Nowhere has the coronavirus pandemic been used more cynically to shut down political debate and the right to protest than in Israel. The Israeli government’s state of emergency goes even further than Naomi Klein’s darkest predictions.
This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Greg Wilpert: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. Recently, thousands of Israelis posted the cover of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine on their social media accounts without further comment. They were doing so because they had sensed that the book is a warning and that it’s becoming a reality before their very eyes. The crisis has shocked the population and this now allows the Israeli government to push forward with draconic and undemocratic policies.
All over the world, we are seeing how governments are declaring states of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic and are undertaking extreme measures to stop the spread of the virus. However, other than perhaps China, no country in the world has gone as far as Israel in clamping down on civil liberties. First, prime minister Netanyahu closed the courts a few days before he was supposed to appear in court himself to face charges of corruption.
Then, as the opposition tried to elect a new chairman of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, the ruling coalition that no longer has a majority decided to shut down the Knesset. Next and most alarming, the government used an executive order to grant unlimited powers of surveillance to the secret police, tracking the phones of every person in Israel at all times, supposedly to keep track of infected people and to prevent them from spreading the disease and to punish them if they break the curfew.
And finally, when thousands of Israelis wanted to protest these measures, the right to assembly was denied. Even a convoy of cars, in which everyone sits in their own car and does not interact with others, was forbidden. Here’s how prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented the measures last week.
Benjamin Netany…: [foreign language 00:01:42]. The government will approve tonight executive orders for a state of emergency to allow the use of digital measures to fight the coronavirus. These measures will help us very much to find the location of the virus and the location of the sick people and thus stop the spread of the virus. We discussed it yesterday at the cabinet meeting for six hours.
[foreign language 00:02:06]. Me, and I must say, almost all… No, all the ministers. We wanted to ensure a meticulous supervision of this measure to prevent misuse. The legal council accepted our request and this evening we shall authorize the use of digital tools for a limited time of 30 days. Israel is a democracy. It must keep the balance between individual rights and the collective needs and we are doing that.
Greg Wilpert: Joining me now to discuss how governments are taking advantage of the pandemic is Antony Loewenstein. He is an independent journalist and author of the book, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. Thanks for joining us again, Antony.
Antony Loewenstein: Thanks for having me.
Greg Wilpert: So, many countries that the coronavirus has hit, has hit them actually much harder than Israel, but they have not implemented such extreme measures as Israel. And so Israeli government officials argue that it’s precisely because of these extreme measures that Israel hasn’t been hit so hard. However, there are many countries that slowed down the spread of the virus without taking such extreme measures. So the question is why Israel of all countries is reacting in such an extreme way to the coronavirus. What do you think?
Antony Loewenstein: Well there’s a few reasons. I was living in Jerusalem until just recently. So I saw the beginning of this pandemic, but I left thankfully before it really accelerated or the shutdown happened, the lockdown. I think what you’re seeing in Israel really is almost an inevitability. What I mean by that is for two reasons. One, Israel is a country that has spent decades occupying, monitoring, surveilling millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and in Israel proper and that now is coming home to roost.
What I mean by that is that they are using their technology which traditionally has been used on Palestinians, now on all citizens, which obviously includes Palestinians but also Israeli Jews. And it also of course is coming at a time where there’s no actual government in Israel and Netanyahu claims to be prime minister, but in fact he hasn’t won three elections. It has not been a legitimate government in Israel for close to 18 months. This is the reality in Israel and a weak and divided opposition. So the use and the and the technology and the ability of the Shin Bet, the internal security services to monitor all citizens, which I have to say is being claimed as a temporary measure should worry us deeply because these measures may well be loosened in time. We don’t know, but the fact is we should not be trusting A the Israeli government or the Israeli security services historically have been known to very aggressively monitor and surveil Palestinians.
So the danger, which clearly is relevant to many other countries is, if you allow your government or your state to massively surveil and monitor the other, whether it’s Palestinians, all Muslims, whoever it may be. That technology will inevitably used on ourselves. And I think about Edward Snowden here when he talked about, he’s released in about seven years ago and he was saying that yes, the US massively surveils the world. But they also surveil the Americans because that technology inevitably is used on our own. That’s what’s happening in Israel today.
