Coronavirus: A health crisis in Israeli society

Turning the threat into an opportunity

Israeli police officers seen during a raid on the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim, as they close shops and disperse public gatherings following the government decisions in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 24, 2020 (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Israeli police officers seen during a raid on the ultra orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Shearim, as they close shops and disperse public gatherings following the government decisions in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus. March 24, 2020
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
During and even prior to the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, the Arab community in Israel has been a major focal point, part of the political discussion in Israel. In the third round of elections, the Arab Joint List reached an unprecedented achievement by securing 15 seats in the Israeli Knesset. As a result of their potential political leverage, the discussion in Israel has been over their legitimacy as part of the Israeli government.
It has been the climax of a process that has been taking shape over the past few years. As a result of the rising numbers of the younger generation in education and their integration into the professional job market, more and more Arabs are taking leading roles in various professional fields. Meanwhile, voices within the Arab community are calling for integration within Israeli society to strengthen the Arab community’s position in the country and leading to making a positive change.
The disassociation from the state, and distrust of certain parts of the judicial system, has led to a feeling that the Arab village is run, at a certain level, by its own rule of law.
This in return, has led to the rise of the crime rate ending in more than 90 cases of murder in 2018 (!) within the Arab community. This phenomenon attests to the fact that both the Israel Police and the community itself have failed to prevent crime. This is partly due to the distrust of the police per se. Many believe that the police is turning a blind eye to the staggeringly increasing number of crimes over the past few years.
Some Arab leaders are now demanding the increased presence of law enforcement agencies in Arab communities due to the feeling of a lack of security. This demand was unimaginable two decades ago.
Then – out of nowhere – the COVID-19 struck the world, and Israeli society now has to adjust to life filled with uncertainty and ambiguity while the country, and the world, are at war. This confrontation against a virus is nothing like anything we have experienced before. In this war, the Israel Defense Forces, which have always been the spearhead in Israel’s previous conflicts, is not at the forefront. This time, the soldiers are the Israeli doctors, nurses, pharmacists, social workers, and others that are leading the fight against COVID-19.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 17% of physicians in Israel are Arabs; so are 24% of the nurses, and 47% of the Israeli pharmacists. This is the first time, perhaps, that we truly are all in the same boat together.
This new reality is difficult to grasp. The Arab community is struggling to adjust, and the threat of COVID-19 is taking too long to be absorbed by some members of the community. Of course, it is unfair to suggest that the entire Arab community does not take quarantine seriously. The awareness is increasing, it seems, daily. Arab doctors and nurses are sending public messages every day to the Arab community on social media to remain at home, and villages are shutting down more and more by the day. Now, the Arab communities, even ones that are more homogenous and secluded, feel the damage the COVID-19 has done to the economy, and it could also in the future – God forbid – claim them as victims of the virus.
In previous Israeli conflicts, there has been a consensus that Israel’s fight was not the Arab population’s fight. Today – even though some within the Arab community still believe that a potential war against Israel will leave them untouched – more and more Arabs in Israel understand that in 2006 Hezbollah’s missiles didn’t differentiate between Arabs and Jews, and neither will the Iranian threat in a future war.
Whatever happens in the end, the Arab community in Israel will be part of any aftermath, regardless of Israel’s fate as a state. The  Arab community is slowly realizing that, just  like COVID-19 does not differentiate between  Jews and Arabs, future wars will not as well,  and neither will an economic collapse.
It is true that Israeli society is divided on  many issues. It is the nature of living in such  a complex society. These divisions need to be overcome in order for our society as a whole  to flourish and it is precisely why this threat  must be turned into an opportunity.
This time, we are all united in the fight.
Thus, the Arab contribution to this war must not go unnoted. Moreover, it should be used  as leverage in uniting the citizens of the country, to accept each other, irrespective of religious or political beliefs. Just as Jewish and  Arab doctors do not differentiate between Jewish and Arab patients, so should the same  message be transmitted to the rest of the Israeli society, Jews and Arabs alike. Let us turn  this threat into an opportunity, and use this national disaster to strengthen our society instead of allowing it to turn us apart.

The writer is a researcher and editor at the Alma research and education center.