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Israel media review

Hunker mentality: What the press is saying on September 29

The media notices that Israel is the best in the world at being the worst at dealing with the coronavirus, and Yom Kippur gives way to new blame games

Men walk with prayer shawls in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 28, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Men walk with prayer shawls in Jerusalem on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, September 28, 2020 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Are we there yet (no): With Israel finding its place among the world’s leaders in not effectively dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, the press is skipping ahead to looking at the possibilities, or lack thereof, of ever getting out of lockdown.

  • “There is no chance that the lockdown will be lifted in a week and a half, immediately after Simhat Torah — unequivocally. There is no scenario that in ten days we will lift everything and say, ‘Everything is over, everything is fine,’” Health Minister Yuli Edelstein tells the Kan public broadcaster.
  • According to Channel 12 news, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the national lockdown could be extended to last for around a month in an attempt to contain the surging outbreak.
  • “Learning from home — also after the holidays,” reads the top front-page headline in Israel Hayom, though it does not have much more info than those few words in its actual story, which previews cabinet discussions on ways to extend the lockdown or ways to get out of it.
  • Ynet reports that experts believe middle and high schools will be closed for some two months at least, up until Hanukkah break.
  • The paper also reports on the flip side of the coin, which is what the cabinet will decide about when to free Israel of its shackles: the goal of 2,000 sick a day, with a two-week halving rate. Astute readers will recall that in early August, officials set a goal of 400 new cases a day by September as their goal, and earlier this month, 1,000 sick a day was reported as an exit goal, though moving the goalposts closer doesn’t seem to be helping the hapless country.
  • According to the report, at that point, Israel will be able to reopen schools from second grade and lower, and most offices will be allowed to reopen. Once it hits 1,000 (which should be two weeks later), retail stores will reopen as well, because everyone remembers how they all waited patiently at the tail of the first wave as numbers began to drop.
  • “There may be slight changes after three weeks, here or there, but the closure will last longer because there’s nothing we can do — we need a longer period to lower the numbers,” Health Ministry deputy head Itamar Grotto tells the site.
  • Why stop at two lockdowns? Epidemiologist Michael Edelstein, who recently moved from the UK to Israel, tells ToI’s Nathan Jeffay that Israel could see versions three and four as well.
  • “The purpose of lockdown is not to get back to normal but to get a situation in which we can reopen. But it’ll be in a controlled way with restrictions. It’s possible to live this way consistently for a long time. If people make the same mistake again and think we can go back to normal, we’ll be in third lockdown. But it’s hard to convince Israelis,” he says.

2. 1,500 ways to mess up: In the meantime, Israelis are looking at some much scarier numbers. A report from the military-run coronavirus taskforce notes that Israel surpassed the US in daily deaths per million for the first time, and almost all Israeli news sites (ToI included) dutifully report the fact.

  • “Israel’s daily tally of coronavirus deaths per capita has surpassed that of the United States on Tuesday, for the first time since the onset of the global pandemic,” reports Israel Hayom, in just one of many examples. It calls the stat “worrying.”
  • Pulling the covers somewhat off the way that many Israeli news sites parrot official information, though, is the fact that the same taskforce reported the figure on Sunday, but didn’t include it in its executive summary, thus nobody noticed that it’s not really the first time.
  • There’s also the fact that according to the Oxford-run Our World in Data website, which appears to be the taskforce’s source of information, Israel actually earned that crappy distinction back on September 23. At least we now have an answer to that age-old Confucian question: If a milestone falls in the woods and no journalist notices, does it merit a report?
  • Then there is Walla, which devotes its top story to the world marking its millionth coronavirus death, and various hotspots around the world. While Israel merits a passing mention, it mostly focuses on other countries, and crowns Peru the world leader in cumulative deaths per capita. It also says that experts think the death rate in the US could spike again with cases on the rise, citing a Washington University study that it could hit 370,000 deaths by January.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth plays up the alarming rise in deaths here as Israel breaks the 1,500 fatality mark, less than four weeks after breaking 1,000, with a massive front headline reading “500 dead in under a month.”
  • The paper mostly looks at a different 1,500, which is the number of seriously sick Netanyahu ordered the health system to prepare for within a number of days.
  • According to Yedioth, the official stat of 772 seriously ill (since lowered to 755), is actually misrepresentative of the true number, noting that the Health Ministry itself admitted on Sunday that its stats were not totally accurate but were being fixed.
  • “There were a few nights in which the system for copying and validating the daily numbers of hospitalizations did not work, meaning there were too few serious cases recorded on some days,” a source is quoted telling the paper.
  • Haggai Levine, head of a public health association, tells Army Radio that “the 1,500 sick number is ridiculous, there’s no reason to attach [importance] to it. The health system is in a tough grind, we need to help it where possible and at least not get in the way.”

3. All together now: The day after Yom Kippur, Israelis have swiftly recovered from their day of soul-searching and solidarity to once again go back to pointing fingers, especially at the ultra-Orthodox.

  • Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer reports that despite official guidelines and pleas from top religious officials, synagogues in some ultra-Orthodox parts of Jerusalem were packed with worshipers and facemasks were scarce.
  • “A walk through the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of north and central Jerusalem on Yom Kippur reveals that with very few exceptions, no one here thought for a moment to close the synagogues for fear of infection and move the prayers to open spaces or balconies. Despite government advice, nearly everyone insisted on praying in their usual venues,” he writes.
  • At the massive Belz Hasidic synagogue, he estimates some 4,000 people were stuffed in, though, he also notes that “not everyone ignored the virus as in Belz. At the entrance of Boyan’s beit medrash on Malkei Yisrael street, there were detailed seating lists and instructions, dividing the Hasidim into age groups. Those over sixty were upstairs, while in the main hall, teenage yeshiva students and married men were separated. In the basement, a group of teachers led the children in prayer, their sweet voices giving an entirely different character to the same tunes.”
  • A video seemingly showing crowds of ultra-Orthodox in Bnei Brak tweeted out by independent journalist Israel Frey gets wide attention, including in Yedioth, which reports that “as Israel was passing 1,500 deaths, in ultra-Orthodox communities, rule-breaking continued to run rampant.”
  • Another video shows an indoor tisch among the Vizhnitz Hasidim, which earned them all of a NIS 5,000 fine (not each, total).
  • Frey tells Yedioth that his video is a testament to everything that could not be photographed during the holiday. “Unlike other religious cities that attempted to keep to the guidelines and the plans they agreed to, in Haredi cities there was no mention of this. There were tries here and there, but the Haredim, especially the Hasidim, kept their normal routine almost fully.”
  • Channel 12’s Yair Cherki writes that the ultra-Orthodox are “galloping toward herd immunity,” and notes that for many of them, its a calculated risk worth taking to keep the flame of tradition alive. One person is quoted telling him “This is 0.6% self-sacrifice,” seemingly referring to the percentage of Israel’s population that are confirmed carriers.
  • Cherki writes though that “this is communal egoism that can’t but exist on the back of the Israeli health system. … Those who will not take responsibility for running the country cannot run an experiment that can end with the collapse of hospitals.”

4. Socially distance your own house first: In ultra-Orthodox Kikar Shabbat, a lead story claims that all of those yeshiva members seen on the streets in photos were celebrating being able to leave their capsules after being holed up for weeks.

  • The report accuses journalists and thought leaders of “severe incitement,” for “not bothering to check the matter.”
  • “This is secular hypocrisy,” one unnamed yeshiva official tells the news site. “They should worry about the protests at Balfour, the secular musicians breaking rules and the celebrity parties and leave us alone.”
  • Israel Hayom portrays the prayers in Jerusalem as having been hunky dory, reporting that in Jerusalem, few prayed indoors and everyone kept to the rules.
  • In fact the only picture of “crowding” the paper runs is from the end of services at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff square where what look to be several hundred people showed up for an outdoor service. The tabloid, which is close to Netanyahu, has long downplayed the threat of prayer services, while playing up other threats, especially from protests.
  • “It’s clear that the participants broke the Health Ministry’s rules and did not keep the necessary distances,” the paper reports.
  • Yehuda Avidan, who formerly coordinated the state’s pandemic response in the Haredi community, tells Army Radio that “the state needs to give the people answers and not just focus on the ultra-Orthodox. That’s not what will solve the problem.”

5. Cleveland schemer: The US may be far away, but Israelis are watching the presidential race closely, with Trump’s tax returns bombshell from the New York Times and the upcoming debate getting coverage.

  • Several Israeli news channels plan on broadcasting the debate live from Ohio, despite it taking place at 3 a.m. here, with Hebrew commentary for the hardy souls who plan on staying up.
  • Haaretz and Yedioth both put the report on Trump’s tax avoidance and losing businesses on their front pages.
  • “Trump has been exposed in his nakedness,” writes Yedioth’s Sever Plotzker, calling him a “loser.”
  • “To beat [Joe Biden] he’ll need a personal or political miracle,” he predicts.
  • But Kan’s Amichai Stein writes that it can all be upended if Biden slips up at the debate. (Speaking of mistakes, the story accidentally refers to Biden as the Republican candidate.)
  • “Biden needs to mostly make sure not to fall into Trump’s traps. He does not intend to try to correct his lies or mistakes, but rather will continue to explain to Americans how bad the situation is. But Biden is the one with the most to lose,” he writes.
  • Channel 12’s Yonit Levy, who says many think Biden should be much further ahead of Trump than he is, given all that’s happened recently, also identifies pitfalls for Biden.
  • “If he gets confused or has a serious slip of the tongue, it will give the Trump campaign fuel for ‘proof’ of the candidate’s supposed cognitive situation. Secondly, Biden is a hothead, emotional and can lose control against a personal low blow (especially against his family), and Trump, to put it gently, is not a man with boundaries on such issues.”
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