Israel: Politics and Identity in Coronavirus times

Ehud Eiran, University of Haifa and Stanford University 

The early phase of the Coronavirus spread in Israel in March 2020 had two major immediate political effects. First, the public health crisis allowed Prime Minister Netanyahu to break the political impasse and secure his position. Secondly, the government handed new authorities to national security institutions, as growing parts of the Coronavirus public health challenge were securitized.

The crisis – and the manner in which it was framed by the political elite and part of the media –  provided hints as to some of the potential long-term societal and political effects. The crisis – at least in this early phase – strengthens Israel’s traditional identity as a society that is conflicted but can coalesce around a Jewish-Zionist collectivist ethos, that trusts its security apparatus, and that idolizes technology despite potentially adverse effects on civil liberties. Two large groups – Israeli-Palestinian and Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jews, remain, to various degrees, outside of this identity. The current crisis, therefore, will strengthen Israel’s traditional self-image while rejecting, at least for now, more inclusive models, either in civic or multicultural forms. In the longer term, however, as the public health crisis fades, the demographic realities will force Israel to re-open the conversation about national identity and the institutional arrangements that flow from it. After all, 47.5% of children in elementary schools are members of the two groups that do not accept the secular-national-Jewish identity of the state – Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Palestinians.[1]

The Coronavirus hit Israel in the midst of a political impasse. The country went to inconclusive elections three times in eleven months (April 2019, September 2019, March 2020).  Prime Minister Netanyahu’s used the crisis to solidify his leadership. Polling showed that the public generally felt that he was handing the crisis well.[2] This could be either the result of a rallying around the flag effect, or due to some objective measures that show that aspects of the Israeli approach are working well.[3] In late March 2020, the head of the main opposition party, Gen. (Ret.) Benny Ganz agreed to join a Netanyahu-led government. Gantz justified this stark breach of his election promise, by citing the emergency situation, and the possibility that under the emerging agreement he will replace Netanyahu later in the term (the parties are still negotiating as these lines are being written).  The crisis also protected the Prime Minister from legal risks as most trials in the land were postponed on March 15, 2020 by the Minister of Justice, Amir Ohana, a close Netanyahu ally.[4]

Israel’s security organizations assumed an important role in combating the pandemic, and deployed technologies that pose a challenge to civil liberties.  On March 15, 2020, the Israeli cabinet approved regulations that allow the nation’s internal security agency (Shabak) to use location data to analyze the physical movements of citizens, and send messages ordering self-quarantine to anyone who was in the vicinity of an infected person in the 14 days prior to their diagnosis.[5] The regulations were passed while the 22nd Knesset was adjourned (following the March 3, 2020 elections) and despite an earlier effort of one of its sub-committees to slow down the process.[6] A challenge in the Supreme Court was deflected, under the condition that the 23rd Knesset will move quickly to create effective oversight once it is convened.[7] On March 31, 2020 the new Knesset did indeed place some restrictions on the Shabak’s surveillance.[8] However, the head of the sub-committee that led the discussions, Gen. (Ret.) Ashkenazi, was about to enter the coalition, possibly as the Minister of Defense.

The general public seems to trust the security establishment in the face of the new surveillance measures: 55% of Israelis polled in 24-26 March, 2020 reported that they believe that the data will only be used to fight the Coronavirus.[9] An expose written by journalists Ronen Bergman and Ido Shevertzuk a few days later, revealing that the Shabak has been collecting phone, internet, and location data on all Israeli citizens for almost two decades, was not followed by any public outcry. [10] Further surveillance may be ahead. The Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennet, is trying, as these lines are written, to deploy a system that will analyze large data sets and ascertain the probability of an individual being infected with COVID-19. The plan was developed together with NSO, an Israeli corporation accused of surveillance and breach of privacy in numerous countries around the world.[11]

Israel’s external intelligence agency, Mossad, was entrusted with leading the national procurement effort for relevant medical supplies,[12] and soldiers were authorized to assist the police in enforcing social distancing around the country.[13] Military intelligence units opened a joint war room, in which data relevant to the illness – including data  regarding Israeli citizens – was  collected and analyzed.[14] The military also overtook the management of a number of hotels that were transformed into centers for voluntary internment of persons identified as sick with Coronavirus disease.[15] The military is preparing for an even greater involvement, including an expansion of deployment of personnel  in population centers.[16]

These security-driven moves reinforce core aspects of Israel’s national identity[17]:  A country that sees itself as Jewish and Zionist, able to form a centrist national unity government, even in the face of personal animosities and corruption charges. Indeed, a plurality of Israelis polled on 24-26 March, 2020, supported the national unity government.[18] Israel also comes across as a society that relies on, and places trust in, its security apparatus — even when it curtails aspects of civil liberties.

