The Moral Failure in Israel’s Approach to the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Dr. Hanan Shai, BESA September 15, 2020

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Israel is different from other democracies in two ways: it has moral political values that are set forth in its Basic Laws, and its values are derived from Jewish morality. This means that Israel is not just a democracy; it is a Jewish democracy. The fight against COVID-19 requires difficult decision-making, and those decisions should be based on the country’s moral values. Instead, Israel is acting in contravention of its own moral values. Because those values are contained in its laws, this means the law is being violated as well.

Democracy as a method of government was designed to ensure individual freedom by decentralizing governmental power, with power descending from the top of a pyramid down toward its much broader base. The idea lacks an inherent morality, and because of that weak point, Kant said the democratic process could be used to establish a state for the sons of Satan.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which is forcing humanity to confront difficult moral issues, highlights this weak point of the democratic method. For example, Britain, the mother of the Western democracies and a paradigm of well-established democracy, enabled its hospitals to admit prospective large numbers of coronavirus cases by closing them to elderly people and transferring already hospitalized elderly people to old age homesall without ascertaining ahead of time whether they had been infected with the virus. And so, in the old age homes, thousands of members of the generation that had provided Britain with the power and capability to contend with such a crisis died—not necessarily from the virus, but from other ailments and conditions that required hospitalization. This is particularly ironic as it transpired that occupancy in British hospitals, even at the height of the pandemic, was lower than normal, not higher.

David Ben-Gurion, who was cognizant of democracy’s major weak point, wrote in his diary on the eve of the declaration of statehood:

I am in favor of a Jewish democracy. “Western” is not enough…. We are not required to identify with the West…. We have a special Jewish character—which should be the legacy of the world…. The value of human life and human freedom runs deeper among us, in accordance with the teachings of the prophets, than in Western democracy…. I want our future to be built on prophetic ethics.

Seeking to ensure that Israel would not fall prey to the weaknesses of Western democracy, Ben-Gurion made sure to include in Israel’s Declaration of Independence the fundamental values of the state, and to assert that “the State of Israel…will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

The Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty states: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free; these rights shall be upheld in the spirit of the principles set forth in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel” [emphasis added]. Thus the morality of the prophets, which is an integral part of the law of the state, was made binding like the law itself, and Israel was created as a Jewish democracy by law.

The pandemic gave Israeli democracy an opportunity to highlight the advantages of being a democracy with a special morality whose values are grounded in its constitution.

Maintaining social distance, which is a critical aspect of checking the spread of the pandemic, clashes head-on with fundamental democratic values including the right to demonstrate, freedom of movement, and freedom of worship. As a Jewish democracy, it could be expected that Israel would contend with the pandemic as mandated by the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and that, in light of the values of its Jewish morality in an emergency situation that endangers life, it would subordinate democratic values to morality and prohibit large gatherings that enable the virus to spread.

In fact, Israel left the right to hold large-scale demonstrations in place, thereby showing a blatant preference for the values of democracy—which, from a moral standpoint, is a blank slate—over the fundamental human right to life, which, according to Israeli law, takes precedence over the right to dignity, freedom, or any other right.

Because an emergency situation requires social mobilization and a deepening of the commitment to protect others from harm, it entails prioritizing duties over rights. The great democratic celebration of the right to demonstrate in Israel falsely signaled that the emergency had come to an end, paving the way to a mistaken state of calm and the rights attendant on it. In recent weeks, these rights have been drained to the lees in all sectors, leading to a loss of control over the spread of the pandemic and to the possibility that Israel will undergo a calamity similar to what Western democracy, which lacks an established morality, underwent during the first wave.

Thus, in a difficult hour of emergency, both secular Jews, whose grandparents laid down the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and Haredi Jews, who are commanded to “Keep thy soul diligently” and “Live by them,” are flouting the laws of the state and of Jewish morality, as well as the precepts of the Jewish religion in the vein of “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours.” This constitutes a serious national failure. The need of the hour is to investigate the reasons for this and overcome it as quickly as possible.

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Dr. Hanan Shai is a lecturer in strategic, political, and military thought in the Political Science Department at Bar-Ilan University.

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  1. “This closure is much more contentious than the first. The number of serious cases and fatalities—now totaling more than 1,100—remains relatively low compared to other countries, despite high positive test numbers. The overwhelming majority of coronavirus cases in Israel are asymptomatic. And while the government has begun to lay out the rules of the lockdown, quantitative goals and targets for opening the country have not been given.

