The Jerusalem Post
Off-and-on masks and two faces
It was to be expected, but there’s a limit to the amount of comfort you can get from saying “Told you so.” Just days after the regulation requiring masks in public indoor spaces was lifted and Israelis felt the freedom of breathing freely in the summer heat, the number of coronavirus cases began to rise. Within less than a week, the masks were back, covering crestfallen faces. Or at least they were meant to be. Many Israelis, fully vaccinated, found it hard to return to a mask regime. I think many also found it hard because they had no one to blame.
Last year – light-years ago in corona terms – the ultra-Orthodox became the fall guys. The rhetoric, even in Israel, often bordered on the antisemitic. This time, however, the virus’s comeback was courtesy of citizens returning from trips abroad and the first two major breakouts were in the definitely non-haredi towns of Modi’in and Binyamina.
Indeed, this week, two of the most influential ultra-Orthodox figures, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, in line with the government recommendations, called for children above the age of 12 to be vaccinated.
The current coronavirus surge in Israel came courtesy of thoughtless – criminal – travelers who thought that quarantine was for losers. Corona, which had been waiting for a chance to pounce back, attacked children in particular as most of the adult Israeli population is inoculated. The good news is that the rising figures of infected was not accompanied by a surge in fatalities and even the number of serious cases remains low. The Pfizer vaccine is proving its worth. The medical system is not under threat of being inundated. Life goes on in what passes for normal in 2021. (And surely I’m not the only person shocked to discover that 2021 is half over.)
The “masks-off masks-on” regulations
were an unpleasant reminder that COVID-19, the virus that has so fundamentally changed every aspect of life all over the world, is going to be with us for a while. It’s time to move to the stage of learning to live alongside the disease. Last year, the suggestion that COVID was like flu became buried under the mounting bodies of victims. The increasingly apparent ongoing ill effects – Long COVID – also clearly demonstrated that this was a far nastier virus. Corona prevention needs to become a habit, second nature.
A tip to international health authorities: Find a new system of naming the different variants. It’s all Greek to me. I understand the desire to avoid branding different countries with strain names such as the British, Brazilian or Indian variants, but
I found myself struggling to recall which letter comes after Delta in the Greek alphabet. Between Epsilon and Omega is a great gap that I don’t have any desire filling with COVID mutations.
I have been attending outdoor prayers in a local park for more than a year – while synagogues were closed or limited in numbers and strict about the need for masks. Last week, we had what was originally intended to be a farewell kiddush before disbanding and heading back to our “mother-minyanim.” Under the circumstances, the close community of neighbors that has grown over the last 15 months or so, decided to continue to pray together in the open air. The kiddush – set out on picnic tables in the park – became instead a celebration of togetherness in these
unusual times. A child who had barely been crawling when we first started meeting is now a toddler capable of kicking a football on the grass; many, many other babies have been born and we have celebrated as children have reached bar- and bat-mitzvah age, old enough to be vaccinated.
Last year, I found the initial ban on communal prayer (followed by severe limits on the numbers of worshipers) very hard – particularly in view of the lack of restrictions on the number of demonstrators who were allowed to amass outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem or in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square and elsewhere. Demonstrating against Bibi seemed to become something of a new religion, an obsession. Undoubtedly part of the attraction was that there was nothing much else to do social-wise during lockdowns.
I argued all along that mass demonstrations were as much a danger as mass prayers or funeral parades. The right to demonstrate is a sacred principle in a democracy, but no less important is the need for social solidarity in a pandemic. Just as prayer gatherings needed to be restricted in numbers, so did the demonstrations.
I wasn’t surprised – and definitely wasn’t upset – when former prime minister Ehud Olmert decided to stop writing his weekly column in The Jerusalem Post and its sister publication, Maariv. (Several colleagues have variously laughed at me or shouted at me for complaining about the column so frequently.) It does seem pathetic, however, that Olmert feels he has nothing to say if it isn’t bashing Bibi as prime minister. Similarly, the Black Flag anti-Netanyahu protest movement has also disbanded now that its goal has been achieved and Benjamin Netanyahu has found himself as leader of the opposition instead of leading the country.
Just as democracy needs a strong opposition, so does it need watchdogs. That the Netanyahus did not immediately vacate the official Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem caused a mini-uproar around the inauguration of the new government led by Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid. But the fact that Bennett does not plan on moving in to the prestigious address on the corner of Balfour and Smolenskin streets should not go unchecked. It’s admirable that Bennett as a family man does not want to uproot his children from their schools and friends in Ra’anana, but the prime minister’s job is, well, being prime minister. And this requires residing in the official residence. An abode in Ra’anana does not have the same resonance as living in Jerusalem, the country’s capital. What did he think when he fought so hard for the job? That he’d have every evening off to spend with the wife and kids? As relocation goes, it’s not a major leap. Bennett could move into “Balfour” and spend shabbatot with his family.
There is definitely a lot of work to be done. The challenges include developing the relationship with the US under the Biden administration while Iran has no plan of abandoning its nuclear dreams; the security situation with Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and the Palestinian Authority headed by the frail and elderly Mahmoud Abbas, who constantly produces reasons to postpone elections; balancing the relationship with China; expanding and consolidating peace and normalization agreements; and dealing with the rising tide of antisemitism.
The decisions regarding evicting Jewish residents from the outpost of Evyatar in Samaria, while possibly recognizing (equally illegal) land grabs by Bedouin in the Negev and elsewhere could have a far-reaching impact. Ditto the course of action regarding the (legal) eviction of Arab residents in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah-Shimon Hatzaddik neighborhood who (illegally) refuse to pay rent to Jewish landlords. And the implications of the so-called Family Reunification Bill could fill a column in their own right.
As many politicians and pundits have noted, the Bennett-Lapid government is based on compromise, give and take – until something gives. The government is struggling to overcome its first few hurdles. Of all the issues that have grabbed media attention, the one that seems most insolvable is the ultimate battle of the sexes.
Following a complaint by a female member of the public, Labor Party leader and new Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli has promised to tackle the tricky topic of the temperature of the air-conditioning on trains.
“... It’s known that the world caters more to men, and this is the case also with air conditioners,” said the longtime feminist activist via her TikTok account. “I’ll take care of it and see if we can set the air-conditioning on the train so that the girls won’t be cold and the boys won’t be warm. I’m on it.”
I’ll be happy to track her progress. The heat is on. And so are the masks. Summer 2021.