“And so long as men die,
liberty will never perish,”
the Barber in The Great Dictator,
On September 15 2020, Israel signed a peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates. Alongside the hope that the Abraham Accords would provide the impetus for other Arab countries to formalize ties with Israel (as has since happened with Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco), Israeli interest in the new paradigm centered exclusively on scientific investment, an anticipated boost for the weapons industry, and on flights—Israelis’ principal means of escaping their hostile surroundings and exploring other climes.
At the time of the announcement, Israel was negotiating uncertain economic circumstances and one of the knottiest political crises in its history; in short, a land engulfed in turmoil even before the outbreak of the pandemic. With Netanyahu holding on to power despite the growing threat of criminal indictments being filed against him, Israel had already gone through three elections in the preceding 18 months, reflecting a crisis of leadership that many feared could jeopardize the country’s democracy. But what was truly surprising was the supportive coverage for the historical accord in Israel’s liberal media, who unanimously and unreservedly endorsed the deal. The only dissenting voices were from the extreme right; and these fell on deaf ears. Most liberals supported Netanyahu’s endorsement of the accord. For his part, the prime minister labelled his achievement as “historical,” in that it nullified a long-standing core condition for any peace agreement between Israel and the Arab world—normalization in exchange for territory, viz an independent Palestinian state. Difficult as it is to fulfil territorial demands with a non-contiguous country, the Emirates clearly “got” territory in exchange for Israel removing annexation of the (mostly Palestinian-populated) Jordan Valley from the agenda for the foreseeable future. Still: as even Shabtai Shavit, former director of the Mossad, observed, the impact of the Abraham Accords surpassed Israel’s earlier agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Overwhelming support indeed.
This was not the first time that Israeli liberals have confounded the conventional wisdom by endorsing Netanyahu. In recent years many of this group had succumbed to his extraordinary success at the ballot box. The last time was not so long before the Accords, when Netanyahu became one of the first world leaders to crack down harshly on the coronavirus. Israel was one of the first nations to close its airspace to the wider world and to impose curfews on the population; it was the first country in the world to implement a population-wide coronavirus vaccination policy.
As a head of government, Netanyahu oscillated between the spectacular and the cautious. Israelis had become accustomed to the foibles of an increasingly eccentric head of state: from his obsession with the grandiose US firefighter air tanker “Supertanker,” deploying excessive foundation and make-up before media engagements, his varying shades of purple and brown hair dye, and the unforgettable decision to serve the visiting prime minister of Japan dessert in a shoe during an official dinner (distasteful, even setting aside the cultural context of shoes in Japanese households).
But on the other hand, even after Trump’s recent depiction of his relationship with Netanyahu in street language, the latter responded in measured and diplomatic speech—to avoid confrontation and to maintain a decent façade towards the Biden administration. His promise to annex the Jordan Valley, something no other Israeli leader had dared to do, is also an example of the former. But the sober realpolitik of his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech, guaranteeing his commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state, demonstrates the latter. Following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Netanyahu found himself at the side of Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, feted as a mature and rational leader—leaving behind his natural partners Trump and Johnson, and the free-market ideology that guided their policies.
Israelis know that Netanyahu is not blessed with the certitude of Israel’s generals. He is prone to anxiety and, on occasion, hysteria. This has manifested, for example, in the care he took to never venture beyond rhetoric in his battle with Iran, and his reluctance to launch a ground invasion in Gaza. Strangely, these are tendencies that liberals and leftists, such as Haaretz’s Gideon Levy, interpret merely as cautiousness. Despite the ideology he absorbed at his father Benzion’s knee, Netanyahu never dares give free rein to his instincts as a revolutionary-conservative a la Abba Ahimeir—the original right-wing ideologue, much admired by his father and the inspirational force behind the rebellion waged by the right-wing underground against the British in the pre-state era.
But the reasons for the center-left’s support for Netanyahu—and, ergo, for a curious mélange of authoritarian leadership and neo-liberal politicking—does not lie in his political caution alone. Rather, one must rummage through what remains of the identity of liberals as members of the social democratic elite. They see Netanyahu, an ardent champion of neoliberalism and globalization who compares himself to Margaret Thatcher, as a leader who will usher in the old-style nation state: benevolent and reasonable, almost the precursor of the social welfare state. And in this, it is not Netanyahu who oscillates opportunistically, but rather the center-left.
