'Tyrannical government toys with us as if we’re invisible'

Musician starts tax boycott as artists, gyms, cafes rebel against gov’t on virus

Hemi Rudner declares he’s stopped paying taxes, calls on others to follow until more support given to self-employed; fitness chain rebrands to stay open, restaurants defy rules

Israeli musician Hemi Rudner performs in Tel Aviv, May 22, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israeli musician Hemi Rudner performs in Tel Aviv, May 22, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

An Israeli singer on Wednesday said he would stop paying taxes until the government provided more support to the self-employed, many of whom have lost their income due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hemi Rudner called on other Israelis to follow his lead and cease payments to the government in a video statement broadcast by Channel 13.

“I’m a normal citizen. And aside from a joint here and there, I abide by the law, love my country, and of course, pay taxes,” Rudner said. “Around half of my income has gone to the state for decades already. Only God knows how many meetings I’ve funded.”

“Myself, and millions of other citizens in the State of Israel, are stuck in a horrible situation, where in addition to fears about our health, we don’t have any way to make a living and support our families,” he said. “In other Western countries independent workers get an economic safety net as an integral part of their rights. In Israel, the tyrannical government toys with us as if we’re invisible, like there are no faces behind the masks.

“I want to say that as long as we don’t receive our rights as citizens, without the terrible and discouraging bureaucracy, I’m declaring that I’m not paying taxes to the State of Israel,” Rudner said. “I call on all Israelis to do the same. Maybe then, at the end of the day, something will change here.”

Hemi Rudner delivers a monologue to Channel 13 news, July 8, 2020. (Screenshot/Channel 13)

The culture industry has been hit particularly hard by the virus and government regulations meant to stem its spread, with events heavily restricted since the outbreak began. Many of those who work in the industry are self-employed and have less access to social benefits than salaried employees.

As Israel contends with an alarming surge in cases in recent weeks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing a tide of anger and criticism over the government’s handling of the economic fallout of the pandemic, with polls indicating growing disapproval of his stewardship of the economy.

Unemployment at its height reached over 25 percent, with over a million Israelis out of work; now, over 800,000 are still unemployed, with that figure expected to climb in light of renewed restrictions put in place to combat the spike in infections.

There has been widespread anger from various sectors of the economy that say the government is not doing enough to help them weather the crisis, accompanied by outrage over the alleged misdirection of financial aid and the bureaucratic complexities of obtaining assistance.

Amid the growing anger, a mass demonstration has been called for Saturday night in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square to protest the lack of government aid for workers hit by the virus restrictions and the delays in receiving the promised funds.

The government on Monday passed a raft of new restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.

The restrictions limited the number of people allowed in restaurants and synagogues, reduced the number of passengers permitted on public transportation, hiked fines for not wearing face masks, and shut down event halls, cultural venues, swimming pools, gyms, bars and nightclubs.

Amid the economic downturn, some business owners are rebelling against the government restrictions, including fitness centers that remained open on Wednesday despite the new restrictions.

Holmes Place, a chain of gyms, was initially ordered closed, but reopened its locations as “studio rooms.” In the rebranded locations, the company divided up the clubs into rooms where 20 people could train. Gyms have been ordered closed, but up to 20 people are allowed to exercise in studios under the current guidelines.

A gym-goer and trainer in Jerusalem, May 11, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Gabi Mordo, vice president of the company, said: “We don’t see the difference between these two things. We don’t understand why you’re allowed to exercise in a studio, but not in a fitness center.”

The Israel Police said it would close the Holmes Place locations, however. “All fitness centers will be closed. A fitness center cannot claim to be a studio,” the police said, according to the Ynet news site.

The company plans to formally change its name to “Studio Holmes Place” in the hope that it would therefore be allowed to keep operating, the report said.

A cafe owner in Jaffa, Yoni, told Channel 13 that despite restrictions placed on restaurants and on the number of patrons allowed inside eateries, nothing in his cafe had really changed.

“I didn’t get any explicit instructions on how I’m supposed to work,” he said. “So, at the moment, I’m going forward as usual.”

“Why restrict my business in a way that I can’t sustain it? This is a death blow to my business and to many other businesses here. We’re already really desperate. We don’t have anywhere to turn. We just want to work,” he said.

Adding to the country’s economic woes, the government on Wednesday delayed the release of a highly touted aid package for Israeli workers and businesses hurt by the tightening restrictions, amid reported disagreements over the method for distributing the funds to those in need.

As part of a series of measures approved by the government Monday to halt the ongoing surge in new infections, the Finance Ministry was given 48 hours to draft a compensation package for those hurt by the latest regulations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

But despite promises by Finance Minister Israel Katz and Netanyahu that the financial aid would be available as soon as possible, discussions over the final content of the economic package were continuing late Wednesday night, with no announcement in the offing.

According to a Channel 12 news report, Treasury officials told Netanyahu that despite his promises, both technical and legislative difficulties mean that funds would not be available to workers until August at the earliest.

The last few weeks have seen the reversal of many of the gains made in the fight against the coronavirus in recent months. New daily virus cases, which had dropped to low double digits through most of May, have soared to over a thousand a day, and the number of active cases has reached an all-time high.

The country had been placed on a nationwide lockdown for about two months at the start of the outbreak, but removed most of its restrictions by May to reopen the economy.

The current increase in weekly infections in Israel is one of the highest in the world, according to a chart published Monday afternoon by the Health Ministry.

On Tuesday, there were 1,348 new infections, the Health Ministry said, the highest single day total since the outbreak began.

The Health Ministry said Wednesday night that there were 1,014 new infections in Israel since midnight Tuesday, bringing the total number of cases since the start of the pandemic to 33,557. The ministry reported two more deaths, bringing the total to 344.

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