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Analysis

A nation of mask-free hand-shakers: Inspiring hope, Israel exits COVID mode

For many worldwide wondering if social interaction will ever return to normal, sight of even Netanyahu and his successor grasping palms shows there is a path out of the pandemic

Nathan Jeffay

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

  • Delighted that cinemas have reopened, Israelis watch a movie in Jerusalem, May 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    Delighted that cinemas have reopened, Israelis watch a movie in Jerusalem, May 27, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)
    Israel's outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)
  • People shop at the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the COVID-19 obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
    People shop at the Dizengoff Center mall in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the COVID-19 obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
  • Israelis attend a movie at Jerusalem's Cinema City movie theatre on May 27, 2021, the official reopening night after14 months of closure during the coronavirus pandemic (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
    Israelis attend a movie at Jerusalem's Cinema City movie theatre on May 27, 2021, the official reopening night after14 months of closure during the coronavirus pandemic (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
  • People shop at the Yochananof supermarket in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the COVID-19 obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
    People shop at the Yochananof supermarket in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the COVID-19 obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
  • People ride an escalator at a shopping mall after restrictions requiring face masks indoors was lifted, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Israel lifted one of its last coronavirus restrictions Tuesday following a highly successful vaccination campaign. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
    People ride an escalator at a shopping mall after restrictions requiring face masks indoors was lifted, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. Israel lifted one of its last coronavirus restrictions Tuesday following a highly successful vaccination campaign. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Amid the raucous scenes in the Knesset this week, there was a moment of profound relevance for billions around the world, and it had nothing to do with Israeli politics.

Israel has just abolished the compulsory wearing of masks indoors. This means that its population is seeing each other face-to-face as it hasn’t in almost a year and a half.

This followed the elimination of almost all other COVID-19 rules, including the opening of entertainment venues to all, and cancellation of the mask mandate outdoors.

The indoor mask ruling, which kicked in on Tuesday, was momentous, but told us less about the country’s return to normalcy than did an encouraging split-second event in Knesset two days earlier.

Sunday’s Knesset proceedings were dominated by unruly behavior on the part of various lawmakers, with some ejected for shouting in the plenum. The man who had just been ousted as Israel’s leader stood at the podium decrying his successor as unfit to lead the country and putting it in danger from mortal enemy Iran.

The next day, Benjamin Netanyahu would shun the niceties of a toast with the new prime minister, Naftali Bennett, and limit the handover meeting to less than half an hour.

But on Sunday in the Knesset, his world falling apart before his eyes, Netanyahu did the only thing that could express grudging acceptance of Bennett: shake his hand. (Netanyahu is wearing a face mask in the photograph as the encounter took place two days before the indoor mask rule was abolished.)

Israel’s outgoing prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with his successor, incoming Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, after a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

It has taken only a few weeks of rock-bottom COVID-19 cases for the handshake to become not just socially acceptable, but ubiquitous. Physical contact was quick to return among those who actually want to touch each other. But Sunday illustrated that it’s once again de rigueur even among people who can’t stand the sight of each other. In other words, the full range of social interaction is well and truly back.

Many eulogized the handshake when it became taboo early in the pandemic. We were told that our hands are petri dishes of germs and that there was no conceivable reason we would ever restart the habit. “I don’t think we should ever shake hands ever again, to be honest with you,” said America’s top infectious diseases doctor, Anthony Fauci, 14 months ago.

Many found it exhilarating to walk around a maskless Israel on Tuesday and come face-to-face in a real way with those they encountered. After becoming accustomed to the covered faces of bus drivers, supermarket checkout staff, teachers and so many others, the populace again was able to bestow and receive smiles.

An Israeli man cuts through a huge face mask as Israelis celebrate the end of the outdoor mask mandate, in Jerusalem, April 18, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The vast swaths of the world’s population that are deep in pandemic mode know that one day their mask mandates will also be canceled. Yet what many struggle to imagine is that they will feel as they once did about interaction with others, and that the norms of their social lives will return.

The Israeli vaccination story has long been a source of inspiration internationally. At first, it was a story about speed and efficiency, and how fast a country could get shots into arms. Then it became a story about statistics, which showed that the vaccine works well in preventing illness and transmission. Latterly, it has been a story of reopening: how a country can successfully relaunch the infrastructure of normal life — from education to recreation.

People ride an escalator at a shopping mall after restrictions requiring face masks indoors was lifted, in Tel Aviv, Tuesday, June 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

With the rules now gone, Israel remains fascinating for a subtler reason. As we laud our country as the first to emerge from the pandemic, how do we actually feel?

Has months of being conditioned to see other people as potential infection risks left us reluctant to get up close and personal? Do we still view each other with suspicion, as many predicted? All indications seem to be that our nervousness ebbed away quickly, to a degree unimaginable to those still deep in pandemic mode.

People shop at the Yochananof supermarket in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the COVID-19 obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

This too is part of the important pandemic story that Israel has for the world.

The coronavirus crisis left many psychological and emotional scars. But we have discovered that there is a force in us, as individuals and as a society, that pushes us hard to restore social norms, reestablish contact, and move from the new normal back to the old normal.

Deep down, the worry of many around the world isn’t that they will never rid themselves of COVID-19, but that the less isolated, more socially interactive reality they knew before will never return. Israel indicates that it will.

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