The coronavirus pandemic created an unprecedented opportunity for social democrats to demonstrate their commitment to a more secure and just world. But their enthusiastic support for Netanyahu’s restrictions in April 2020, his diplomatic achievements in the Arab world, and his spectacular vaccination campaign (entirely monopolistic at its start, devoted to one company alone and celebrating the personage of that company’s CEO), underscores the continued allegiance of liberals, including the social democrats of the old protective nation-state, to the narrowest of interests. Astonishingly, today it seems that Netanyahu is the only “populist right” leader worldwide to critique his country’s government, the incumbent Bennett–Lapid coalition, for not vaccinating enough. Netanyahu’s anxiety highlights the restraint and timidity of his conservativism, bolstered by enthusiastic support from liberals in contrast to their repudiation of Trump’s flamboyant displays of bravado. There is, I think, something too honest about Trump, perhaps explaining why he only secured a single term in office; Trump does not speak liberal language. Thus, Trump is considered a monster in the somewhat childish arena of world politics; but Netanyahu is, in Israel at least, seen as a moderate and cautious politician, guided by realpolitik, rather than the brave and powerful leader that he pretends to be. This is what reinforced his grip on to power for so many years, and that makes a political comeback a real possibility despite his much-chronicled legal problems. Support for Netanyahu is a function of liberal self-interest in a somewhat unholy alliance of self-centered political calculations. But as time passes and he remains in opposition, he is morphing into a marginalized persona, leader of those the liberal media calls “Bibists,” his ardent and “vulgar” supporters. Because the current regime is headed by Netanyahu’s one-time protégé, it is likely that the next election will be dominated by socio-ethno-economic issues and identiterian politics.
Bound by Signifiers
The Talmud describes those who engage in prophecy as fools. But not quite everyone who has written about the coronavirus fits this definition. Two things were clear about the pandemic almost from its outset: that it threatens principally the elderly, and that it is just one virus among many rather than a medieval epidemic. One can safely predict that the numbers of those infected will be high, as time, unsurprisingly, is a factor. The numbers, however, are not exponential, not even in Trump’s chaotic America. In retrospect we can now say with certainty that in Israel there was no epidemic during the spring of 2020, because the number of deaths in the country was lower (!) than in previous years. It is correct that deaths between March and October were 10% higher than in previous years. But the fact remains that the coronavirus pandemic has nothing to do with an epidemic in the historical sense of the word; every word denotes its history, suggesting that the way we understand “epidemic” may have similarly changed.
On March 20 2020, I dared to take the subway for the first time after the lockdown in Berlin, where I have lived for the last four years. I felt the weight of history on my shoulders, as though I was travelling on a train passing under the ruins of a city scorched and devastated by the bombs of World War II. During the ride, news of the first coronavirus victim in the Federal State of Berlin was announced on the train’s TV screen. I was brought back to earth with a bump: a ninety-five-year-old, a venerable age to which we can only aspire. If you’ve reached 95, you’ve already defeated death. And so it continued, and I refer mainly to the time before vaccination, and then the Delta variant, and then the Omicron variant: the coronavirus poses the greatest threat to the very elderly. These deaths are painful on many levels, but they also underscore humanity’s endurance, rather than feebleness.
More than economy or health, coronavirus has reached into the heart of culture itself, changing it dramatically. The virus assumed such overwhelming proportions for two reasons. First is the long and persistent assault on the resilience of civil society, especially its health systems; second is the perception of everything that is unknown as uncontrollable, and thus an unimaginable threat. The two are connected, in that the one leads to the other. But it was the latter that engaged politics and the media, via the scientists who were to become minor celebrities. Medical anxiety was cynically appropriated by politicians in their shows of concern, prompted by the harsh images coming out of Lombardy and Brooklyn. It was the sirens they were concerned with, and not the lives of seniors. Regretfully, the frenzy that so many societies have passed through has changed virtually nothing with respect to government policies. We are talking about something that extends far beyond crisis management: our weltanschauung, our guiding philosophy, should be that basic infrastructure is no less important than eye-catching high-tech solutions.
Unable to capture the virus in reality, the incipient crisis was commandeered right from the start by the hyper-erudite, who succeeded in making it intelligible via the graphs and statistics beamed into the (relative) safety of living rooms across the world. Maps and information, as we know, are the first weapons of colonization. Knowing gives us a sense of control; this is the first measure of a society confronted with others, be they indigenous people or even more so an invisible virus. It is interesting to see how signifiers, that is words and numbers, not only divorce us from the outside, but also from the present. They deprive us of both time and space as we discuss a gloomy future, even as we become frozen in an eternal present, concerning ourselves with graphs instead of with our neighbors. The outcome of being so immersed in knowledge is indeed the apotheosis of our Twitter-fueled ethos; that is, being used to being alarmist and non-alarmist together can be formulated as the loss of any readiness to bear consequences.
