Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Israel’s Corona Conundrum: Collectivism vs. Individualism

Every country in the world has to deal with the coronavirus as public policy. But most have a general ethos that determines their approach: society comes first, OR individual rights above all else. Israel, though, is caught in the middle – and the government’s dilemmas are now only getting harder to deal with.

If one looks at most countries in the Far East, a heavily collectivist region of the world, there is little public outcry when the government puts severe restrictions on individual choice regarding travel, movement, social distancing, mask-wearing, and even vaccination. In several countries that approach has worked wonders: China, Taiwan, and Singapore (almost no infections at all since Sept. 2020!), have had an overall, very low per capita infection rate, due to draconian measures that have been accepted by their citizenry.

Then there’s the United States with its hyper-individualistic ideology (“Live Free or Die!” is the official motto of one state, easily echoed by others). The Trump administration did almost nothing to force any preventive Corona measures; many state governments followed a similar policy of laissez-faire, or at best cajoling. The dire results are clear: the US ranks as the world’s eighth worst country out of 152 in fatality rates.

And Israel? As with almost everything else, the picture is complex and even paradoxical. The most “communal” sector in Israeli society – the ultra-Orthodox have taken an anti-establishment approach, akin to “collectivist individualism”, largely ignoring governmental guidelines and edicts. Meanwhile, the more individualist segments of society, such as liberal Tel Aviv, have largely (but not completely) adhered to relatively strict lockdown orders.

However, the main problem is society-wide, now that the vaccination program has ramped up: what to do with Israelis who refuse to get vaccinated? Despite the country being a world leader in vaccination rates, the “individual rights” vs. “collective responsibility” wars are heating up. The main salvo is between the teacher’s union and many parents of school-age children. A not insignificant number of teachers refuse to vaccinate, and last week several mayors announced that they would not let any teacher to appear in school without a vaccination certificate, or alternatively taking a Corona test every 48 hours, or having previously recovered from Corona; in short, without immunity or proving they are not carriers. One of these mayors even was willing to have such a teacher educate from home through Zoom.

The Justice Ministry then chimed in: mayors and school principals cannot stop teachers from teaching in the classroom if they refuse to vaccinate, and even mandatory testing is currently unacceptable from a legal standpoint. The only solution: Knesset legislation that would legalize such a mandatory policy – and even then, it is not completely certain that the High Court of Justice (BAGATZ) would accept that.

This is basically a microcosm of Israeli society’s shift over the last several decades from a collectivist nation to an individualistically oriented one. As is well known, Israel started out as an ideologically Socialist state with a communitarian society. The watershed election of 1977 in which the right-wing camp (Likud and other coalition partners) came to power was both a reflection of social exhaustion with “sacrificing for the group” and the start of “Americanization”, i.e., greater emphasis on individual freedom, privatization, and the like. Nevertheless, despite the Right governing for most of the past 44 years, Israelis have not lost all their social solidarity sentiments, as can be seen in the continuation of a strong social welfare safety net, near-universal army draft, and other “collective” public policies.

These two opposing mindsets are now clashing in the later stages of the Corona pandemic. Ironically, it is the (mostly) Right-wing government that is calling for more “solidarity” and “sacrifice” in staying in lockdown and not gathering socially – but the same individualistic “liberty” that the Right unleashed back in the late 1970s has now come home to roost, undercutting its own pandemic policy.

What will be the consequence of all this? Most probably a mild retrenchment of unalloyed, free market capitalism that PM Netanyahu especially has been pushing for the past three decades. As America is now beginning to realize, President Reagan was wrong (to paraphrase his famous dictum): “government is NOT the problem; it’s (part of) the solution.” In Israel, one can expect significant budgetary increases for the Health and Education Ministries that have proven during this Corona crisis to be seriously underfunded. On the other hand, don’t expect any full-fledged return to Israel’s original collectivism. Whatever the outcome of the upcoming elections, “Leftist” ideology will not be a major factor in the country’s next government – no matter how much it tries to “inject” such an ethos into the campaign.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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