Greg Wilpert: Israeli member of parliament, Ahmad Tibi once said with regard to Israel’s Jewish population that Israel is a democratic state and regard towards Arab population, Israel is a Jewish state. Now we are seeing the last democratic protections of the Jewish population of Israel crumbling as well. What do you think this means for the Arab Palestinians population under Israeli control, which is nearly 7 million people? Are they being affected in the same way?
Antony Loewenstein: Well even more so. I mean obviously Gaza which has been under Israeli blockade now for much more than a decade has just recently seen two cases of the coronavirus and notably more will come and the health system has been collapsed for years, so that’s a real potential catastrophe on Israel’s doorstep. The West Bank has essentially been locked down. The West Bank is on the complete Israeli control, military control. Bethlehem and many other cities are under complete lock down. People can’t move in and out, which in some ways as many Palestinians say, this is in some ways the worst time the occupation. This is what normal life for many Palestinians is like all the time. Now obviously now it’s very extreme to be sure, but many Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza was saying to Israeli Jews, now you know what it often it’s like. Can’t move from town to town. Can’t send our kids to school. Can’t live a daily life.
That’s not necessarily every single day. The occupation ebbs and flows in different areas depending on the particular political movement at the time, but what you see also within Israel itself where the recent election, the joint list, the third major political party received huge amounts of support mostly from Palestinians and Arabs, but also from a growing number of Israeli Jews. And it’s very clear that from the both major sides of Israeli Jewish politics, they have little to no interest in having any coalition with those, with that party. They express contempt and deep racism for that party, Netanyahu particularly. And I think it shows in some ways two things. One that the Palestinian Arab population in Israel proper and the West Bank and Gaza, who might not have no votes. And I think it’s important to say to viewers, just to be very clear, Israel is not a democracy if you’re not Jewish.
There are literally 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza roughly, who cannot vote in any elections for the Israeli Knesset for a leader who will control their lives. So to say, Israel is a democracy has always been a lie. And it’s certainly a democracy if you are Jewish of sorts. And also I think it’s important for people to realize that the joint lists growing support shows a growing divide within Israeli society itself, where I think many Israeli Arabs and a growing number of Israeli Jews realized that a Zionist political movement, by definition cannot and will not bring democracy to all its citizens. It simply wants democracy for Jews only.
And although the joint list will not be in government, the joint list politically will have not huge amounts of power. Symbolically, it’s unbelievably powerful and they’ll continue to grow as more and more people realize that Netanyahu although he could or even his main rival Benny Gantz is basically Netanyahu in drag. They’re virtually exactly the same on the key issue of the occupation. That’s what really matters here, which is why the joint lists support and growing support. It is so important.
Greg Wilpert: I wonder though, based on what you just said, if perhaps this crackdown in light of the coronavirus might produce a silver lining in the sense that as you said, it’s awakening Israelis to the conditions of occupation. Obviously it’s not as serious as the occupation, but at least they’re getting some degree of taste of it and perhaps that might change their attitude towards it. What do you think?
Antony Loewenstein: If only that was true. Look, maybe, and I guess we should talk in three or six months to see, but as Gideon Levy, the great journalist for Arabs. The Israeli newspaper said in a column recently. Yes, Israeli Jews and now on the lockdown, but it’s nothing like what Palestinians go through. Israeli Jews and not being raided in their houses, they’re not being dragged from their homes, they’re not being shot dead in the streets for protesting. Yes, they’re not being allowed to protest, but they’re not being shot dead for protesting. So yes, Israeli Jews maybe have a tiny taste of what Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza goes through. But I think sadly, having lived in Jerusalem, East Jerusalem for many, many years, what you really see over time is a hardening of hearts. And what I mean by that is that there is little to no empathy by the majority of Israeli Jews towards what is happening down the road in the occupation.
