Around the world, the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic have highlighted the need for effective government – and at the same time, illuminating the profound risk to public health that populism can pose.
In the United States, a narcissistic and small-minded president has sought to undermine public confidence in America’s top public health official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, suggesting that Americans ingest disinfectant to cure the disease.
In Israel, a prime minister distracted by his own trial for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust, bent on preserving his grip on power above all else, formed an “emergency coronavirus government” that is now flailing in its response to Israel’s intensifying health crisis.
Sigal Sadetzki, the leading epidemiologist heading Israel’s coronavirus response (or Israel’s Dr. Fauci), resigned on Tuesday in protest of the government’s mismanagement. “The compass handling the pandemic lost its direction,” she wrote in her nine-page resignation letter she posted to Facebook.
As political expediency has overtaken the public interest and good sense in government decision making, the outrage of average Israelis has only grown. As COVID-19 cases surge beyond the point of containment, Israelis are fearful of both the increased likelihood of infection and of the dramatic economic insecurity that comes with more shutdowns.
A survey by the Israel Democracy Institute found that public trust in Netanyahu’s ability to respond to the crisis has “declined dramatically.” Early on in the crisis, the prime minister was seen as having acted swiftly to contain the first wave; he commanded the confidence of over half of the Israeli public. By July, that number plummeted to less than 30%.
Over the weekend, the now-regular anti-corruption, pro-democracy “Black Flag” protests (so-called for the ubiquitous black flags which came to symbolize a warning that democracy is in danger) surged to a crescendo. Thousands of Israelis, gathering in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and over other 200 cities and highway interchanges across the country, demanded an end to government corruption. In a vast display of civic mobilization, they protested the inept, callous, and insufficient government response to the terrible new wave of the virus.
Five months into this global crisis, nearly 25% of Israelis — nearly one million people – are unemployed or without income. They have received little help from Israel’s government to relieve their acute economic distress.
From the outset of this crisis, NIF grantees, the Berl Katznelson Foundation, alongside the Alliance for Israel’s Future and Rabbis for Human Rights, have advocated for an equitable and inclusive economic response which ensures that the most vulnerable and marginalized communities are provided for.
Israel’s civil society has been the backbone of the movement for responsive government and democracy. Omdim Beyachad (Standing Together), the Jewish-Arab grassroots movement, is a driving force in the current economic protests. Organizing those who had lost their income due to COVID-19, Standing Together members launched the Unemployed Union to collectively demand income security and equitable economic solutions from the government. The Union has become an engine of activism, allowing individuals outside of professional unions to join their voice to the struggle.
Zazim – Community Action, Israel’s online mobilizing platform, has run campaigns in support of the protest’s dual demands: defending democracy from crisis-time government overreach and equitable economic relief. Zazim’s posters hang throughout Jerusalem and their masks and signs calling to “end the plague of dictatorship” can be seen at the protests taking place around the country.
Yet, instead of listening to the legitimate demands of the public and the voices of tens of thousands of citizens who are desperate in the face of the economic crisis, the government responded with tear gas, detentions, and conspiracy theories.
In scenes familiar to any American watching the crackdown on racial justice protests here at home, police fired water cannons and tear gas to disperse demonstrators. Netanyahu’s pliant Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana ordered the police to prohibit protests in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem (who reportedly informed him this was against the law).
Yet, these draconian measures have not managed to shut down the public outcry, which has only grown louder and more sustained. At a time when the legitimacy of civil demonstration is under assault – in Israel and across the world – NIF and our grantees are at the forefront of defending the freedom to protest in Israel.
NIF grantee the Human Rights Defenders Fund (HRDF) has represented dozens of activists detained by police in recent weeks, including leaders of the “Black Flag” movement who were wrongfully detained after a protest near the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Police attempted to condition their release on the demonstrators signing a declaration to stay away from Jerusalem for two weeks. HRDF lawyers successfully argued in court that the this was a violation of the law and secured their release.
In the face of mounting protests, Netanyahu dispatched his government ministers to malign citizens seeking relief. Miki Zohar, a Netanyahu loyalist and the current coalition chairman tweeted that the protests represented “a coordinated propaganda campaign orchestrated by leftists, with almost the complete backing of the media, to topple the right wing.” Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, echoing a conspiracy theory pushed by his 28-year old son Yair, sought to discredit the protesters by falsely claiming they were supported by the Wexner Foundation – with money tied to the late sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
We have seen these tactics before. Conspiracy theories are the tool of populists who fabricate falsehoods to distract the people and sow distrust.
But they won’t succeed in diffusing Israelis’ collective demand for democracy and responsive, responsible government. Even prime ministers, despite their immense power, are not more powerful than the citizens of Israel when they organize to demand change.
The New Israel Fund — as always — will make sure that those working for equality and democracy in Israel are equipped for the fight.