Israel media review

School’s back, so are schoolyard tactics: What the press is saying on October 16

Haredi cities are red, Deri is blue, Israel’s emergence from a virus lockdown reveals dysfunction, what else is new?

Illustrative: Children return to kindergarten in Tel Aviv from a lockdown of over two months, on May 10, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Illustrative: Kids around a preschool table. ((Credit: Elinor Magnusson. Courtesy of: Informationscentret JUDISKA FÖRSAMLINGEN MALMÖ)

1. Unpaint the town red: Ministers voted as expected Thursday to start to unlock the lockdown Sunday, and by Friday conversation had swiftly shifted to what to do with the high infection zones, known as red cities.

  • Yedioth Ahronoth reports that the decision to only open up non-red cities “is already sparking much anger in some of the local authorities in areas still labeled red.”
  • According to Channel 12 news, officials are already talking about lifting the lockdown on the red cities as well — which are mostly ultra-Orthodox and make up some 40 percent of infections — at a meeting ahead of a ministerial summit to decide what to do about the cities. “During the discussion, those present were presented with updated figures that show a dip in infections in red cities.”
  • That should not surprise Haaretz’s Amos Harel, who writes that “given the political clout of the Haredi parties, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s total dependence on them in his effort to cling to power, it’s clear to everyone that [keeping the lockdown on the cities] is just a starting position.”
  • He notes that especially galling to them is the fact that schools are supposed to remain closed in these areas, which they will not take: “Haredim are flirting openly with the idea of widespread civil disobedience. Their Masada, the hill they are willing to die on, is the education system that serves them, from Talmud Torah elementary school to yeshiva gevoha ‘high yeshiva’ colleges. The education system is the organizing idea around which the entire Haredi society is built.”
  • ToI’s Nathan Jeffay reports that “The health care community was dismayed that in its Thursday discussions, the so-called coronavirus cabinet … excluded the issue of localized restrictions from its main deliberations. Officials believe targeted measures for different communities is one of Israel’s most effective virus-fighting weapons.”
  • “If we fail to implement localized lockdowns at this, the first stage of reopening, we’ll have a lack of options in the future,” says Ronit Calderon-Margalit, epidemiologist and adviser to Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Ronni Gamzu.
  • “If local restrictions don’t happen, in reality, we’re going to be having very similar conversations about high virus rates very soon,” adds Prof. Tomer Hertz, an immune system researcher at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

2. Scarlett letter: Israel Hayom features a cacophony of voices from the ultra-Orthodox community who all claim that there are no infections in their areas anymore and they should not be red cities, a consistent argument not borne out by the facts. (It recalls the ultra-Orthodox family in Givat Zeev insisting again and again on TV Thursday that their backyard wedding was absolutely by the book, with only a few family members and no touching, as video rolled on a split-screen showing dozens of people dancing while holding hands and crowded together.)

  • “There is a stigma on the Haredim. They’re just harassing us. I’d like to see them put a closure on the Arab neighborhoods,” a resident of one ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Jerusalem tells the paper, which also features similar voices from Beit Shemesh and Bnei Brak.
  • Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal reports on numbers that he has seen regarding the share of tests that come back positive in ultra-Orthodox areas, including 17.59 percent in Bnei Brak, 21% in Elad,18.57% in Beitar Ilit and 13.45% in Modiin Ilit, well more than the national average, which is in single digits.
  • Ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat reports that coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu gamed the numbers to place all of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox areas under lockdown, along with parts of Beit Shemesh. His big con? Calculating infection rates based on a seven-day average (an internationally accepted norm).
  • The site quotes a “senior Haredi source” blaming the ultra-Orthodox leadership — not for allowing the plague to run rampant in their communities, but for not fighting the decree vociferously enough. “Jerusalem residents fought the virus and won, and in return they got a punishment — whose only purpose is for show: to throw us to the media wolves.”
  • Ultra-Orthodox journalist Aron Kalman predicts that only the Jerusalem neighborhoods Ramat Shlomo and Ramat Eshkol will remain under lockdown in the city. “[Mayor Moshe Lion] is fighting an aggressive defensive battle to prove to the Health Ministry, via health experts he brought to the meeting, that their calculations are incorrect,” he tweets.
  • Despite there being no infections in their communities, somehow ultra-Orthodox leaders keep getting the virus, perhaps by hanging out in “Arab neighborhoods.”
  • Channel 12 news reports on a recording from the head of the Karlin–Stolin Hasidic sect, who has recovered from COVID-19, lamenting health violations among the ultra-Orthodox community, while strongly urging his followers to heed the guidelines.
  • “It amazes me that particularly in the Haredi community there is such contempt for the lives of others. What happened to us, how did we get here?” Rabbi Baruch Meir Yaakov Shochet asks. “For God’s sake, we cannot bend any of the rules, under any circumstances. This is not child’s play, it’s life and death and the essence of the law.”