    On Monday, the morning after the press conference, Chezy Levy, current director-general of the Health Ministry said that “we would like to get to 500 cases a day, but it is clear that this won’t happen now. If we see a decrease to 1,000 patients, proper behavior, lower morbidity, and simultaneously we stabilize the hospital system, that would be a positive signal to consider coming out of the lockdown.” Yet, it is extremely unlikely that such goals can be reached within a three-week timeframe.

    Most Israelis have accepted the risks of contracting the virus and have been living a relatively normal life. Many continuously refuse to wear masks properly despite government mandates, and virtually none are adhering to recommendations to employ social distancing. It’s not in the DNA of Israelis, who have long been trained to crowd together in a rather small country.

    Now, with case numbers skyrocketing, some doctors and hospital administrators have raised a red flag, stating that the medical system risks collapse unless the numbers of patients are dramatically reduced. Yet, this is by no means a consensus opinion. Many of their colleagues, including the heads of coronavirus wards at leading hospitals, have stated emphatically that the medical system is not on the verge of a breakdown, and that a new lockdown will do little to curtail the pandemic in the long term.

    The dramatic increase in positive cases is directly linked to a dramatic increase in testing, while the percentage of positive cases remains steady at approximately 9 percent. Less than a month ago, Israel was performing less than 20,000 daily tests and had approximately 1,800 new cases. Today, Israel is performing 45,000 tests per day, and positive case numbers have increased accordingly.

    Meanwhile, the percentages of severe infections and fatalities have steadily dropped comparatively.

    Some leading doctors have contended that the total case numbers, now more than 150,000 since the beginning of the pandemic (active cases are under 40,000) may actually be nine to 10 times higher than reported following serological antibody testing. They argue that Israel is likely approaching the apex of the curve and not far from the beginnings of herd immunity.

    Furthermore, the Finance Ministry estimates that a lockdown will cost the economy billions.”

    This is from an article by Alex Traiman , dated Sept. 14, on the JNS web site.

    To me, at any rate, it demonstrates that Israel’s supposed COVID crisis is essentially a cruel hoax. It will wreck Israel’s economy, and eventually cause huge increases in the death rate from suiicides, homicides, alcoholism and drug overdoses. Locked down at home, without their usual outlets for releasing tension and relaxing, Israelis will have nothing to do with their time but worry, smoke, drink, use narcotics and fight with their spouses.

  2. “The Red Cross Is Aiding Hundreds Of Jewish Pilgrims Who Have Amassed At Ukraine’s Closed Borders
    September 16, 2020 7:32 pm

    UKRAINE (JTA) – On the border of Belarus and Ukraine, Avremi Vitman tried to shake off the morning chill as he prayed earlier this week.

    Vitman was hungry and uncomfortable after yet another night sleeping in his coat, two weeks after arriving in Belarus en route, he hoped, to Uman, the Ukrainian city that is the site of an annual Rosh Hashanah pilgrimage for followers of Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement.

    “Nights are cold here, we sleep in our coats,” Vitman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He arrived at the border crossing on Monday after spending two weeks in Pinsk, sleeping at a compound set up there with help from the local Jewish community. “There’s little food, we share what we have and there are more people coming. Mostly we pray and we pray to be let in.”

    In a typical year, about 30,000 Breslov followers make the Uman pilgrimage — many believe that reciting a particular selection from the Book of Psalms at his graveside has particular power. This year, with the coronavirus pandemic raging, Ukraine closed its borders starting Aug. 29 in a move widely seen as trying to block them. But hundreds of pilgrims have made the trip anyway.

    So many Jewish pilgrims have amassed in the Belarusian city of Gomel that the Red Cross is providing humanitarian aid, setting up a field clinic to serve about 1,000 people who are still hoping to be admitted to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Belarusian soldiers are guarding the border checkpoint there.

    Few of the pilgrims came with adequate supplies for a long camping trip. Some brought their children. Now the road leading to the border checkpoint at the grassy fields beside it are dotted with suitcases, children scampering among them.

    With the temperature dropping to about 50 degrees Fahrenheit at night, some pilgrims have started bonfires for warmth. Families huddle together behind suitcases that they stack to block the chilly winds that blow in that corner of Belarus.

    “It’s unreal what’s going on here,” Nachum Klein, a pilgrim, told the Israeli broadcaster Kan on Tuesday.

    “What’s happening to the children is particularly shocking,” said Klein, who came to the border with his 9-year-old son. “At around 3 a.m. the wind started picking up, cold winds and children started shivering, and elderly people started turning blue.”

