Rules are (apparently) meant to be broken: 6 things to know for March 18
Israel media review

Rules are (apparently) meant to be broken: 6 things to know for March 18

After large groups of Israelis are seen congregating countrywide, media outlets join Netanyahu in scolding people into staying home; sadly, some still haven’t gotten the message

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)
More than 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defy Health Ministry coronavirus warnings and take part in a wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh on March 17, 2020 (Screen capture: Channel 12)

1. When the rules need not apply: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reprimanded Israelis for failing to grasp the gravity of the growing coronavirus crisis, urging them to stay home wherever possible as the number of cases in the Jewish state climbs to 427, thanks to 90 cases announced overnight Tuesday.

  • The premier appears to have recruited much of the press in the task of chiding the public, with Israel Hayom plastering its front page with the headline, “Take responsibility.” Not to be one-upped, the no-less sensational Yedioth Ahronoth leads its top sheet with “This isn’t a game” in big red block letters.
  • Alas, as Netanyahu was wrapping up his press conference, Channel 12 reports that some 150 ultra-Orthodox Israelis were crowding into an auditorium in Beit Shemesh to dance and hug their way through a wedding celebration. Police subsequently arrested one of the participants, saying he had violated a quarantine order and potentially infected the other guests.
  • As if holding the wedding weren’t bad enough, Channel 12’s Yair Cherki reveals that the organizers knew very well that what they were doing was against the law, posting a picture of the invitation which warns guests not to tell anyone where the event was being held.
  • Photos of similar crowds are also seen at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif where the al-Aqsa mosque might be closed, but that didn’t stop what appears to be hundreds of Muslim worshipers from congregating in very close quarters outside the shrine to pray and possibly expose one another to the virus.
  • In the IDF, commanders and officers don’t seem to have received the memo either, crowding their soldiers into clumps in the dining halls and even the enlistment centers.
  • “When ultra-Orthodox do not follow instructions, we immediately shout at their rabbis. And rightly so. But where the hell is Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi when [soldiers on] his bases totally ignore the [coronavirus] guidelines?!? Tell me, where is your responsibility? Your vanity and contempt will cost us dearly!” writes Haaretz’s Josh Breiner.

2. The incompetence goes all the way up to the top: But why should the average Israeli be expected to follow the coronavirus guidelines if members of the cabinet don’t seem to take them seriously?

  • Walla news reports that instead of making a beeline out of the Knesset upon being alerted that he had been at a conference with someone possibly carrying the virus, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi insisted on being sworn in on Monday, standing next to two other lawmakers.
  • He tells Army Radio that he was saw the message ten minutes before being sworn in when he was already in the building. While health officials initially said he did not have go into quarantine, the Kan public broadcaster published a photo of him sitting next to Merhavim Regional Council head Shai Hajaj who also contracted the virus. Hanegbi along with three other lawmakers also at the conference were subsequently ordered into quarantine.
  • Army Radio reported that Hanegbi was seen going out for a jog this morning, but the minister blasts the report as “fake news.”
  • While Blue and White No. 2 Yair Lapid is not violating quarantine orders, he did film himself lambasting the caretaker government, while suggesting that its demand that Israelis remain in their homes is illegitimate.
  • “This non-democracy told us one thing today: That we cannot leave our homes. Ask yourselves in what countries an unelected government tells its citizens that they are barred from leaving their homes,” Lapid says in a video statement, blasting the lack of government oversight. When Channel 12’s Amit Segal calls him out for the irresponsible implication, Lapid clarifies that he’s not against the stay at home order, but rather the transitional government that issued it.

3. Democracy from afar: With more and more MKs finding themselves in quarantine, it’s becoming less clear how the Knesset will be able to hold votes, which require the presence of lawmakers in the plenum.