3. Preschool wasn’t built in a day: The coming opening of preschools (and perhaps more to follow) is met with a pronounced mix of excitement, trepidation and classic finger-pointing.

  • Within minutes after the decision on opening preschools, reports began to come out that an organization representing daycare operators was saying it would only be ready to open on Monday, since it needed more time to prepare.
  • “Even though we really miss the kids, there is no possibility of opening on Sunday when they only let us know on Thursday afternoon that we need to open,” a preschool administrator in Petah Tikva tells Army Radio. “It doesn’t work like that, the rooms need to be disinfected and we have to deal with food for the kids.”
  • Not helping matters is the fact that it took until 7:30 a.m. Friday for the government to actually publish its plan for restarting preschools.
  • “There was much confusion yesterday among parents and educators about the return plan until the Education Ministry, after discussions with the Health Ministry, updated with the full plan,” reports Channel 12.
  • Kan reports that some cities are still planning on keeping preschools closed for a bit as they wait for teachers to get tested and decide on whether they will allow teachers from red cities to come to work.
  • MK Ram Sheffa, the head of the Knesset’s Education Committee, tells the station that he’s not happy with how the issue is being handled.
  • “The Education Ministry has managed to disappoint me, and not for the first time. We asked them if they prepared a plan but they didn’t answer the questions we gave them. … When the older classes open up, we will have to prepared ahead of time,” he says.
  • The military’s coronavirus taskforce also throws some shade at those hoping to swiftly throw open the gates of education once again, releasing a report that looks at the experiences of other countries and warns that while national infection rates can’t be traced to a single source, “given the rise of infections in many countries after they opened schools, there is a fear that indeed classroom learning is a factor that contributes to a rise in the spread of the disease.”

4. Talking turkey: Throughout the day Thursday, news reports followed the nitty-gritty of the discussions in the coronavirus cabinet, with plenty of gossip and reports of verbal sparring that perhaps shine a light on why it might seem like decision-makers are dysfunctional.

  • Like reports of a tussle between Deputy Health Ministry Director Itamar Grotto telling Education Minister Yoav Gallant: “All the experts say that the outbreak was due to schools. So you keep on saying that there’s no link between infections and the opening of schools won’t make it true.”
  • Gallant’s response — “I’ve never seen a turkey that wants Thanksgiving to come earlier,” is a hell of a head-scratcher.
  • “Anybody who can figure out what Gallant wants with the turkey wins a shirt and cassette,” joked Walla reporter Barak Ravid on Twitter.
  • Yedioth Ahronoth reports that during the meeting, ministers said they had to turn away to keep from laughing when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the lockdown a “great success.” (Throughout the day, Netanyahu was pounded for the comment, but did not back off, repeating it in the Knesset and saying Europe is afraid to do what he did.)
  • “It’s clear this is not a picture of victory, but a default that we spiraled into, and there is no V for victory here,” one minister is quoted saying.
  • Walla reports on a tiff between Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who wanted to allow weddings of up to 200 people (in capsules), and everyone else, who saw the idea as majorly irresponsible.
  • According to the report, Netanyahu warned Deri that doing so would undo all the success in halting weddings among the Arab community, which has been credited with turning them into coronavirus models.
  • Deri’s response is to retreat into the safe confines of racism, shooting back that “I represent the Jews.” (In fact, his Shas party actively campaigns for Arab votes, and as far as is known he does not head the Interior Ministry Only for Jews.
  • Deri also went on to insult fellow Jewish minister Itzik Shmuli, by trying to Haredisplain to him why big Jewish weddings are important, Kan reports.
  • “Have you ever seen a wedding with capsules? It won’t happen,” Shmuli is quoted saying, to which Deri responds, “It seems you don’t understand the significance of a wedding, Jewish nuptials.”
  • Shmuli responds, “Don’t belittle my Judaism and I won’t belittle yours. I’m no less Jewish.”
  • Deri ended the meeting by voting against lifting the lockdown and disconnecting from the Zoom videoconference in anger, several news outlets report.