Now I’m not saying old Jews in Israel, I’m saying the majority of Jews. And you know that because most of them don’t talk about it. Don’t write about it. Don’t vote in any way that reflects that they’re upset about it. And the media, to it’s eternal shame only really reports on the West Bank and Gaza with a few notable exceptions in the context of a security threat. There are not stories generally about what life is actually like in the occupation down the road from Israel. So I’d like to think that this would maybe make Israeli Jews more reflective of the kind of regime they’ve created for Arabs on their doorstep and therefore be more sympathetic towards them. But the evidence so far for that is quite minimal. And I hope that changes, but I not that optimistic.
Greg Wilpert: Now, turning to the larger picture, both your book Disaster Capitalism and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, argue that disasters or shocks are unpopular policies that the government hopes to impose when people are in shock or facing disasters and cannot properly resist. Now do you think that Israel is perhaps the proverbial canary in the coal mine and that other countries may also start surveilling the population and shutting down political dissent all in the name of fighting the coronavirus?
Antony Loewenstein: Well, the short answer is yes. I feel that a great deal and one of the things that I’m really worried about at the moment and something I’m looking into is Israel has perfected the art of the ethno state. The ethno state being of course a Jewish state that dominates non Jews and to the use of technology and surveillance often through public but also private companies for decades. They’ve mastered from their perspective an ability to control millions of Palestinians. That technology and that ideology is now being exported globally. Think of what India wants to do in Kashmir, Sri Lanka in the Tamil areas in the North. China in parts of the weaker areas. And that’s not all because of Israel to be sure, but Israel provides both an inspiration ideologically, but also the ease of technology and surveillance. And the fear that I have is that although the coronavirus will at some point taper down or minimize six months, three months, a year, we don’t know. Soon, it won’t be forever.
But the fear is that there’ll be an appeal by many governments to maintain either tight controls and the monitoring of civilians and citizens without reducing them. And Israel in some ways is the model of that because Israel has done it for decades and they get away with it. Now, yes that monitoring is principally of Palestinians. But as we’re seeing now, it’s inevitably turning to Israeli Jews as well. And let’s be honest, after Edward Snowden’s revelations in 2013. In the US there were protests and there were minor changes through Congress. Were there hundreds of thousands of people marching through the streets in the US opposing what was happening? No. Snowden’s documents revealed clearly that the US had an apparatus, both Republican and Democrat, to monitor and surveil every single citizen. And yes, some people were upset about that and they protested. But in general, that’s continued. And I would argue different and we don’t even really know what’s happening during the Trump administration in terms of that. There’s been not that much reporting or leaks about what Trump has been doing in terms of messily ramping up internal state surveillance.
So I’m really concerned as someone who’s written for a decade now about disaster capitalism, apart from the obvious examples of people trying to charge more for hand sanitizer and face mask, which is terrible and that should be condemned. But the bigger picture here is what this means longer term. The States that are very keen not just to make money from it, but this one real quick example. The NSO group, which is an Israeli surveillance company that was used by Saudi Arabia to monitor friends of Jamal Khashoggi recently, last couple of years. It’s a surveillance company which is populated by former Israeli military. They’ve been announcing the last while technology to help so they say, fight the coronavirus. Now this technology may well be helpful. We don’t know at this stage, but my point is that you have this really worrying blending of the surveillance state and surveillance companies with people who claim to be helping those in society.
And yes, we need to fight the coronavirus and stop it or at least massively arrest its increase. But I’m really concerned that there are going to be a lot of private companies, private military companies, surveillance companies, technology companies, utilizing this opportunity to say to a state we can help keep out unwanted people. That could be high walls or borders or surveillance. And we’re seeing that in much of Europe now as well for that matter. So the fear is that many governments that are utilizing this technology, I call these Israelification almost of the world. And although there’s push back against that in certain places, it’s not a given that it’ll happen. I think there needs to be a lot more discussion and push back against it because otherwise it becomes business as normal and that is not the society I think that most people want to live in.
Greg Wilpert: Well on that note, unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there. I was speaking to Antony Loewenstein journalist and author of the book Disaster Capitalism. Thanks again, Antony, for having joined us today.
Antony Loewenstein: Thanks for having me, Greg,
Greg Wilpert: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.
Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded Venezuelanalysis.com, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.