After all the months during which the pandemic has raged among us, it seems that Trump remains the only world leader to have insisted on stoic—albeit chaotic—resilience rather than incite fear—an attitude expressed most clearly in the videos released following the end of his COVID hospitalization. We’ve talked so much about avoidance and vaccination, but we’ve hardly talked about remedy, cure, treatment. Trump, childish, and ridiculous as he was in his talk of ingesting disinfectant, nevertheless was the only exception to this.
Why didn’t our doctors create a coalition of resistance against the attitude that the unknown must be avoided at all costs? After all, aren’t death and illness exactly the great unknown awaiting us all, and that we might as well confront them with candor?
Our long life expectancy dictates a preference for an eerie and exhausting reality that revolves around signs, and signs alone. Contrary even to the principles of capitalism, liberal anxiety about maintaining the existing order with the support of old conservatives is so apparent that its strategy of avoidance and retreat runs against even the logic of capitalism. The imperative to “save lives” should be reconfigured to include other benchmarks of quality of life; moving beyond life’s opacity, recognizing that death is but one of the many plagues that afflict us. In his old-fashioned American vocabulary, Trump merely reminded us that death is just part of the “Deal,” a quintessential part of being alive, a nominative but also a verb (to deal with).
Obedience for Avoidance: The Ubiquity of the “Fake”
In March this year, I participated in a talk at NYU’s Taub Center for Israel Studies, about “Demonstrations and Cultural Expression in the Age of COVID.” I could not overlook the fact that this year, 2021, marks the 50th anniversary of the most notable socio-economic protest movement in Israel’s history: the Black Panthers (whose name expressly demonstrates their alliance to a global context). Back then, the slogan was “Bread and Labor!” a plea for engagement between people and for sustenance. But the pandemic’s initial imperative was “stay the fuck home!”—this time directed at homes filled with gastronomic riches, on the screen and at the table. In the Global North, complacent citizens longed to queue up in supermarkets, the lure of consumption intensified via many new, drastic regulations and restrictions. Unlike Israel, the United States, and the UK, Germany imposed strict regulations mandating the use of a specific dog-like mask (or perhaps it is more beak-shaped?) the FFP. Much thicker than regular masks, FFP2 could be seen as symbolizing the strong grip of our society on its citizens. In this case, it proved the trigger for an outburst of self-righteousness in the public sphere—increasingly commonplace behavior in the age of the coronavirus pandemic. Surprisingly—or perhaps not—FFP2 is now being criticized by experts (as reported by Neue Zuericher Zeitung on 23 December 2021. But no one even questions the fact that the state does not supply its citizens with this basic piece of protective equipment, in a sense implying responsibility—and inducing guilt—for the pandemic on its citizens.
Amidst the riots of the summer of 2020 in the United States, almost no one remembered that George Floyd was not only Black but also one of the poor. His murder (why use euphemisms?) highlights, more than anything else, the correlation between the economic consequences of the virus and racism. In fact, unlike Israel and Germany the United States is seeing a real crisis anchored by social and racial facts.
The coronavirus is a historic moment because authoritative, knowledgeable, and rational sources have played a central role in creating the panic that we are contending with now. The liberal media, bastions of free speech and open criticism, acted in lockstep in embracing a narrative of compliance and control. A crisis that has changed the human face, and now we only have eyes. Like ferocious dogs, we muzzle the source of our senses, the mouth and nose; like dogs, we have been tamed by a superior authority. The actual lesson of coronavirus is that the notion of “fake news” is related to a very basic human need: the need to think independently and be free to doubt, necessarily bound up with the ability to say “no.” It seems that the ability to differentiate between right and wrong has given way completely to the distinction between what is permitted or prohibited. The pandemic is of course not the first instance of the state wielding its power through the reiteration of “positive” or “benevolent” norms: but it certainly seems to have become the contemporary epitome of this strategy. The fact that “fake” is now the property of enlightened and educated liberals, in that suspense of disbelief rules over our sources of information, pulls the rug out from under the possibility for any political debate: this, the loss of political disbelief, is the true victim of coronavirus.
These forms of incitement through fear have been mobilized by governments in the past, often with regard to the Arab world. Today it is generally acknowledged that the Bush administration willfully lied, in order to launch a deadly attack on the Iraqi people in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Israelis can think of the Gulf War of 1991 as a kind of promo for today’s COVID-19: masks, the military alert slogan “Viper Snake” sending families into what were dubbed “sealed rooms”—and, in its wake, a baseless fear of Saddam Hussein.