5. Lawmaker, lawbreaker: Politics are also back in the news with the Knesset’s winter session getting into full swing, and fresh attacks on the attorney general from allies of Netanyahu.

  • “The parliamentary week was bookended by Monday’s doomed opposition-led no-confidence vote that failed to topple the government and Thursday’s vote to approve the UAE peace deal. In between came a relentless stream of political bickering and posturing, not to mention one startlingly ill-considered attempt to publicly blackmail the attorney general,” writes ToI’s Haviv Rettig Gur. “It was a noisy week, so noisy that one might easily miss the fact that almost nothing concrete actually got done.”
  • He goes on to detail how bickering between Likud and Blue and White has stopped all legislation, including crucially, the budget, from advancing: “Whatever motives might be behind the logjam, the upshot remains the same. In the midst of an unprecedented national crisis, a strangely solipsistic brand of national politics — a politics of neverending antics from the Knesset podium coupled with ongoing neglect by lawmakers and ministers of their basic functions as public servants — has rendered key government bodies unable to respond effectively to the calamity that has befallen the country.”
  • Walla’s Tal Shalev zooms in on one granular moment from the Knesset on Thursday, as Benny Gantz made his way back to his chair after giving a speech, exchanging greetings with other lawmakers. As he passed Netanyahu, he gave him a friendly pat on his shoulders, but Shalev notes that Netanyahu didn’t even bother looking up or acknowledging the existence of his co-prime minister.
  • “Without reading too much into it, this short moment perfectly exposes the dynamic between the prime minister and his alternate these days, at the height of a second political battle over the budget. Blue and White has launched an aggressive campaign demanding that the budget be passed, by waving a sheaf a ultimatums,” she writes. “Except Netanyahu is more or less ignoring them and playing for time. Every day that passes makes the possibility of passing a budget for next year by December almost null…. Blue and White can scream until tomorrow about the financial damage from the continued lack of a budget, but time is working against them.”
  • Meanwhile, Haaretz’s Gidi Weitz reports that things may get even less functional, with the Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit drafting a rule that will prohibit Netanyahu from meddling in ministries that could have an influence on his criminal cases: “Haaretz has learned that according to the agreement, the two ministers in charge of the law enforcement and justice systems will be prohibited from receiving instructions from Netanyahu, directly or through a third party, on topics at the agreement’s core, such as appointments in these systems, legislation regarding them and dealing with their budgets.”
  • “A source close to Netanyahu told Haaretz that he has given an undertaking not to act in conflict of interest, but a legal official conceded it would be hard to enforce the agreement if Netanyahu wishes to violate it,” he adds, going on to note that Mandelblit has linked how Netanyahu keeps to the conflict of interest agreement with his opinion on whether he can stay on as prime minister.
  • Showing a bit more subtlety than Miki Zohar and his threat on Mandelblit, Israel Hayom’s Moti Tuchfeld writes that Israel could have a normal political scene, but it’s all President Reuven Rivlin’s fault since he won’t pardon Netanyahu and give him a pass for alleged bribery and other corruption that he claims he didn’t commit.
  • “President Rivlin prefers to make speeches, scold and chide, rather than using his position to save Israel from the psychotic limbo in which it is stuck. He can pardon Netanyahu, effective immediately, and we can hold an election that would finally establish the government that the people want, without the involvement of the legal system or rogue law enforcement,” he writes, managing to threaten the president with more political chaos, undermine the police and courts, and give lawlessness and criminality a big thumbs up in one fell swoop.

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