Israel - mass hysteria and the slide to authoritarianism
Netanyahu's alleged crimes and abuse of power are a distraction from the very real danger to Israeli democracy: the state’s encroachment on civil and individual liberties in the name of bad science.
According to the dictionary definition, a mass hysteria is “a condition affecting a group of persons, characterized by excitement or anxiety, irrational behavior or beliefs, or inexplicable symptoms of illness..”
Much of Israel has succumbed to a psychosis-like frenzy, manifested in fearful or muted reactions to government-mandated emergency laws that prevent Israelis from visiting each other or leaving their homes except for essential errands - as defined and determined by the government politburo of career public servants.
What’s truly disconcerting is the sheepish and seemingly willing subjugation of vast segments of society into a new culture of fear. Many Israelis, in the throes of this psychosis, now feel free to yell at joggers for failing to wear a muzzle, give dirty looks to neighbors who dare to invite guests over. Children, no younger than seven years old run around the neighborhood demanding that strangers wear masks while posing on Instagram to show their custom-made mask, fast-becoming the new standard for individual expression.
The Covid-craze has also supercharged certain local cultural eccentricities. The ease at which Israelis offer unsolicited advice to each other, the nonchalant remarks Israelis give to young mothers on how to deal with their children are as ubiquitous as they are harmless Unfortunately, Covid is rapidly turning familial sentiment into indignant expressions of rage targeting strangers and neighbors.
This sentiment is further amplified by municipalities putting up ads around the country urging collective action, implicitly asking Israelis to forego individualistic pursuits in the name of health and collective effort. We-are-in-this-together slogans by rule-flouting politicians are hitting home.
Israelis, following a tragic event such as a terrorist attack, come together to emphasize the importance of continuing living because “ein breira” (no alternative), are now frantically policing each other for health violations in the name of an invisible enemy which, on average, spares 99% of us.
The fear of the invisible coupled with a government mired in political infighting and a Prime Minister who seems animated by personal considerations and political survival, is providing the perfect cocktail for the rise of authoritarianism.
The terrible, glaring irony of the situation shouldn’t escape anyone. Netanyahu, who helped free Israel from its socialist shackles and largely personifies Israel’s shift from a developing nation to a modern, market-driven economy, is now leading a government that curbs personal liberties and prevents businesses from operating.
Netanyahu, historically an avowed enemy of Israel’s growth-choking unions and bloated public sector, is now handing out unemployment checks till Summer of 2021 while giving grandiose speeches on TV with body language and rhetoric signaling an attitude that treats Israelis as mere subjects, not as free-thinking individuals. The finger-wagging, the awkward lessons on how to cough properly are all indicative of a mentality that views the Israeli people as ignorant and irresponsible, as people who cannot act responsibly and therefore need to be coerced into submission - all in the name of good health. L’chaim! (To Life!).
Unfortunately, most Israelis do not understand that the government is not a parent. Few have internalized that the government’s sole responsibility is to protect individual freedoms and enforce the rule of law as long as individual freedoms aren’t violated.
The current government has overstepped its mandate by creating, willingly or unwillingly, a new legal and cultural framework driven by misguided application of Pikuach Nefesh ("saving a life", a principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually any other religious rule) and bad science.
Indeed, many Israelis accepted, and all too willingly gave up freedoms, because, as any good Israeli, they put their faith in government. However, the government and the people it claims to represent forgot - or ignored - that death comes in many forms.
Who will speak for the hundreds of thousands of unemployed, the businesses forced to close down, the elderly whose happiness stems from seeing grandchildren and family, people with mental issues, young children whose healthy psychological development rests largely on social interaction with friends or educators, the tourism industry, empty hotels and many others?
When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown and stringent social distancing restrictions, there was a 30% rise in calls to crisis hotlines. How did Israel’s tunnel-vision leaders contend with this fact? Except for a few voices of reason, quickly removed from any position of power, they did not.
Blame the people?
In some tragic sense, Covid - in the absence of suicide bombings and other imminent security threats - has become a unifying force for many.
Though Israel is seeing a wave of protests, the demonstrations have little in common with anti-lockdown protests in parts of the US and UK where the notion of individual liberties and freedoms are at the forefront of the sentiment. In Israel, the protests are led by the so-called Crime Minister movement and driven by opposition to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In some ways, the protests are a continuation of the tent protests of 2011 when Israelis set tent cities in cities across the country to protest rising prices and demanded affordable housing. Similar to protests in 2020, the demonstrators in 2011 did not demand lower taxes or individual liberties, but more government involvement. Today, just like 10 years ago, much of the wrath is targeted against Prime Minister Netanyahu, not out of concern for personal liberties, but because the incumbent is seen as a crook.
While Israel certainly is - or was, until a few months ago - a liberal democracy, civil liberties and individual freedoms are not principles ingrained in the Israeli DNA. An indication of this mindset can be found at Ben Gurion Airport where a large image of the Knesset (Israeli parliament), proudly states: Knesset - shaping the Israeli society since 1948.
The composition of the Knesset is a product of elections, supposedly a hallmark of democracy, but in fact, is a sham. Israelis elect their representatives from a list prepared by the party machines and often include union heavyweights and strongmen with specific tribal loyalties. Indeed, Israeli government and decision-making bodies are crippled by infighting and power plays with each faction trying to maximize benefits for their particular tribe.
Israelis should gasp at the idea that government bureaucrats and tribal leaders shape the Israeli society. Unfortunately this warped sentiment is shared by many.
Perhaps Israelis should begin to consider the idea that individual efforts - be it entrepreneurial pursuits, military heroism, scientific excellence, Jewish values or acts of kindness, - all deeply Israeli qualities - shape society and culture. Only by recognizing the individual’s place as the primary engine of societal change, can the government’s role in people’s lives be diminished.
Today, as individual freedoms are eroding, a mass hysteria has captured vast segments of society and created a largely obedient citizenry, too scared or unwilling to fight against government overreach. However, this capitulation coupled with the protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alleged crimes and abuse of power are a distraction from the very real danger to Israeli democracy: the state’s encroachment on civil and individual liberties in the name of bad science.