A View from the Bleachers: Democracy amidst the pandemic

By Rabbi Steven Garten

During the two months that the COVID-19 pandemic has kept many of us in self-quarantine, we have witnessed a myriad of leadership styles and approaches.

It would be safe to say that the majority of national, provincial and city medical officials have earned our trust. Dr. Theresa Tam, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr Vera Etches are just three of the names that have become part of our daily lives. They and their colleagues in other jurisdictions have rightly earned praise for their forthright but calming presentations about the challenges to our health. Though we may not like or always agree with their prescriptions, few among us would argue about their intentions to keep us safe and healthy.

Political leadership comes in for more scrutiny. It is clear that our prime minister, our Ontario premier, our mayor and leaders of the opposition parties have a mixed bag of intentions. They certainly worry about our health, but their politics and personal agendas often rears their heads as criticisms and accusations find a place in the media, which clouds their messages of concern. It would be wonderful if political showmanship and theatre could be quarantined and isolated until we see the pandemic in our rear-view mirrors.

On the international scene, there are national leaders who deserve unadulterated praise. The leaders of Germany, New Zealand, South Korea, and Taiwan, just to name a few, have taken hard decisions that placed the wellbeing of their citizens above politics.

It would be wonderful and comforting if we could view the leaders of the United States, China, Russia, Mexico, and India with similar lenses. Unfortunately, that is not the case. In each of these countries the wellbeing of the citizenry has been balanced against political expediency. The accusations against Muslims in India, the marginalization of scientific expertise in the United States, and the withholding of vital information concerning the virus by the Chinese leadership are just a few of the least egregious decisions made by elected and non-elected leaders who wish to take advantage of this health crisis for purely political purposes.

In our beloved Israel, we have seen a melange of leadership styles and intentions. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has, by all accounts, dealt well with the health crisis. It appears that Israel is moving toward the new normalcy, even though the minister responsible for health used his religious beliefs to undercut the effort of the civil government to rein in the virus. His refusal to criticize ultra-Orthodox rabbis who encouraged civil disobedience was an embarrassment that had large consequences to the health of individuals in Bnei Brak and Mea Shearim. Eventually, he resigned his post, but not after causing great consternation among the population. The prime minister, for reasons of politics, refrained from any criticism of the minister.

The pandemic served as the backdrop to the efforts by two leaders – Netanyahu and Benny Gantz – to form a government after the results of the third national election in less than 12 months once again produced no definitive winner. The emergence of a Gantz-Netanyahu coalition was a surprise to all. Numerous books and essays will be written in an attempt to understand what Gantz’s motivations were to join a government that he pledged never to support and to affirm a coalition agreement that has the possibility of enormous ramifications for Israel and her supporters.

Against the background of the pandemic, the coalition has agreed to the annexation [of parts] of the West Bank. The start date for the annexation is July 1, 2020. This date ensures that U.S. President Donald Trump will still be in office. Of course, while the start date is set down in writing, it is not etched in stone. The political fallout from this decision, both in Israel and outside of Israel, will have enormous ramifications for the future of the country. All this while the population is self-isolating and the Knesset has only met once in two months.

This coalition agreement is also an attack on Israeli democracy. For the government to be sworn in, certain aspects of Israel’s Basic Law, the Israeli version of a constitution, will have to be altered. The agreement strips the opposition of what little power it previously had. The Basic Law granted to opposition parties certain committee chairs, but seats on important committees usually reserved for the opposition will be denied. Finally, it removed from the opposition the ability to hold a vote of non-confidence, moving it from a simple majority to 75 members of the Knesset. There are some aspects of the coalition agreement that can viewed in a positive light. What should be worrisome to all is that against the backdrop of a national health crisis, political leaders have cravenly carved out a draconian assault against Israeli democracy.

While we may not all agree with the Canadian prime minister’s approach to leadership, or even like his beard, we are not witnessing a hostile takeover of our democratic institutions. We will exit this pandemic with our democracy intact. I wish that I felt so sanguine about my beloved Israel.