Like in so many places around the world, Israel is shutting down once again to protect its people from COVID-19. The Delta variant of the virus has reared its ugly head just when we all thought things might be headed back towards normal. In Israel, as in the U.S., the number of cases is growing again, including in children under 12. Israel has a 79% rate of vaccination among eligible populations. But children are not eligible, and — as of last week — 5,000 of them were contracting Covid every day.
Israel’s ultra-nationalist Interior Minister, Ayelet Shaked, recently told Israel’s Channel 13 news that a “strategic decision” was made to “accept deaths — because this is a pandemic and in a pandemic people die.” But the people who die in a pandemic, as we know from our own experience in the United States, are not always just any people. People who live on the margins of society are the most susceptible to the worst consequences of this virus – because they are otherwise unprotected. I’m talking about Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, asylum seekers, people without sufficient housing, and others. These are people who already have too little, and who don’t benefit from the safety nets upon which so many others can rely.
This state of inequality goes well beyond the realm of healthcare and pandemic response.
Take employment and unemployment. This virus has brought with it countless challenges to everyone’s ways of working. And in this pandemic-battered economy, some have no work at all. In Jerusalem, there are different employment offices for the eastern and western parts of the city. According to the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), NIFC’s flagship project partner, at the East Jerusalem office in mostly Arab neighborhood of Wadi Joz, the wait can be more than four hours, standing in a line outside, baking in the scorching August sun. In mostly Jewish West Jerusalem, this is not an issue. According to ACRI, this not an error, it’s just discriminatory policy.
We support organizations like ACRI to identity this kind of inequity, to shine a light on it, and to challenge it in the court of public opinion and the courts of law.
This is the work of NIFC and our project partners: to stand up for justice and equality no matter what.
And while much of our work has gotten harder because of COVID-19, there are bright spots, too. With the swearing-in just a couple of months ago of the new, ideologically diverse Knesset, we welcomed a number of new Knesset members and government ministers with whom we share values and a vision for what Israel can be. This has opened up new possibilities for cooperation and progress on some of the issues we care most about. Last week, for example Israel’s progressive new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz met with long-time NIFC project partner, Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI). He and another progressive MK, Michal Rozin, toured PHRI’s Open Clinic with other ministry officials. The meeting was the first time that a Health Minister has met with PHRI, an organization dedicated to the wellbeing of Israel’s most marginalized. PRHI leaders told us that they discussed a number of critical issues, including a plan to provide health insurance to asylum seekers, opening Gaza up so that people who are sick can get out to get the care they need, and ways to close the vast gaps in Israeli healthcare. They said that the health minister’s visit gave them hope that PHRI’s mission – to ensure that everyone who lives under Israeli control is guaranteed the right to health – is really possible. (Of course, they added, “we’re not complacent – we know there’s still a long road ahead and much to be done.”)
This meeting gave me hope, too. It demonstrated that some of those holding the levers of power that matter the most right now can – and will — actually help those who need it, regardless of whether those people are Arabs or Jews.
After so long pushing back against attempts by those in power to strip the vulnerable of their rights and protections, it is heartening to be working with officials dedicated to improving lives and protecting the marginalized.
Of course, not everyone is thrilled by Nitzan’s plans. The political far-right is downright angry. MK Simcha Rothman of the Religious Zionism party – who pollster and analyst Dahlia Scheindlin described in a guest essay for the New York Times as “a firebrand anti-Supreme Court crusader and a settler from deep inside the West bank” – is particularly angry about Horowitz’s plan to help asylum seekers get basic healthcare. He claims their care would come at the expense of an Israeli grandmother’s care. But you and I know that healthcare is not a zero-sum game. And that depriving populations of critical preventative care ultimately overburdens emergency rooms staff and hurts everyone.
It’s true that making people like Rothman angry is sometimes the price we pay for doing what we do. But we know that good trouble is what makes for good change. And you know that NIFC will be there, making that good trouble and enabling that change—always.