Two groups are left out of this identity: Israeli-Palestinians, and Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Their political representatives generally reject, in various degrees, the current national identity as reflected in state symbols, institutions, practices, and cultural ethos. Arab members of Knesset oppose the exclusive Jewish elements the state boasts; while Ultra-Orthodox reject Jewish nationalism as they perceive Jews as a religious group that should not be politically sovereign until the eschatological times of the Messiah. Both groups are highly suspicious of the state apparatus. Ultra-Orthodox played a minor role in coalition governments, while Arabs were – and still are – all but absent. Indeed, as noted, the main opposition party preferred to join a national unity government with Netanyahu after the March 2020 elections, over the possibility of creating a winning coalition that would include an Arab Non-Zionist party. This cleavage is further reinforced as members of both groups are exempt from the draft, and are therefore not part of the security establishment.  In part due to inferior STEM education, both groups are also grossly under-represented in the high-tech industry, despite efforts to expand their participation there.[19]

Moreover, media reports highlight that both populations do not follow the social distancing rules imposed by the state.[20] Many members of these communities reside in crowded towns, and as they are more religious compared to rest of the population, they congregate often for prayer and other communal events. Indeed, Ultra-Orthodox have contracted the disease in larger proportion compared to other groups in society.[21] As a result, the state took more aggressive measures to enforce social distancing and limit movement in and out of major Ultra-Orthodox population centers.[22] A large number of soldiers were deployed in early April in a large Ultra-Orthodox town, Bene Bark, to distribute food and assist in Coronavirus testing.[23] Among some Ultra-Orthodox, the aggressive public health moves, are seen as part of a broader campaign by the state and elements of the secular civil society, and media to discredit them.[24]

There is no comparable data about the spread of the disease among Israeli-Palestinians but it seems that, at least in some localities, the security forces are more assertive. On April 1, 2020, for example, aggressive police enforcement of a limited curfew led to clashes with dozens of protesters in Jaffa, the largely Arab sector of Tel-Aviv.[25]

This overlap: ideological opposition to the state, lack of representation in high-tech and security, limited political participation, and alleged avoidance of the rules against the disease, all reinforce the ‘otherness’ of Israeli-Palestinians and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, when posits next to the traditional Jewish-Zionist-largely secular model of national identity.

The success of the traditional identity model to secure further legitimacy in the face of the health crisis will help deflect, at least for now, two more inclusive models that were put forward in the last few years. The first is a multicultural vision that was articulated, among others, by President Rivlin. According to this approach, Israel is no longer a state with a clear Jewish-Zionist-secular majority as it was. Rather, it should be understood as a society comprised of four groups (“tribes’):  Jewish-secular, Jewish-religious, Jewish Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) and Israeli- Palestinians.  Therefore, numerous arenas such as the public service, local government and education should be transformed to reflect this reality.[26] The presidency is largely a ceremonial position  so, for now, the idea did not have any significant institutional effect. The second alternative to the current model is a civic, liberal state, a “state of all its citizens”. The state would give no preference to any ideology or ethnic group, nor will it support such groups.[27] This idea has not gained much traction for now, as it contrasts with collective self-identity as the nation-state of the Jewish people.[28] It is further rejected due to a civic republican notion that suggests that only citizens that serve the nation (in the armed forces) are full members of the political community. Both new conceptualizations of Israeli identity are driven by the demographic change to come. As noted above, almost 50% of elementary schools are comprised of Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Palestinians.[29]

The global response to the Coronavirus includes swift moves in many countries to changes in areas such as economy, civil liberties, and education. Israel adopted some of these changes, but in regards to the core question of national identity, the preliminary phase of the response to the Coronavirus seems to further support its existing identity: a Jewish, Zionist state that relies on a technology-prone, forward-leaning security establishment.; thus, protecting its core value of providing physical security, while deflecting ontological challenges to its sense of self.


The author wished to thank Professor Marc Lynch and Dr. Doron Navot for their most useful comments on an earlier version of this paper, and Prerna BalaEddy for her edits.



