Guarding Democracy in a Time of Crisis

3 September 2020

While the scale of the Israeli government’s mismanagement may not hold a candle to the ineptitude of our own government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Israelis have been aghast at the inarguable failures by this “emergency government” to effectively contain the virus.

This week, one hundred Israelis have died, in the worst week so far for Israel of the pandemic. Israel has surpassed its own record of new daily cases, placing the country among the highest ranks of new infections per capita in the world. Meanwhile, the discovery of dozens of new cases in the Gaza Strip has rapidly grown into hundreds in the span of this week, threatening to bring about a long-dreaded outbreak that would easily overwhelm Gaza’s ravaged healthcare system and further devastate its economy.

Appointed in late July to address the crisis, Professor Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus “project manager” lacks clear, formal authority over decision making. As he recently told the journalist Nahum Barnea, micromanagement by Prime Minister Netanyahu has “paralyzed” his ability to effectively respond to the crisis.

As Israel’s school system reopen on the first of this month, 2.4 million schoolchildren are headed back to the classroom. The implications for the renewed spread of the infection are far from clear. And with students in grades five and higher returning to school remotely three days a week, the gaps in access to the technology critical to remote learning – indicative of broader inequalities in Israeli society – are being laid bare. According to Israel’s Education Ministry approximately 150,000 additional computers are needed for students whose homes lack them – mostly in Arab and ultra-Orthodox communities and among students whose families struggle with poverty.

In so many ways, wherever the virus hits, it highlights deep, longstanding inequalities in our societies. The pandemic has made clear that the most vulnerable among us are disproportionately impacted—both by the virus and by its economic consequences.

At the very beginning of the global crisis, the New Israel Fund realized that we needed a plan to respond effectively to the threats posed by the pandemic. Our Crisis Action Plan, fueled by our supporters around the world, aimed to provide protection to Israel’s most marginalized communities, to defend against those who would use the cover of COVID to dismantle democracy, and to ensure that Israel’s civil society survived the economic destruction the pandemic left in its wake.

We set out to make sure that the most vulnerable communities in Israel had access to the information and care they needed to keep their families safe and to ensure that Israel’s response to the pandemic was inclusive and equitable.

The pandemic has also provided a powerful pretext for those intent on diminishing democracy in Israel. Under the cover of COVID-19, would-be autocrats have sought to trample on the norms and freedoms of Israel’s democracy. The New Israel Fund and our grantees in civil society have worked at every step to guarantee that in the midst of this crisis, the rights of Israelis – and the pillars of Israel’s democracy – are defended.

Israel’s “guardians of democracy” — like the activists and leaders of civil society, the civil rights defenders at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) — have not ceased their efforts to stand up to those who would further erode democracy under the cover of COVID-19. Since this crisis began, they have fought with determination and zeal to protect Israelis’ rights — to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression — and to safeguard the independence of Israel’s judiciary, the rule of law, and the human rights of all who live in Israel and under its rule.

Here at home, we have seen that even in the midst of this pandemic, the massive mobilization for racial justice is showing that the backbone of our democracy is the people who defend it. We – the people — are demanding something better. In Belarus, Hong Kong and elsewhere, they are saying no to autocracy. Around the world, people are pushing back against authoritarians.

In Israel, this demand for change is on display every Saturday night, as citizens gather by the scores of thousands in front of the prime minister’s house on Balfour street. This Saturday night alone, as many as 40,000 Israelis showed up with their hand-scrawled signs and hopes for a better future. NIF grantees, like the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF), have made sure that protesters peacefully demonstrating have the legal assistance they need when they’ve faced arrest.

In the face of threats of police violence and condemnation from some of the highest officials in the land, these citizen-protesters are demanding change. They are insisting on good government, an end to corruption, and on an effective and equitable response to the pandemic. Together, they’re building a different vision for Israeli democracy, where government serves everyone – not just the powerful.

It’s Israel’s civil society visionaries – its guardians of democracy – who we will be gathering to acknowledge and to celebrate on September 13 at the New Israel Fund’s first ever virtual national gala.

Yes, this year, we gather at a time unlike any we have ever faced in our history. But that won’t make our celebration any less powerful.

Those leaders are working to build a better Israel for all of its inhabitants. And in sustaining the critical work of the New Israel Fund, we too, are the guardians of democracy.

I hope you’ll join me.