    The situation required the Red Cross to set up its tent with heating for children and older adults, Klein said.

    “The Red Cross people were handing out tea and blankets to people who were shivering in the wind,” he said.

    Belarusian soldier guard the border to Ukraine against hundreds of Jewish pilgrims on Sept, 15, 2020. (Courtey of Shahar Eliyahu)
    Jewish pilgrims in Belarus, at the closed Ukraine border, are trying to make their way to Uman, Sept, 15, 2020. (Courtesy of Shahar Eliyahu)
    The pilgrims are allowed to return to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, and fly back to their homes, mostly in Israel.

    “But coming to Uman is like oxygen, fuel for the entire year,” Klein said. “We’re prepared to sacrifice anything for it.”

    According to Vitman, who said he is willing to risk his life to reach Uman this year, as many as 4,000 people had planned to leave Minsk, Pinsk and Gomel on Tuesday for the border checkpoint.

    “There are more and more people coming here,” he said.

    Vitman said he assumed some “arrangement” would allow him entry to Ukraine once he arrived. Others, he said, had dressed up as secular tourists to get into the country, and he heard a few made it through, showing “there was discrimination against Orthodox Jews.”

    Are the pilgrims in Belarus arriving at the border to pressure the Ukrainian authorities to allow them to enter?

    “It’s not about pressure, it’s about trying to get as close to Rebbe Nachman as possible, and right now this is closest,” Vitman said.

    He grew up in Ashdod, in southern Israel, and recalled that he came to Uman for the first time when he was a month old. His parents are also among the hardcore believers of the Bratslav philosophy, with its emphasis on joy as a vehicle for worship.

    “I was here each year at least once since,” Vitman said. “It’s a promise. I made the promise, and Rabbi Nachman’s promise was made to me.”

    Klein said the pilgrims are willing to do what it takes to prevent spreading the coronavirus, which is now at a high in Israel.

    “We’re prepared to undergo three tests, if that’s what’s required, and spend as much time as necessary in confinement back home in Israel, if that’s necessary,” he said. “We’ll also keep to social distancing rules in Uman. We’re not different to any other tourist leaving Israel right now, but are being treated very differently. It’s discriminatory.”

    Jews walk down an alley leading to Pushkina Street in Uman, Ukraine on Sept. 8, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)
    Jews walk down an alley leading to Pushkina Street in Uman, Sept. 8, 2017. (Cnaan Liphshiz)
    Some videos showed the pilgrims near the Gomel checkpoint dancing while hugging in violation of social distancing measures, Kan’s Mendi Guzman reported.

    “There are always mishaps, but on a whole there will be total observance,” Klein assured him.

    Uman, in central Ukraine about 130 miles from Kyiv, the capital, now has about 1,500 foreigners who came before the border shutdown to beat it. The city of 82,000 has a Jewish community of about 300, most of them Israelis, who settled there in recent years.

    Klein in the Kan interview said the Israeli government “left them in the cold” by not helping convince the Ukrainian government to let them in. Many Breslovers seem to be especially angry at Shas, the Israeli Orthodox Sephardic party, which has many supporters in Breslov circles.

    “It’s outrageous, instead of helping the Jews stranded in dire straits, Shas is lashing out at them,” one prominent Breslov activist, Zadok David, wrote on Facebook.

    David was reacting to the comments of an Israeli lawmaker, Yakov Margi, about who is responsible for the current plight of the pilgrims and their children.

    “The person who decided to travel even though they knew the border is closed, they can assume the responsibility for the situation in which they put themselves, their children and others,” Margi said.

    Follow VosIzNeias For Breaking News Updates”

    Reminds me a little of the Jews stuck on the German-Polish border in 1938.

    When these people come back to Israel, these people may be sick from cold and exposure, and test positive for COVID-19. CV-19, like all infectious disease, tends to attack people whose immune systems have been weakened by exposure to the elements, poor sanitation, etc.

    The Ukraine’s ban on the annual visit to Uman, made at Israel’s insistence, has proved counterproductive as a means of limiting the spread of CV-19 in Israel.

  3. @ Adam Dalgliesh:

    Those blockheads made the problem themselves, although I have sympathy for them in their distress.. It must be amusing to see the expressions on their faces when they see the Red “CROSS”, on their kosher food packages or on whatever aid they’re getting from them. Me…I hate the sight of a cross. From youth in Ireand , where there’s a church in every block in Dublin…nearly…or so it seemed.. The smell of parrafin (from their little red lamps) still nauseates me.

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