The number of issues calling for our attention has been overwhelming and so little offers clarity.
Yesterday was Yom Hashoah Ve’HaGevurah – Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism. This date was picked because it marks the anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw ghetto, an historic interval of great Jewish heroism.
A memorial of the uprising by sculptor Nathan Rappaport, at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem:
The more one hears the stories of survivors, however, the greater is the realization that there was another type of gevurah – a private, internal bravery – exhibited during the Holocaust, as well. One listens, and asks, How did they do it? How did they stand against the consummate evil of the Nazis?
What made the observance of the day more painful and difficult were the current restrictions on gatherings necessitated by the coronavirus. It added an additional layer of sadness, as ‒ even more so ‒ did our awareness of the many who are sick or have died. We looked back at that most horrendous of times through the lens of our own difficult times.
Monday night, the formal program at Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust Remembrance Center, could not be held. There were no live programs before audiences anywhere during the course of the day. Instead we were provided with a wealth of Zoom and on-line testimonies, discussions, videos and lessons.
In a number of instances Zoom opened us to the experience of a “zikron b’salon” ‒ a survivor recounting memories from a private living room. I listened to Dr. Livia Bitton-Jackson, who had been in Auschwitz. She related that she continually repeated to herself Psalm 118:17 — “I shall not die, but live…” (lo amut). “I shall not die, I shall not die…”
After her rescue she married and established a family, took advanced degrees, taught, and authored several books. I call this amazing, and she is not alone by any means.
We here in Israel are making progress in moving past the worst of the coronavirus. As of this past Sunday there were moderate reductions in the restrictions for people under 65 (which leaves me out) – with the situation to be re-evaluated in two weeks. Many restrictions regarding wearing of masks and social distancing are still very much in force. There are constant warnings about the possibility that the rules will be tightened again if people do not conduct themselves with care.
I track the numbers daily, and the single most important statistic, I believe, is the number of active cases. That number has been going down: the number of new cases each day for the last four or five days being fewer than the number of newly recovered cases.
But there is tremendous confusion in one regard in particular. Today it was reported – with a tone of alarm in the news reports – that the number of daily new cases had increased. Now there is talk, Heaven help us, of a resurgence possible in May.
It was Defense Minister Naftali Bennett who made the most cogent observation:
“The Health Ministry and National Security Council’s model is based on the number of sick people. This is problematic, because the number of sick people is a function of the number of tests.” (Emphasis added)
Well, yes, there is that, isn’t there? The “number of new cases” does not indicate how many more people in the country now have the virus, but rather how many cases have been uncovered via the tests. Recently more testing has been done, and so more new cases are announced.
Bennett is pushing for 30,000 tests to be done daily, to keep tabs on the situation and allow things to open up.
None of this is simple.
Before moving away from the subject of the coronavirus, I want to look at few related news items that are positive.
First, I am delighted to report that Eli Beer, founder and head of United Hatzalah, came home yesterday (Tuesday), after a horrendous bout with the virus in Florida, which required him to be placed on a respirator. He is still weak and requires additional time to recover, but he is back. He flew home on a private plane owned by philanthropists Sheldon and Dr. Miriam Adelsohn, and was escorted by members of Miami’s Jewish community.
He was greeted at the airport by his family, with whom he had an emotional reunion, and hundreds of Hatzalah volunteers.
See the beautiful videos and stills of the honor guard of volunteers with their ambulances and ambucycles in the link here:
“I fought for my life for several weeks,” Eli said. “Now I’m returning to Israel to continue saving lives.”
On the tarmac, as soon as he left the plane, he said the Shema (a declaration of faith, said with eyes covered):
And speaking of United Hatzalah, I have a lovely story which involves one of its Arab volunteers, Ebrahim Ayuty.
A 90 year old haredi woman from Bnai Brak had tested positive for coronavirus and was brought to a coronavirus hotel (for people who do not require hospitalization but need to be isolated) right before the seventh day of Pesach, which is a yom tov, a full holiday, requiring the lighting of candles. She hadn’t brought any with her and the hotel had run out.
So they called United Hatzalah, and Ebrahim responded, going around on his ambucyle until he found a store that was opened and had candles. He brought them to the old woman in time; she was enormously grateful, saying she had not missed lighting candles in 70 years.
I am thankful that I was able to help. I volunteer with United Hatzalah so that I can help people, no matter who they are or what they need. Normally, I respond to medical emergencies, but since the onset of the coronavirus in Israel, the lives of so many people have been turned upside down. It is a gift to be able to help people bring back a little bit of normalcy during this epidemic. Helping someone keep an age-old tradition alive is incredibly important to that person and therefore it is important to me as well.”
Stories such as this bring hope for a better tomorrow, and I believe that there are many such stories arising from our current crisis.
We are all touched by the same struggle now, and it may well bring a new closeness between various segments of our larger community. This is an important theme I will be returning to.
