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Somewhere between fragmentation and breakdown

Discrimination, incitement, selective enforcement and institutional manipulation are the problem; it'll take reconfiguring the country to find the solution
Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Jerusalem, on October 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews walk in Jerusalem, on October 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The beginning of Israel’s exit from its second lockdown has been beyond chaotic. Even if adjustments are made in the next few days, it would be foolhardy to expect a return to any previously known routine. Too much has changed since the beginning of the coronavirus, magnifying preexisting patterns and accentuating features that have developed since. Any attempt to move forward must take into account these shifts, some of them seismic, not only in the sphere of health and wellbeing, but also in economic circumstances, social relations, institutional capabilities, and prevailing norms.

The country is being torn asunder. Instead of one, extremely fluid, state with ill-defined borders, population and sovereignty (as Yuli Tamir so skillfully put it in a recent article in Haaretz), it may today contain at least two — if not more — autonomous units which call into question whether it is a viable state at all. No workable strategy can be designed, let alone implemented, without addressing this new, and extremely unsettling, reality. The challenge, therefore, is enormous: is it possible to devise a comprehensive strategy to treat a pandemic which knows no boundaries and at the same time design tailor-made policies to deal with its highly varied effects?

The first characteristic of the present situation, and the most obvious, is its differential impact. Although the coronavirus is blind — it does not distinguish on the basis of race, gender, national identity, ethnic origin, religion, or geographic location — it does affect each of these categories in quite distinct ways, exacerbating inequalities and fueling enmity. This is especially true of the divergent influence of the pandemic on Israel’s major communities. The Haredim have unquestionably suffered far more than most other groups on every measure conceivable. Arab society, too, has been exceptionally hard hit. And certain sub-groups in the Jewish community have felt the effects of the virus — which in one way or another has touched everyone –significantly more than others. Refugees and Palestinians in the West Bank have been particularly exposed. The data is consistent and telling, with the direct confrontation between already contentious segments of the population reaching a boiling point during the past few days.

Some of the influence of the pandemic has been geographical. Areas in the periphery — such as Eilat — are reeling from the medical emergency, even though their contagion rates are below those recorded elsewhere. The same holds true for segments of the north and the Negev. Specific neighborhoods in major cities have become even more depressed (such as those in south Tel Aviv or in Palestinian and ultra-Orthodox sections of Jerusalem). This spatial component deepens separation and reinforces social as well as physical divides.

Still other differences are cross-cutting. Older people have been more adversely affected than children (explaining why preschool frameworks have preceded schools in the government’s phased program). Women have suffered much more than men economically (62.7% of job-seekers today are women, who until the beginning of the pandemic constituted a full 48% of the workforce), physically (according to figures released by the police, domestic abuse complaints have risen by a staggering 160% in comparison to the same period last year), legally (past achievements, such as job protection during pregnancy, have been rolled back), and social standing. Younger people — especially those in their 20s and early 30s — entertain from far more reduced prospects than their parents. These differences create enormous strains and tensions, contributing to Israel’s general malaise.

When taken together, Israel’s already unequal society has become even more so. For over a decade Israel has been at the top of the list of OECD members in income inequality. It sadly boasts one of the highest percentages of poor people in the population. Now this feature is, if possible, even more pronounced.

The second pattern that has developed during the course of the coronavirus is the further marginalization of already depressed segments of society. Social, spatial and socioeconomic differences in Israel — as elsewhere — tend to overlap. The intersection between religion, location and poverty is well known in Israel (Elad and Beitar Illit are a far cry from Ramat Hasharon and Herzliya). Predominantly Muslim Shfar’am and Tira have been much more prone to the effects of the pandemic than Afula or Kfar Saba. Women in each of these groups have suffered more than men; the elderly more than youth. This process, if possible, heightens the gaps that have already been exacerbated.

Increased marginalization implies a greater sense of disaffection with the country and what it has to offer. Although most Israelis believe that the Haredim have benefited unduly because of their centrality in the maintenance of the present coalition and that they are treated with kid gloves at the expense of others, this is not necessarily how they themselves perceive their current situation. From their perspective, they are systematically misunderstood and their needs and concerns increasingly ignored. Many of their spiritual leaders, never part of the Zionist camp, feel put upon. They are cultivating a remoteness from the country and the powers that be (even their own elected officials), leading to an active distancing from its dictates in recent months.

It is not too difficult to imagine how marginalization also breeds withdrawal in other quarters. This is especially true of Palestinians within and beyond the Green Line (not to speak of asylum-seekers). But it also holds true for Ethiopian citizens of the country, for impoverished sectors of the population and for local authorities — many of which have asserted their right and capacity to manage their own affairs. All this — especially when coupled with corruption and mismanagement in upper echelons — breeds suspicion and further withdrawal.

The third mark, then, of the coronavirus period follows from here: a notable trend towards isolation on the individual, communal, religious, geographic and political levels. In some instances (Haredim, some local authorities, certain political persuasions), this pullback is voluntary. In some it is consciously enforced (Palestinians, foreigners). And in still others it the unintended byproduct of misplaced policies and their consequent ramifications (especially among certain occupational, ideological and lower-income groups).

Whatever the trigger, the upshot is not dissimilar. Israel today is less nuanced than in the past. It is far more chaotic. And it contains multiple signs of rebellion amongst large portions of the population — the secular, the religious; the poor and the rich; Jews and Arabs; and, yes, right and left. The country is somewhere between fragmentation and breakdown — institutionally, socially and normatively.

How, then, is it possible to deal with this reality? Any serious approach must balance the need to create all-encompassing guidelines for dealing with the ongoing medical emergency together with the necessity of crafting measures which take into account the rising inequalities, the actual and felt marginalization of diverse groups and the trend towards disengagement.

It is vital to deal with the symptoms of the problem: economic distress, growing violence, lawlessness, policy inconsistencies. These are at the root of individual suffering and human misery. But just doing so runs the risk of perpetuating different kinds of victimhood without offering any horizon for something better. It is also tempting — and necessary — to deal with the inequitable and disruptive effects of the pandemic in a sensitive, specific, manner that provides answers to the divergent needs of specific groups. Without such a strategy, no progress can be made on almost any front. Yet such measures contain the danger of sustaining a system which itself accelerated the present turmoil.

It is therefore high time to come to grips with the root causes of the current condition and their inherent interconnectivity. Discrimination, inequality, incitement, selective enforcement and institutional manipulation lie at the base of the devolution of Israel’s democracy and the undoing of its fundamental structures. Consciously reconfiguring the ideational, normative, physical, structural and human parameters of the country in a comprehensive, just and egalitarian manner is a prerequisite for its survival and revitalization in new and sustainable forms.

About the Author
Naomi Chazan is professor (emerita) of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A former Member of the Knesset and Deputy Speaker of the Knesset, she currently serves as a senior research fellow at the Truman Research Institute at the Hebrew University and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.
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