Protecting itself from COVID-19, divided Israel shows rare cohesion

Its Jewish-Arab, Orthodox-secular rifts are all still there, but the country has thus far proved capable of transcending them, holding together to reduce the pandemic’s ravages

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

This handout photo provided by the Magen David Adom (MDA) national emergency service on March 24, 2020, in Beersheba shows two paramedics praying outside an ambulance of the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA): a Jew from Beersheba facing Jerusalem, and an Arab from Rahat facing Mecca. (Magen David Adom)
Emblematic image: This handout photo provided by the Magen David Adom (MDA) national emergency service on March 24, 2020, in Beersheba shows two paramedics praying outside an ambulance of the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA): a Jew from Beersheba facing Jerusalem, and an Arab from Rahat facing Mecca (MAGEN DAVID ADOM)

The ostensibly simple, minimal-red-tape Tax Authority website, via which Israelis whose incomes have been devastated by COVID-19 restrictions can apply for compensation, keeps crashing. Some 30,000 people who sought grants on Wednesday were told Thursday they’d have to do so again, because a bug on the site had deleted their applications.

A parents’ action group has galvanized to protest the back-to-school schedule that sees kids, days after they’re being returned to the classrooms, about to be sent home again for a day on (the minor Jewish holiday of) Lag B’Omer next week because teachers usually have that day off and nobody thought to renegotiate given that schools have been out for the past couple of months.

A closure order on a Bedouin town with a high rate of contagion lapsed because the authorities forgot to extend it. IKEA branches were allowed to reopen two weeks ago, even as outdoor food markets were kept closed. The few passengers arriving at the national airport were officially supposed to be sent to quarantine hotels days before they were actually sent to quarantine hotels. Whoever’s job it was to effectively communicate with the ultra-Orthodox community early in the crisis did a pretty lame job of it. Parts of the IDF didn’t seem to get the message about social distancing saving lives either. There are credible complaints that some lives lost to the virus at elderly care facilities could have been saved with better, earlier precautions.

I could go on. From marginal irritants and injustices to major screw-ups, official Israel’s battle against the pandemic has not been perfect. But, as I’ve written in the past, the overall strategy and leadership, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu front and center, has been strikingly effective — as is borne out by the current death toll of 245, which compares extraordinarily well to much of the rest of the world.

What is also worth highlighting, however, is how relatively well the Israeli public has responded to the crisis. Yes, we had our toilet paper panics, our illicit synagogue gatherings and our premature boltings to the beach. But this is supposed to be perpetually tense and permanently riven Israel — a country hopelessly divided between left and right, Jewish and Arab, Orthodox and secular. You name it, we fight about it.

Except, facing down COVID-19, we don’t.

Magen David Adom and Shaarei Tzedek hospital medical workers in Jerusalem, wearing protective clothing, seen with an ultra-Orthodox man at the hospital’s new coronavirus unit on April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ahead of those ultra-Zionist Memorial Day and Independence Day events late last month, the ultra-Orthodox mayor of not notably Zionist Bnei Brak sent a public message of appreciation to the usually less than beloved Israel Defense Forces for helping to keep his densely populated city of 200,000 fed and functioning during the lockdown that gradually helped bring its high level of contagion under control.

Several Israeli Arab communities, realizing they had high infection rates before the national authorities had done the math, closed off their own entries and exits to thwart a further spread. Veteran Homefront Command officers have been near-tearful in describing the high degree of cooperation and appreciation they’ve encountered when helping Bedouin communities in the south deal with their COVID-19 cases and guarding against wider infection.

Every Israeli who has ever had any dealings with our medical system — which means every Israeli — always knew that our doctors, our nurses, our healthcare administrators, our ambulance crews, the whole network, is a spectacular study in diversity and harmony. The photograph that went viral around the world of the two Magen David Adom paramedics, a Jew and a Muslim, praying in opposite directions alongside each other next to their ambulance, showcased a reality all Israelis knew about and had personally encountered. But amid a pandemic that has tested most every global society’s cohesion and mutual care, that picture emblemized Israel’s evident capacity to rise above our profound and heartfelt differences when cooperation, consideration and respect is essential to save lives.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, right, visits the city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, which is largely closed off from the rest of the country due to a coronavirus outbreak, on April 5, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

We’ve shown that we can hang tough, and hang together, throughout our brief modern history. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise. The constant terror onslaught of the Second Intifada would have destroyed less resilient societies. The demands of conscription — to an army that is frequently required to defend this country, with each young generation’s lives all too often put on the line — make for a heavy burden, but Israeli society has shouldered it. Now, we’re rising to a challenge again.

Netanyahu largely closed off the country earlier than many of his world leader peers saw fit to do. His bleak comparisons with the Spanish flu and medieval plagues, and his intimations that tens of millions might die worldwide and that tens of thousands of Israeli lives were at risk, seemed wide of the mark even as he made them, but they certainly prompted our citizenry to heed the “stay home” calls and to show our love for elderly, vulnerable relatives by keeping our distance from them.

Properly informed by coherent, intelligent mass media, with serious primetime TV news broadcasts that, on the whole, avoided sensationalism and scare-mongering, Israelis have watched arguments playing out on screen between the Health Ministry authorities who have wanted to keep us locked down more hermetically and for longer, and the Finance Ministry chiefs clamoring to reopen the economy. While the public bickering has prompted complaints that the people at the top can’t make their minds up, it has also enabled our fairly savvy populace to recognize the abiding uncertainties of tackling this virus, and draw our own commonsense conclusions about how we should act.

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Headline incidents of the man who took the bus from Haifa to Jerusalem although he knew he was a COVID-19 carrier, or the passenger who flew home from the US with the virus, the one who went shopping at IKEA and the one who fled a quarantine facility, have made headlines precisely because they are the strikingly rare exceptions to the rule.

I’m not sure how much we Israelis have ourselves internalized that, as a society, we’re behaving pretty impressively right now. On those same TV news broadcasts, we watch reports from countries near and far where leaders who were slow to grasp the threat, or who still prefer to deny it, have followed far less effective policies. We see countries where social and political divisions have exacerbated the challenge of this nightmare period, countries afflicted by breakdowns of trust between the authorities and the people and thus more vulnerable to the pandemic. But speaking personally, it’s only when you talk to relatives and friends abroad, and realize how unnerved some of them are by the way their leaders, authorities and citizenries have been dealing, or failing to deal with COVID-19, that you realize the relative common sense demonstrated here is not necessarily the norm elsewhere.

Our familiar divisions haven’t gone away. Indeed, many of them have been playing out alongside this coronavirus crisis in the political arena, which has seen effective opposition to Netanyahu collapse, our polarizing prime minister safely on course for at least another 18 months in office, and the immensely fateful issue of West Bank annexation about to come to the fore.

I don’t for a moment expect a new harmony to flourish in our traditional arenas of internal dissent. But in battling a challenge that doesn’t distinguish between Arab and Jew, Orthodox and secular, but does distinguish between young and old, healthy and infirm, Israel — its leaders, its medical services, and its public — has marshaled a broad, effective, life-affirming response.

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