  • Blue and White MK Ram Ben Barak, who is currently in home isolation, tells the Kan Public Broadcaster that he recommended to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein that an MK from one bloc who is forced into quarantine should be offset by an MK from the opposing bloc.
  • The Marker reporter Gur Megiddo writes somewhat sarcastically that “quarantine should not prevent Knesset members from voting. If regulations can be passed in the middle of the night [that allows the Shin Bet security service] to access our cellphone, there’s no problem creating a temporary arrangement to allow voting from afar.”
  • Likud MK Miki Zohar responds to the argument on Army Radio, saying that votes from afar don’t allow MKs to convince one another of their arguments.

4. I’ll take questions now: A growing number of reporters are beginning to take issue with the fact that Netanyahu is not allowing questions at the end of his bi-nightly coronavirus press conferences.

  • Globes correspondent Tal Schneider points out that the pressers are confusing as is, with so many different officials providing different messages to the public and no singular address for journalists to ask their questions.
  • Schneider goes on to list the questions she says need to be answered: 1) After doctors for weeks have been reporting that they lack sufficient protective gear, where does that issue stand? 2) Given the hundreds of doctors and nurses currently in quarantine, what is the status of hospital manpower? 3) Why is the government stressing the large crowds at Tel Aviv beaches while ignoring the Beit Shemesh wedding?
  • As the 8 o’clock news gave way to Channel 12’s investigative “Uvda” program, hosts Yonit Levi and Ilana Dayan discuss the role of the press in the age of coronavirus. Levi stresses that the media must provide the public with some reason to believe that things will get better, while both agree on the importance of showing solidarity with the rest of the world in this fight.
  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau, however, takes issue with the fact that neither of the anchors made a point to stress the media’s crucial responsibility to ask decision-makers difficult questions during this time. “We’ve apparently returned to the days in which the press was recruited to boost the national morale, and that was really fast,” she writes.
  • Her colleagu, Chaim Levinson adds that when this whole crisis finally ends, Israelis will have to settle score with those who neglected the healthcare system for so many years, “even when the writing was on the wall. Yes, misters Netanyahu and [Health Minister Yaakov] Litzman, I’m talking mainly to you,” he writes.
  • While still on the topic of the media, Israel’s Ambassador to Germany Jeremy Issacharoff, who has contracted COVID-19, assured Army Radio that he is doing well and in his advice to listeners on how to get through the virus, he recommends listening less to the news. “It’s much more calming that way.”

5. Construction trumps virus: The Kan public broadcaster reports that some 25,000 Palestinian workers from the West Bank entered Israel this morning, where their employers will be responsible for providing them lodging for the next one to two months. They join 20,000 Palestinian workers who are already in Israel after having parted ways with their families for an indefinite amount of time.

  • Channel 13 reports that Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision to allow the workers in was opposed by the Shin Bet for security reasons.
  • Haaretz’s Hagar Sheizaf reports that all sorts of lodging arrangements are being made for the workers, including some controversial ones where they will just be placed in a room with 20 mattresses  — in violation of Health Ministry guidelines. Others employers, however, have reserved blocks of hotel rooms for their workers.
  • With public confidence in the Shin Bet already appearing at an all-time low, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who helped draft Israel’s emergency measures allowing the security agency to collect data from the phones of confirmed coronavirus cases and those who may have been near them, says he’s not completely comfortable with the rules.
  • “I’m not totally okay with the current model of tracking cellphones. Something is missing on the level of oversight,” he tells Kan radio. ToI’s Judah Ari Gross in turn points out on Twitter that nobody forced Smotrich to vote in favor of the extreme measures.

6. Pick me up: Given the rather grim times, here are some more positive posts and stories that may help brighten your day, if only a little.

  • The former director of speech writing for Israel’s UN mission points out that social distancing has some unforeseen perks.
  • Jewish astronaut Jessica Meir, who is making history as one half of the first all-female spacewalking team, tweets out a lovely image and message from outside the atmosphere.
  • Nobel Prize-winning American-Israeli biologist and Stanford University professor Michael Levitt tells the Kan public broadcaster that the situation in Israel is nowhere near as bad as it is in other countries around the world and that he’d be surprised if more than 10 people die from the virus.
  • If you haven’t yet seen this video of ducks crossing the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, enjoy.
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