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Is a request for economic patriotism taking Israel’s lockdown too far?

The prime minister, of all people, understands the workings of the free market.

An Israeli police officer at a temporary coronavirus “checkpoint“ on Highway 1 outside of Jerusalem. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
An Israeli police officer at a temporary coronavirus “checkpoint“ on Highway 1 outside of Jerusalem. Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Credit: Courtesy.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, an author and award-winning columnist, is a former adviser at the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Towards the end of his latest address to inform the Israeli public of increased lockdown measures due to the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu added words of cautious optimism ahead of the Passover holiday.

“There is a real possibility that if the positive trends in Israel continue, we will gradually exit the lockdown after Passover,” he said on Monday evening. “[This] will breathe new life into the economy. It will give hope to employers and employees, and to small and big businesses. … As soon as we begin to change direction—the minute that economic activity is increased—everything will begin to change. In the meantime, in order to get through this chapter, we in the government reached a decision to inject NIS 90 billion [into the economy] … ”

Before extending a wish for a “happy and kosher Pesach,” along with the hope that “we will get through this hardship together and emerge from quarantine to freedom,” he concluded with a request.

“One more important thing that I ask of you,” he implored. “Especially during these times, I ask that you buy Israeli-made products.”

He avoided using the more common idiom for encouraging the purchase of domestic goods—“Buy Blue and White”—since the colors of the Israeli flag now represent the name of the rival party with which he has been having difficulty ironing out the details of a coalition agreement for the establishment of a national-unity government. Yet this wasn’t the only ironic aspect of his otherwise magnificent Passover greeting, in which he managed to raise spirits while slapping a new set of harsh restrictions on an already strangled populace.

Far more notable, yet oddly glossed over by much of the media, was the fact that he was urging us to spend our dwindling shekels on homegrown items while massive deliveries of foreign medical and food supplies were arriving in the Jewish state from abroad. In addition to the tons of eggs flown in from Spain on Sunday and from Portugal on Tuesday (to alleviate Israelis’ hysteria over the shortage of the household staple consumed in particularly large quantities throughout the week of Passover), a massive mission began on Monday to airlift surgical masks and other equipment from China.

Never mind that Beijing, which was responsible for the global coronavirus outbreak in the first place, reportedly has flooded Europe with defective COVID-19 test kits and related supplies. This specific issue, as well as a more general argument against Israel’s ties with the People’s Republic, requires a separate urgent debate.

Of equal immediacy, however, is the question of how Israelis—a quarter of whom have lost their jobs—can be persuaded to keep their hard-to-come-by money on the home front without regard to competitive pricing.

Netanyahu, of all people, understands the workings of the free market. To expect the public to suspend them now on behalf of the local economy, particularly when his government is on a shopping spree elsewhere, may be pushing our lockdown-time patriotism to its limit.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ”

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