent people.  Just at a time when the Ministry of Health needs all of its team at their healthiest, most available and strongest to fight the greatest health crisis in living memory.  And, while we wish the Netanyahu, Rivlin and Lieberman families good health in spite of their indiscretions, their actions are clearly unforgivable under the circumstances that we find ourselves.  Gushing apologies and excuses were naturally forthcoming, but this falls well short of the behaviour that we expect from our leaders.  We particularly expect more from those who stand in front of the TV cameras advising what people will be forced to do, at risk of fines or even prison sentences, then go about doing exactly the opposite themselves.  Leaders in earlier times were forced to resign and vacate their office for infringements far less serious than these.  I do miss the days of leaders who are held accountable and responsible for their words and actions.

This sorry episode demonstrates a two-tier system that spells future disaster for any country.  If the leaders are unable to adhere to the rules, how can they expect other citizens to do so?  The simple answer is that they cannot.  The leaders set the tone for how others will behave.  Actions speak louder than words, and it is impossible to expect that ordinary citizens will not follow suit in their actions too.  This ultimately creates an environment where the unacceptable will become acceptable by virtue of common infringement of the laws.  Time has come for a return to leaders who not only set the rules, but adhere to them as well.  If not, our society will unavoidably fall into decline.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

A New Modern-Day Plague

Image from calcalist.co.il
We are entering the Pesach (Passover) holiday in the midst of the greatest health challenge that the world has had to confront in living memory.  The Coronavirus epidemic has changed the world that we know in so many different ways.  It is almost difficult to see how things can ever go back to the way that they were a few months ago.

In Israel, in spite of having gone into lock-down at a relatively early stage of the outbreak of the virus, we are now having to deal with an infection rate in some ultra-Orthodox areas which is threatening to infect as many as one third of the citizens living there.  The government has already placed the city of Bnei Brak into a quasi-military rule in attempt to stem the further spread of the infection, and other neighbourhoods and towns are set to follow suit.  Much has been written about how it has transpired that the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Israel, and indeed in other parts of the world, have become disproportionately infected by the Coronavirus.  Most of the theories range from the fact that this element of the population is disconnected from much of what surrounds them, including news media and online information.  These theories also discuss the fact that instructions are only respected when they come from the community's Rabbis, rather than from secular or governmental authorities.  And the fact that the Rabbis are generally reluctant to quickly assimilate the assessment of the civilian authorities, when they prefer to allow their religious-based responses to take effect.  In this case, the Rabbis ruled to keep schools, yeshivas and places of learning open when the government ordered them closed.  The Rabbis insisted upon praying in the presence of a minyan (a quorum of ten men) when the laws of social distancing implemented by the government prevented this.  Additionally, functions to celebrate weddings and other family events were ruled to continue when the civilian authorities decided that these presented a risk to life and limb.  One of the most recognised leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel, 92 year-old Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, was found to be praying with a minyan at his home as recently as last week in spite of having finally publicly ordered his followers not to do so.

As a result of these actions and inactions, Israel heads into the Pesach holiday period with great uncertainty.  It seems as though the huge number of people who were recently diagnosed as suffering from the Coronavirus from the ultra-Orthodox community have set us on an irreversable track to a medical catastrophe that will result in tens, possibly hundreds of deaths from the virus in the coming weeks.  It is ironic that this is set to coincide with the first few weeks of the counting of the Omer (the 7 week period that links Pesach to Shavuot) during which it is traditional to observe rituals of mourning.  The reason for the observation of these mourning rituals is because of the events that took place in the first century AD when 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died in a plague.  It is believed that they stopped dying on Lag B'Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer.  In a strange but very sad and unfortunate déjà vus, we are on a path to relive this to some degree, although hopefully not nearly to the same extent.  The reason that is commonly given and widely believed for the death of Rabbi Akiva's students is lashon hara, the speaking of negative things behind people's backs, whether true or not.  Lashon hara is one of the reasons being used as a way to explain why the world is having to endure the effects of the Coronavirus.

