Not Even Wars or Terror Attacks Prepared Israelis for the Coronavirus Crackdown

Israel woke up to a new reality on Sunday – one this most communal of cultures has never had to face before: being home alone

Tel Aviv residents wearing facemasks, March 15, 2020.
Ofer Vaknin

In many ways, Israelis were better prepared mentally for the shock and disruption in their lives sparked by the coronavirus pandemic than their counterparts in Europe, North America and other developed countries. 

Thanks to military conscription, a high percentage of the adult population is used to receiving and following orders handed down from on high. Even the youngest Israelis have seen their routines disrupted numerous times in recent years by missile attacks, terror waves and full-on war. They are used to receiving government directives on how to behave in a crisis, and, for the most part, trust their institutions – if not the politicians at their helm – to keep them safe.

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It is not only in wartime that they are used to following rules en masse. On Yom Kippur, for instance, the entire Jewish state completely shuts down and its citizens refrain from using their cars. On Memorial Day and Holocaust Remembrance Day, almost all of the country collectively and obediently falls silent as a haunting siren sounds. 

Despite this extensive cultural preparation, however, there was still a feeling of disorientation and confusion in the air as Israel woke up Sunday, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the far-reaching measures designed to fight the coronavirus

The restrictions Netanyahu billed as a “new way of life” were drastic steps maximizing social distancing in order to slow the spread of the virus. However, they avoid a total lockdown, in an effort to balance the public health with an attempt to keep the country’s economy functioning at a basic level. 

The biggest disruption – the announcement that elementary and high schools were being closed – was made on Thursday. But in his Saturday night announcement, Netanyahu expanded that order, with private and public preschools and kindergartens, special education classes, scouts, after-school programs, and other group activities shuttered too.

Workplace and business activity was not completely curtailed. But with the government prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in the same space and ordering people to remain 2 meters (6.5 feet) apart, they were highly limited and workplaces were strongly encouraged to shift as many employees as possible to working from home. 

Public transportation continued for those who did need to get to work, but Israelis were urged to avoid it for all but essential travel. And if commuting by car, they were advised to have only two people in each vehicle.

Public spaces were shut down: restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping malls, zoos, movie theaters, amusement parks, gyms, beauty salons, plus all venues for any large gatherings, from conference centers to wedding halls. Religious worship was limited to a minimal prayer quorum of 10, and visits to nursing homes were prohibited. 

Confusion, anger and frustration emerged on Sunday, stemming from the fact that although Netanyahu announced the new rules’ parameters on Saturday evening at 9 P.M., detailed instructions and clarifications were only issued in the wee hours of Sunday morning, after most had gone to sleep. 

It was unclear as to whether small-scale, service-oriented businesses like nail salons, hairdressers and small stores not located in shopping malls could remain open. Owners of restaurants and cafés took to the airwaves to complain widely about the lack of clarity as to their parameters. With their new inability to seat customers, many establishments that had not previously offered takeout or delivery quickly changed their business model. 

Still, the feeling of devastation was great: from the smallest hummus and falafel proprietors to the most renowned restaurants with celebrity chefs, These all became the face of the struggling small businessman. Salaried Israelis were secure in the knowledge that they will receive paid sick leave. Small business owners – particularly those in as volatile a sector as food service – are deeply uneasy. 

“There is an angel of death hanging over all of our businesses,” said chef Haim Cohen in a televised cri de coeur. “It's simply a disaster. The price is too high,” the “MasterChef Israel” judge said.

The sense of frustration was intensified by the constant evolution of the government guidelines. Until Thursday, mass gatherings of up to 1,000 people were permitted. Netanyahu dropped that number to 100 on Thursday night, and then, on Saturday, slashed it further to just 10 – a move that de facto closed the restaurants that had just scrambled to downsize.

Slight wedding

Also affected by the changes were couples hoping to marry in the upcoming weeks and months. Over the weekend, several couples changed their plans for a large wedding into a smaller event for less than 100 people. But when the limit became 10, their options narrowed to a tiny event with immediate family only – or postponing it altogether.  

Still, the ability of Israelis to improvise and adapt to disruptive situations, and their comfort level with technology, served them well adapting to the restrictions. 

Schools with plans already in place for remote learning in the case of missile attacks were well positioned to pivot to online classes. Other face-to-face educators and service providers – from music teachers and tutors to psychologists – quickly moved their services to online video apps like Skype and Zoom. 

The national addiction to WhatsApp groups proved helpful, as improvised communities quickly formed to match volunteers with those in self-quarantine, or elderly and immune-compromised people who are fearful of leaving home. And Israeli television channels ran call-in shows with familiar lifestyle and parenting experts on how to occupy anxious and bored children.

One ritual felt particularly familiar. Combat soldiers were called to their bases, where they were informed they would not be able to visit home for up to a month, so as to keep the Israel Defense Forces bases free of COVID-19 infections. Though the separation of uncertain length from their family was painful, it was less traumatic than bidding them farewell in times of war. 

Elsewhere, there were rumbles of distinct discomfort following Saturday’s revelation that Israel was in the process of harnessing technological means normally used to hunt terrorists to digitally track those diagnosed with COVID-19 who were flouting their quarantine requirements. 

Netanyahu’s declaration that “all means will be employed, including technological means [used in] the fight against terrorism, which I have avoided until now among the civilian population,” rang ominous.

Even more dystopian: A video circulated Saturday evening of an infected man who had violated his quarantine being subdued and arrested by guards wearing full protective gear.

Even to the most hardened and battle-experienced of Israelis, certain aspects of the full-fledged war against the coronavirus felt different than past challenges. 

The crisis marked the first time that, instead of facing an ordeal alone, Israelis were part of a global, universal experience. The world wasn’t watching them run to their shelters as missiles rained on the northern or southern border; nor were they watching the response to a school shooting in the United States or an earthquake or hurricane in Asia or the Caribbean. 

This time – from China to Italy, California to Israel – the challenge was exactly the same and the fate of people around the globe felt linked and interdependent. 

The other alien feeling was the enforced isolation. Israelis are not rugged individualists: They are traditionally a highly communal society – from kibbutzim to tightly bonded army units, to close-knit settlements and villages to neighborhood-proud city-dwellers. 

In the face of terror threats or other adversity, Israelis are used to showing off their indomitable spirit by carrying on as usual. They would brashly go out to restaurants, clubs, coffee shops and malls, staying surrounded by friends and family in the bars or even in bomb shelters – the very opposite of social distancing. If we cower at home, the argument goes, the enemy has won. 

Against this strange and invisible new enemy called COVID-19, however, none of the old rules apply. A new learning curve is now necessary to learn how Israelis can pull together through a difficult and challenging time – while remaining alone.