On Tuesday, a group of Hesder soldiers (soldiers who are in a program that combines Yeshiva study and army service) were packing food to be distributed to people in need because of the economic hardship caused by the coronavirus.
Because it was Yom Hashoah, they took a break to pay tribute to the survivors by singing “Ani Ma’amin,” a song of faith in the coming of the Moshiach that was sung during the Holocaust.
Click here for the moving video:
All day on Monday, conflicting reports were coming in: Netanyahu and Gantz are on the verge of an agreement for a unity government; the meeting with Netanyahu and Gantz has stalemated; back and forth, back and forth.
Monday evening, as we were going into Yom Hashoah, announcement came of a breakthrough – a unity agreement. Undoubtedly most of my readers are aware of this. My response, quite candidly, was that the announcement came at a most inopportune, or inappropriate, time. But it came.
Many of the details are not yet out – a 41 clause coalition deal was signed Monday night, but final papers will not be signed until next week.
Netanyahu is to be prime minister for 18 months, followed by Gantz for the next 18 months. The first six months of the new government are to be an “emergency” government that focuses on the coronavirus situation and does not permit advancement of major legislation not involving coronavirus, with one major exception.
That exception is agreement that action on the application of sovereignty can begin in July, when the map that the US has been working on with Israeli input is expected to be finished. Sovereignty is supposed to be applied to the Jordan Valley and all of the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria. We’ll see. But it’s important to note that Netanyahu can advance this without support from Gantz – who has offered very qualified support at best.
(Secretary of State Pompeo has praised the news of the unity government and says application of sovereignty is up to Israel.)
During the six months of this “emergency” government, negotiations will be held regarding policies and platforms for the remaining two-and-a half years. And so, even after papers are signed next week, there is still much that will remain undetermined and amorphous.
Likud will have input on the judicial selection committee, and that will be important.
Lapid and Ya’alon are both livid, which tells us something good has happened. But Yamina on the right is not exactly jumping for joy either. The left says this is a right wing government; the right is disturbed at signs that this will be a left wing government.
In order to mollify various parties, there will be a huge number of portfolios distributed, which makes for an unstable situation. Apparently Gantz will be defense minister and Ashkenazi Foreign Minister – which elicits a groan from me in both regards, but particularly where Gantz, who was a very mediocre Chief of Staff, is concerned.
I believe Yariv Levin will be Speaker of the Knesset, and that would be quite fine.
In any event, because of a variety of legal and other considerations – some of them complex – it will be weeks until the new government kicks in. It is not clear yet if Yamina will be part of the government (I am betting it will be; Netanyahu is meeting with Yamina leaders), or if Labor will join. For now, the interim government continues.
Herb Keinon summed up the situation in the JPost thus:
“Four hundred and eighty days, three extremely bitter election campaigns and billions of shekels later, Israel finally has a government.
“With a record of up to 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers from the Left to the Right – with rotating prime ministers, including one who will split his time between the cabinet room and the courthouse, and another who has exactly no ministerial experience – this government is nobody’s dream.
“But, as the Rolling Stones once sang, ‘You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find, you get what you need.’
“And an emergency government at this time – even a badly inflated emergency government – is definitely what the country, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis and facing an economic catastrophe of epic proportions, needs.
“The last thing in the world that Israel could afford right now was to careen toward a fourth election, something that would cost billions of shekels more and – at a time when national solidarity is needed – preoccupy the nation with negativity and nonsense at a time when more than a quarter of the workforce is unemployed and hundreds of thousands of people are in the grips of severe financial anxiety.
“Israel needs a government right now that has wide public legitimacy to take the dramatic fiscal steps that will be necessary to emerge from the crisis with an economy still intact.”
There is a great deal to criticize about this unwieldy and amorphous deal. There is a question as to whether it will actually hold, as envisioned, for the full three years. My own gut feeling is that mistrust between the partners makes for an underlying instability.
What is more, there are expenditures built into the agreement that seem terribly wrong in this time of economic crisis. Key here is that cabinet of 36 ministers and 16 deputy ministers, the largest in Israel’s history.
As Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote:
“This contortion will involve the manufacture of numerous new and revived ministries without which Israel has somehow hitherto managed, all with their own offices, directors-general and support staff, at a cost of hundreds of millions of shekels — spending that innumerable commentators have termed scandalous and outrageous at a time of economic crisis, with unemployment running at 25% and rising.
“Attracting further criticism, the deal provides for an official residence for the ‘alternate prime minister’ — the new title that is to be bestowed upon Gantz in the first 18 months and Netanyahu in the second 18 months — even though Gantz has been insisting he has no desire or need for it, and even though the existence of such a clause in the deal was repeatedly denied until the accord was published late Monday.”
© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by independent journalist Arlene Kushner. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution.