In the last two weeks of seger (lockdown) in Israel, an almost laughably long list of public figures have admitted to violating the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions. Some of them are lawmakers who are themselves directly responsible for initiating the lockdown.
These violations include visiting a child to bring him food for the pre-Yom Kippur meal, hosting grandchildren for holiday visits, getting hair professionally styled and, most flagrantly, engaging in a 150km romp across Northern Israel and ultimately contracting and concealing the virus herself.
Two of the violators sit on the Corona committee in the Knesset that is responsible for passing these restrictions, one is in charge of contract tracing for the entire country, another is married to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the most strident lockdown supporter of all.
Giving the ubiquity of these violations, it’s likely that they are not the only politicians to bend the rules a bit, simply the only ones who were caught. Public condemnation has been swift and fierce, focusing on the danger that these supposed role models have wrought to their surroundings and their own lapses of judgment or character.
These criticisms miss the point. The politicians in question do not violate the rules because they are weak or careless individuals.They do so because they do not think that they are actually engaging in dangerous behavior. The Israeli brouhaha brings to mind America’s Dr. Fauci enjoying a baseball game and lowering his mask to laugh with his friends, or Nancy Pelosi’s Marie-Antoinette hair salon moment.
Their crime is not engaging in what is considered by most, even now, to be innocuous behavior. It is that they promulgate policies in which they don’t really believe - they impose blanket restrictions on others without fully buying into the logic or need for such restrictions themselves.
I do not wish to enter into a debate about the efficacy of lockdowns, masks or the like. I do believe we are in uncharted territory where there is no truly authoritative scientific consensus about what works and what does not. Life is complicated, what is necessary for one individual or community may not, upon careful reflection, be worth the very real consequences for another.
Saving lives is a supreme value, but not every restriction is inevitably bound to save life at a degree commensurate with its drawbacks. The leaders of the virus suppression policies even admit to the lack of epidemiological basis for some of the restrictions.
For example, here in Israel one rule of the lockdown is that people should not travel further than 1km (0.6 mile) from their residence, even if the destination is a spacious open-air nature preserve, for example. Another is that we must wear masks even when walking alone outside. Coffee shops are shuttered, bakeries may serve iced coffee only, and gas stations can serve it hot. I went to pick up a pizza the other day and the owner bashfully asked me to stand across the street, order it on my cell-phone and he would then walk it over for delivery.
I do not fault any individual who violates some of these “health” guidelines, be it out of genuine need or even “recklessness.” I do question the system in which the public is asked to abide by rules some of which make no sense to them by politicians and bureaucrats who themselves don’t seem to really believe in or follow them.
All of this behavior brings to mind a song by Meir Ariel that I am very fond of called “.צועק את שחסר לו״” “Man shouts what he is missing.” Here is the first stanza in my rough translation:
Man shouts what he is missing
Missing faith, he shouts faith
Missing reciprocity, he shouts reciprocity
Missing pride, he shouts pride
Missing a sense of unity, he shouts unity
Man shouts what he’s missing
If he’s missing nothing, he doesn’t shout
The song goes on along similar lines: man chases what he is missing, if he’s missing justice he chases justice, if he’s missing peace he chases peace, and so forth. The song can be interpreted in different ways, but on a surface level I believe it is saying that sometimes the things we shout for most stridently in public actually reflect the things we are missing in ourselves. When we are truly in a place of peace and confidence we have no need to shout at all.
Perhaps we can say the Israeli government shouts “control” because they lack “control.” They can’t control the virus - no one can. And they can’t even control themselves.
A short anecdote to illustrate this point: a few weeks ago I was shopping in a local free-range egg store with my mother (we are blessed to live in a city that has such stores) . About to buy our eggs, I noticed a frail looking older man waiting in line behind us and just to be nice, I asked if he would like to go ahead. He did so but took the opportunity to stop and berate my mother whose mask had accidentally fallen beneath her nose. “Wearing a mask that doesn’t cover the nose is gornisht- nothing!” he told her loudly, in a weird pidgin Hebrew-Yiddish.
Now I am no mask-ologist, but from what I know the droplets or aerosols exchanged in this acrimonious interaction outweighed whatever benefit her re-covering her nose would have brought him. Wouldn’t a “safer” approach have been to just to pay for your eggs quickly and hightail it out of there? And why, if you are afraid, make the extra trip to an artisanal free-range egg store? Why not buy eggs during your regular grocery run or get them delivered? The answer, I think, is that in that moment this man wanted to rebuke her more than he wanted to protect himself. He shouted caution because by going to the store he lacks caution, and this I believe is part of what is going on in Israel as well.
On some level, when I heard about Israeli public figures hypocritically violating their own lockdown by doing things like delivering food to their children, hosting their grandchildren for Sukkot, traveling 150km to pray with in-laws for Yom Kippur and whatnot, I also found it kind of sweet.
Perhaps we can say the Israeli government shouts “control” because they lack “control.” They can’t control the virus - no one can. And they can’t even control themselves. Yet the Israeli public, both the officials and the people, possesses a strong intuition regarding the importance of family, of celebrating Jewish holidays, and of taking care of each other.
There is a concept in halakha called “אין גוזרין גזרה על הצבור אלא אם כן רוב הצבור יכולין לעמוד בה"” We don't make decrees by which most of the public cannot possibly abide." When we impose extreme restrictions that are bound to be violated, we essentially punish only the most punctilious among the population, the rule followers who, let’s face it, are probably not the big virus spreaders anyway. Rather than fight with the intuitions of a largely decent and kind public, effective laws should harness people’s best instincts to achieve positive outcomes.
In the coming weeks we will hopefully see the easing of the lockdown and a return to normal life, hopefully giving people the opportunity to recoup the personal and financial losses they have incurred. Let us, the mostly powerless public, remember some of our disappointment with those in power and their inability to abide by their own unrealistic decrees. This can translate into political change or, more modestly, to a reminder to ensure that before we shout at others, we have done our very best to improve ourselves.
Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator who recently made Aliyah to Israel.