Why are those who strongly oppose the restrictions introduced following the coronavirus dismissed as clowns or even conspiracy theorists? The crisis reveals, above all, that a state of emergency—in practice or in fact—is the situation of choice for us as an elite, in that it actually serves to protect us from threatening external influences. In this respect, one can establish an analogy between the pandemic situation and other marginalized entities: the Palestinians under continuous blockade—a quarantine, of sorts—in the Gaza Strip; or the besieged Jewish Israeli citizens of the “Gaza envelope,” the towns bordering Gaza, on the frontline of any “escalation” between Hamas and the IDF. All are remote in the very same combination of the emergency and the everyday. Israel is willing to sacrifice these second-class citizens of its peripheral regions, in the main Mizrahim (Jews of Arab extraction) from lower socio-economic backgrounds, in order to perpetuate its self-perception as a “villa in the jungle.” In 2018, Minister Tzachi Hanegbi categorized a Hamas attack on Southern Israel as “minor,” revealing his complicity in the discrimination against the peripheral areas in favor of the center of the country.
This underscores the disturbing element to the Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates. Based on flights and weapons, the accord symbolizes the extent of ignorance and cynicism embedded in liberal politics. It was passed with complete disregard for Gaza and the twelve-year blockade of a people still awaiting self-determination; it represents an alliance with American imperial interests in Arab states, which themselves deny their own people fundamental human rights. The interesting point is that the exigencies of the moment have revealed the connection between the social democratic nation state and the brutal imperialism so evident in Netanyahu’s divided persona.
The Israeli liberal left has betrayed itself and become a symbol of hypocrisy. One should not, however, expect much more from liberals in Europe and North America. The Palestinian question provides the last chance to embrace a form of politics that today seems redundant: values not contingent on profit. However the future plays itself out, one thing is certain: no one can bring back 2020, the year in which our passivity and compliance, individual and collective, reached unimaginable levels. Even although we were forced by experts and those in the know into a state of emergency, the facts that this exposed regarding the world’s central problem remains unchanged: the divide which we vehemently deny and just as vehemently defend, between a wealthy Global North and an impoverished Global South. If the coronavirus is a signifier with a patently intangible signified (the virus is invisible), people of color and the global south are palpably present: Palestinians in Israel, and minority populations there and elsewhere—now filling the vacancies in food delivery companies like Deliveroo and Wolt. Liberals combine hot-button social liberal values with a hard-headed and self-interested economic conservatism, abjuring any instincts of social solidarity. Indeed, what is the function of the “Save Lives” enterprise proclaiming that “Life Matters,” if not to divert us from the real protest voiced by the “Wretched of the Earth” just months before the onset of the pandemic, that Black Lives Matter? Netanyahu is still a viable part of the political game in Israel. Even though the governing coalition recently reaffirmed its mandate by passing a budget, Netanyahu seems very much here to stay. Even so, it seems that within a political right in both government and opposition, with liberals who are pro-vaccination and a “populist” leader even more so, on Israel’s margins in the future will be those who remain unnoticed: Mizrahim, ultra-Orthodox and of course, Palestinians.
Now in the face of the current Omicron wave, it is a bit of a jolt to be reminded of Netanyahu’s continued relevance. In 2020, he was remarkably bullish about the prospects of Pfizer setting up a vaccine facility in Israel. Political grandstanding or not, the fact remains that whilst many were celebrating (prematurely, as we now know) the end of COVID, Netanyahu saw the tremendous economic potential the pandemic had created. Netanyahu saw vaccination not as an obstacle for the economy, but rather as another cog in the machine that is Neo-liberalism.
In Israel, with its special susceptibilities to colonial tensions, our future is likely to defined by something of a biomedical divide: a global north to be vaccinated again and again, and a global south – nowadays much more free of all the tremendous restrictions – to supply it with more and more variants. In this context, Netanyahu was there to just admit something particularly relevant to the State of Israel from the day of its independence: claims of a state of emergency are, in fact, merely a definitional twist on what really is daily routine.
The immensity of the bourgeoisie’s blindness is terrifying. Conditioned by high-tech mediation, it can no longer see beyond the boundaries of the screen—or, to use the analogy of a different square, beyond its own “four walls” (which in Judaism refers to the grave). The psalmist long ago said of idols: “Eyes they have, and they do not see.” Indeed, like them, we are left only with our eyes, above the masks, but deprived of our senses, of our understanding. We are masked people, able to see but without the freedom to act, just like muzzled dogs. According to a rabbinical saying, “the face of a generation is like the face of a dog,” suggesting the loss of the autonomy and control that we enjoy by virtue of our erect posture. But, to close on an optimistic note, the Talmud also notes that this same erring generation will also be the generation of the coming of the Messiah.
The author wishes to thank Akin Ajayi of TARB and Avi Shilon of NYU for their help in writing this piece.