How Jerusalem became the hotspot of Israel’s corona crisis

The Mayor of Jerusalem endangered his residents for purely political reasons

Israel is doing relatively well in dealing with the coronavirus crisis. However, even within Israel, some areas are harder hit than others.

Unfortunately, Jerusalem has the dubious double award of being the hardest hit city in Israel both in terms of numbers of deaths and numbers of people infected. The rate of propagation of the virus is also higher in Jerusalem than in the rest of the country.

This did not have to be the case.

Two weeks ago I sent a letter to the Ministry of Health, together with my fellow councilmembers from the Hitorerut local party, urging them to look at Jerusalem differently. Jerusalem, the biggest city in Israel, is divided into very distinct neighborhoods; each the size of a city in itself. We realized that in some neighborhoods, the rate of infection was even higher than in Bnei Brak, the city that was put into quarantine. In many others, the rate of infection was much lower than the national average. We drew the logical conclusions and made a simple recommendation: stop looking at Jerusalem as one story, and start investigating the story in each neighborhood.

The Ministry of Health heeded our request and quickly understood that some areas were in dire need of quarantine. It suggested that these areas become restricted areas – both to protect the rest of Jerusalem and to protect the inhabitants of these very neighborhoods. Recognizing that this alone would be insufficient, it also recommended an additional effort to separate the healthy from the sick within these areas. Looking at Jerusalem neighborhood by neighborhood would allow the efforts to be as focused and effective as possible. We welcomed their suggestions, and we thought the Mayor of Jerusalem – who surely has our population’s best interests at heart – would too.

So we were surprised when the Mayor, Moshe Lion, started to act against the interests of the city instead.

He began lobbying the government against such a move, and even hysterically accused us of inciting hatred against the Ultra-Orthodox. True, most of the areas requiring restriction were Ultra-Orthodox, but the arguments were based on facts and numbers – not demographics. We were looking at the infection rates and numbers of sick people, not who these people are.

On top of that, the restrictions were to protect first and foremost the inhabitants of these very neighborhoods. Our suggestion could protect the lives of ultra-Orthodox living in these neighborhoods.

Lion’s opposition could only have two consequences: if he was unwilling to look at Jerusalem as separate constituent neighborhoods, then either all of Jerusalem would have to be closed down, twisting the knife into our already dire municipal economy, or none of the necessary steps would be taken, meaning people would keep getting sick and dying.

What was his motivation? The only logical answer is that Mayor Moshe Lion focused not on health but on the map. The areas most struck by COVID-19 voted for him. He imagined that restricting these areas would not make the residents happy. He completely ignored that it was for their health, as well as the good of the rest of the city. He made political calculations at the cost of human lives.

Lion managed to stop the decision from becoming official for one week, after which the numbers became untenable and the national government rejected his position.

As we know, the effects of COVID-19 happen up to two weeks after we take certain steps. This mean that up until today, we cannot know the full extent of the price we will be forced to pay for Lion’s political calculations.

However, one thing is clear: the number of sick people in Jerusalem keep rising at a higher rate than the rest of Israel. People are continuing to die.

How many lives has Lion’s week of obstinacy cost?

The Mayor of Jerusalem preferred political calculations to the good of his residents. He ignored the professional expertise of the Ministry of Health in order to score political points with his supporter base. In the process, he risked the lives of Jerusalemites, and one can logically assume that he might have caused additional deaths in the nation’s capital.

The worst part is that Lion loses either way. He made a cost-benefit calculation, but when the voters realize he risked their lives to protect his own position, he may well lose their support in any case.

But I am not here to score political points. In times of crisis, we must show a united front. We have to put the good of the city before political calculations, and therefore we must keep our criticism in closed room discussions. That’s why, while I sit in opposition in the city council, I have taken care to refrain from criticizing the city’s response to COVID-19 in public. I have kept it for private discussions of the city council, where I voice it in order to do what I always seek to do: secure the best outcomes I can for the city I love and its people.

The failure of the Mayor to put the city’s good ahead of his political interests leave me no choice but to call on the general public to make him understand that such an approach is exactly what will cost us all.

Dan Illouz is a member of the Jerusalem city council for Hitorerut and a member of the Likud party.

About the Author
MK Dan Illouz (Likud) is a member of the Foreign Affairs committee and the chairman of the Knesset’s Abraham Accords Caucus.