There can be little doubt that lashon hara is prevalent in all communities, is undesirable and is a problem in our society.  It is a problem that has been in evidence over the centuries, and seems very difficult to control or reduce.  It has been used to explain the occurrence of many disasters in Jewish history over the centuries, including the destruction of the Temples.  To me, on this occasion, it seems too easy to use this as an excuse for the current pandemic that we are suffering, and to explain the deaths of those who are suffering from it.  It is simply not acceptable to explain this as being because of lashon hara, and not to take a deep introspective view about the community's general lack of adherance to the orders of the civilian authorities.

There can be little doubt that the leaders of the community chose not to take note of the deliberate and highly-justified restrictions that were quickly imposed on our society to retard the spread of the virus.  They decided, in direct contradiction, to command their followers to continue to behave as before.  Word went out to keep shuls operating when others in Israel were closed, to keep schools open when others in the country were closed, and to keep operating as usual without consideration of the instructions by which everybody else was living.  This indicates that the leadership knew exactly what the civilian authorities were ordering, and they took their own independent decision to ignore these orders.  The Israeli minister of health, himself a follower and Rabbi from an ultra-Orthodox sect, should have brought the government's message to the ultra-Orthodox leadership and ensured that they followed the instructions in the same way as all other citizens in the country were required to do.  Instead, he stands accused of ignoring these instructions himself, and attending public events at a time when this was expressly forbidden by the government that he is a minister of.  The fact that he is also now inflicted by the virus cannot necessarily be inferred from this, but it is certainly shameful that he did not take heed of his own government's instructions.  More than that, the fact that he did not take it upon himself to bring this critical message to all leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community will surely hang as a black cloud over his head when the final death toll is tallied.  This is equally true of all senior leaders within the ultra-Orthodox community, who simply chose to ignore and contradict the expert opinions that are unanimous in their views that staying home saves lives.

When the dust settles on this set of tragic events and things revert back to some semblance of what we knew before, it is my sincere hope that lessons will be learned.  It is difficult for me to believe that the ultra-Orthodox community will not be affected by what is happening in their neighbourhoods now, and the disastrous mistake in ignoring civilian warnings and instructions.  The tension between them and the democratically-elected government in Israel has been one of the enduring stories of the State of Israel from its founding moments, and the current evens have the possibility of changing all of that.  In spite of the tolerance that has been shown to the ultra-Orthodox community by successive Israeli governments, including exemption from military service, government funding in a significantly disproportionate manner, incorporation of ultra-Orthodox parties in government coalitions and many other leniencies and concessions shown over the years, the ultra-Orthodox community has incessantly battled against governments and civilian authorities.  There are many within the ultra-Orthodox community who do not recognise the existence of the State of Israel and its government, while still being willing to accept social benefits from the state.  The sight of members of the ultra-Orthodox community screaming insults at Israeli police and accusing them of being Nazis, while police were instructing them to maintain social distancing in order to protect their own lives, is part of this tense and unacceptable relationship.  If the events surrounding the Coronavirus cannot change that, it seems that nothing will.  It is my hope that one of the most important outcomes of the virus and its effects, is a change in the relationship between government and ultra-Orthodox.  And a general change in the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox and other sectors of the population.  There is enough space for all of us to live with mutual respect.  Are my dreams unrealistic?  I hope not.

 The leaders of the ultra-Orthodox community have been exposed and shown up during the course of this pandemic.  Their refusal to take heed of the advice of scientists and civilian authorities has cost some of them their lives, and has cost the lives of many of their followers.  It raises a real question regarding the direction in which their leadership is taking their community.  Their advice on many real-world issues must surely now be in doubt.  I hope that the new generation of leaders that rise up following this episode will never forget the failures of their predecessors, and will find a way to do things differently going forward.

Chag sameach.