Israel, Coronavirus, and Slivers of Hope for the Future

March 19, 2020Rabbi Josh Weinberg

There was something slightly eerie about watching the Knesset’s swearing-in ceremony this week, as each legislator-to-be filed in Noah’s-ark-style – two by two, or in some cases, threes – to avoid going over the mandated maximum of gathering. The irony of the name Knesset, which means “gathering,” was not lost.

During this time of a near breakdown in societal norms, Israel is rapidly dealing with the spread of COVID-19,  closing all major opportunities for gathering, including restaurants, bars, and the school system; it is now even limiting public transportation.

The other big news this week hinted that we may see a leadership turnover after 11 consecutive years (and three years in the ‘90s) of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rule.

Early this week, 61 Members of Knesset publicly recommended to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz become the country’s next prime minister. Not only is this a change after the past three elections, but the unlikely political bedfellows and loose alliances that have been forged are truly remarkable and unprecedented.

The 61 MKs who would constitute the coalition include the 33 members of Blue and White, the six members of Labor-Meretz (despite the abandonment of Gesher’s Orly Levy-Abukasis), the 15 members of the Joint List of Arab Parties, and, shockingly, the six members of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party.

Members of the Joint List of Arab parties have never, ever seen Avigdor Lieberman as a political ally. This would be the first time since each of their relative existences that the parties would agree to endorse the same candidate for prime minister. Their shared desire to remove Netanyahu brings them together, yet some are seeing this move as a sign of changing times.

It’s not quite the moment the prophet Isaiah dreamed of:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid; The calf, the beast of prey, and the fatling together, with a little boy to herd them.” (Isaiah 11:6)

But it is a moment for optimism in that this move may be the necessary step in avoiding a fourth election, restoring a more permanent government instead of the placeholder government currently at the helm.

The first order of business for the Gantz, Lapid, and Co. is to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein with a Blue and White MK in order to insist that Netanyahu stand trial. However, due to the debilitating effect of the coronavirus pandemic, the Government of Israel has rightfully shut down most institutions – now including the Knesset – which could pave the way for Netanyahu to secure his rule, insisting on emergency measures for both a unity government and delaying a transition.

Questions remain as to whether either or both of the two Haredi parties will join the ruling coalition. The Haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, largely detest Yair Lapid and see Lieberman  (who campaigned largely on the promise of ridding Israel of the ultra-Orthodox monopoly of the Chief Rabbinate) as anathema.

But the prospect of finding themselves left in the political wasteland of the opposition is a fate worse than excommunication.

Sympathy for the ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel continues to wane, especially this week, as they are perceived to be irresponsibly ignoring the cautionary regulations and guidelines put in to place to try to stymie the indiscriminatory spread of the virus.

Just this week, the Ministry of Health had to forcibly shut down Haredi institutions and legally forbid gatherings of more than 10 people (notably, the number required to form a prayer quorum). Images of hundreds gathering for a wedding between two Hassidic dynasties garnered great scrutiny and scorn as it plainly ignored the Health Ministry’s directives and increased the risk of contagion.

With all of the stress, anxiety, and potential panic that this moment in time brings, may new of these political developments offer us a small silver lining with which to find and grasp a glimmer of hope.

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