I’m not looking forward to writing this, or to reading the responses that I will surely get from various quarters. But here it is.
The Breslov Hasidim venerate Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810), a kabbalist, scholar, and founder of a movement that stresses joy and the personal closeness of a Jew to Hashem. Israelis are familiar with the Breslov trucks that drive around playing loud, rousing music, sometimes stopping for the passengers to get out and dance in the street with passers-by. Some see their approach as a welcome infusion of life and spirituality into what can be a dry and forbidding faith; others see their attitude toward Rabbi Nachman as avoda zara (worship of something or someone other than Hashem).
The Breslov Hasidim have developed a tradition in recent decades of visiting Uman (in Ukraine) where he died and where his grave is located, on Rosh Hashana. This pilgrimage has included tens of thousands of Israelis and others over the years. While for most of the pilgrims the goal of the trip is increased spirituality, there is also an element that treats it like the American college students’ Spring break, lubricated by alcohol and spiced up by prostitution.
The advent of the Coronavirus pandemic has (maybe) put a damper on the phenomenon. Israel’s numbers of serious cases and daily deaths from Corona are about as high as they have ever been, and its total number of cases per million population is 19th in the world (out of 213). Ukraine is also suffering an increasing number of new cases, although it ranks only 87th in cases per million. Last month, Ukraine decided to bar Israelis from the pilgrimage after the EU placed Israel on its “red list” of countries unsafe to visit.
Since then, pressure has been applied to authorities in Israel and Ukraine, both for and against the event. As one can imagine, tens of thousands of visitors mean a huge amount of income for the relatively small town of Uman. On the other hand, the danger of spreading Covid-19 at this kind of happening, where there will be large crowds and little social distancing, is very great. As Prof. Roni Gamzu, the Corona coordinator of Israel’s Health Ministry, recently pointed out, travelers to Uman will have to be placed in quarantine when they return home. A few thousand could be placed in hotels, but there is no way to quarantine and keep track of tens of thousands. Gamzu wants the government to forbid Israelis from flying to Uman. He also communicated his feelings to Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
In response, former Health Minister and present Housing and Construction Minister Ya’akov Litzman, himself a member of a (different) Hasidic sect, was infuriated and called for Gamzu’s resignation. The most recent development has the Ukranian President announcing that the pilgrimage would be “significantly restrict[ed]” although no precise details were given. Zelensky said that he was responding to a request made by PM Binyamin Netanyahu, but the PM’s office denied that he had made such a request, and said only that travelers should follow health instructions (proving yet again that at least in the case of Bibi, physical courage in youth doesn’t necessarily translate into moral courage in maturity).
I don’t know what will come out of this for Gamzu, who recently implied that he would resign if “not given the tools to bring down morbidity.” Gamzu, who has been properly trying to balance the medical demands of the epidemic with the need to protect the economy, has been stymied at almost every turn by politicians.
Why is an advanced, small country like Israel doing so poorly in managing the epidemic? There are several reasons. One is the fact that government decisions are being made on the basis of political interests, and not from medical or economic considerations. The pilgrimage to Uman is only one example. Another is that the Haredi and Arab sectors, where the virus has spread the most, institutionally resist authority, and ignore the rules. And finally, last but definitely not least, is the lack of leadership from the one person that should pull everything together, the Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu is more concerned with keeping the support of Litzman’s Haredi faction to keep him in power and out of jail, than with the threat of a major outbreak of the virus and concomitant economic disaster. Netanyahu has systematically kept his rival Naftali Bennett on the political margins. Bennett is one of the few politicians who has demonstrated real creativity in dealing with the present crisis, but he was forced out of the Likud by Bibi, reportedly because Mrs. Netanyahu dislikes him.
Recently the government managed to avoid falling and precipitating yet another election when it negotiated an internal compromise to delay voting on a budget. This is the best thing this pitiful government is capable of accomplishing: saving itself by not doing something essential.
Thanks to the irresponsibility of our politicians, people are dying of the virus. And the ones who don’t die are out of work.
After three elections in one year, Israelis have no appetite (or half a billion shekels) for another one. But the people have had it. We are sick of the endless crises of their own making, while the country misses opportunities like the application of sovereignty to the Jordan Valley, while the southern part of the country absorbs blow after blow from Hamas (yesterday their incendiary balloons started 30 fires), and while the number of seriously ill increase daily as the politicians dither.
Recently the entire government of Lebanon resigned, after an ongoing economic meltdown was followed by a massive explosion that destroyed a large chunk of their capital. I don’t envy the Lebanese their economy or their explosion, but our government should follow their example.