[1] Israeli Ministry of Education, The Education system 2017-2018, July 2017, p. 10

[2] Israel Democracy Institute, The Israeli Voice Survey, March, 2020, p. 1,

[3] In early April 2020, Israel had the lowest death rate from the disease. See: Martha Henriques, Coronavirus: Why Death and Mortality Rates Differ? BBC, 1 April, 2020,

[4] Yair Altman, Minister of Justice Ohana: A State of Emergency in the Courts, Maariv, 15 March, 2020,

[5] Noa Landau and Netael Bandel, To Stop the Coronavirus, Shin Bet Can Now Track Cellphones Without Court Order, Haaretz, 15 March, 2020,

[6] Tal Schneider, Due to the Corona: In a late hour the Cabinet gave one of the most important  fundamental democratic right”, Globs, 17 March, 2020,

[7] Matan Vaserman, the High Court of Justice: Create Knesset Committees or Halt Shabak surveillance, Maariv, 19 March, 2020,

[8] Rephaela Goichman, The Intelligence sub-committee authorized Shabak Surveillance, this time with Knesset oversight, Haaretz, 31 March, 2020,

[9] Israel Democracy Institute, The Israeli Voice Survey, March, 2020, p. 6,

[10] Ronen Bergman and Ido Shevertzuk, the tool is exposed: the secret dataset in which the Shabak collects sms, calls and location, YNET, 27 March, 2020,,7340,L-5701412,00.html

[11] Yasmin Yablonko, Bennet Want to use NSO Technology to Rank the chances for infections by citizens, Globs, 29 March, 2020,

[12] Or Heller, Mossad Express: The medical Procurement Directorate brought ventilators and masks, Israel Defense, 30 March, 2020,

[13] Gild Cohen, Itai Blumenthal, and Ahia Rabed, Hundreds of Soldiers are patrolling the Streets”, YNET, 31 March, 2020,,7340,L-5704894,00.html

[14] IDF Site staff, Chief of Staff visits the information factory and the Military Intelligence’s test center, IDF Site, 29 March 2020,

[15] Tal Lev-Ram, CO of Home front Command: Hotels in Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem will be converted to absorb the sick, Maariv, 16 March, 2020,

[16] Tal Lev-Ram, The Struggle Against Corona: The Military is Getting Ready to Support a full lockdown, will allocate Eight Battalions”, Maariv, 24 March, 2020,

[17] For a discussion of these and other aspects of national identity see: Anthony Smith, National Identity, Reno NV: University of Nevada Press, 1991. For a critique, see:  Montserrat Guibernau, Anthony D. Smith on nations and national identity: a critical assessment, Nations and Nationalism Vol. 10 (1-2), 2004, pp. 125-141

[18] Israel Democracy Institute, The Israeli Voice Survey, March, 2020, p. 1,

[19] Linda Gradstein, These Arabs and their Allies in High Tech are Fighting Racial Tension in Israel, Forward, 18 February, 2019,; Shahar Ilan, Israel Launches a Tech Integration Program for Haredi Students, Calcalist, 27 August, 2019,,7340,L-3769072,00.html

[20] Anna Reiva Bresgi, Netanyahu Calls the Arab Sector to adhere to the instructions: for our joint future, Maariv, 19 March, 2020,

[21] David M. Halbfinger, Virus Soars Among Ultra-Orthodox Jews as Many Flout Israel’s Rules, New York Times, 30 March, 2020,

[22] Noa Landau, The Government quartines Bene Brak due to “High rate of Coronavirus Spread, Haaretz, 2 April, 2020,

[23] Or Heller, A Defense Force for Haredi Towns, Israel Defense, 5 April, 2020,

[24] Israel Cohen, The Haradi as spreaders of Disease, Haaretz, 22 March, 2020,

[25] Daniel Elazar, Violet Clashes between tens of residents and the police, Kan, 1 April, 2020,

[26] Alex Mintz (Eds.), A Joint Israeliness, Herzlia: IDC Herzlia, 2017

[27] Yoav Peled, Will Israel be a State of all its citizens when it turns a hundred, Bar Ilan Law Studies 17.1, 2001, pp. 73-89.

[28] Andrew Carey and Oren Liebermann, Israel passes controversial ‘nation-state’ bill with no mention of equality or minority rights, CNN, 19 July 2018,

[29] Israeli Ministry of Education, The Education system 2017-2018, July 2017, p. 10