2020's coronavirus reflects the good and bad of Israeli society

Some initially ranked Israel’s handling of the crisis as among the best in the world, but then it went to being described as a debacle handled as badly as the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

 A WORKER reflected in his vehicle’s mirror at a Tel Aviv cemetery in March, at a special center preparing bodies of Jews who died due to coronavirus. (photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
A WORKER reflected in his vehicle’s mirror at a Tel Aviv cemetery in March, at a special center preparing bodies of Jews who died due to coronavirus.
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)
Societies – like people – learn a lot about themselves during times of crisis: their strengths and their weaknesses.
The coronavirus of 2020 was a crisis unlike any this country – well versed in crisis – has ever faced, holding up a mirror to Israeli society. One thing that mirror revealed is what Moshe Bar Siman Tov, the Health Ministry’s director-general during the first stage of the crisis, called Israel’s “national disorder”: the “tendency to vacillate between feelings of euphoria and anxiety, even though neither of those feelings are justified.”
The euphoria came after the country’s first lockdown – the Passover lockdown – when it looked as if Israel had dealt with the pandemic more quickly and effectively than most countries. Some were ranking Israel’s handling of the crisis as among the best in the world: the rapidity with which the gravity of the problem was recognized, the speed with which the skies were closed, the way the people heeded instructions and were not thrown off-kilter by the crisis situation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even boasted that leaders from around the world were calling to ask how Israel had gotten a handle on the situation so swiftly.
And then came the summer and the rush out of the lockdown: the politicized decisions, the mass funerals in the haredi sector, the large weddings in the Arab one, the pressure to open things that should have remained closed, the rise in the number of people infected, the feeling that everything was chaotic, spiraling out of control and that the country’s handling of the pandemic was among the worst in the world. The situation was being described as a debacle akin to that of the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
And that is exactly what Bar Siman Tov was referring to: that pendulum swing from “we’re the greatest” to “we’re the worst.”
According to raw data comparing the number of people killed by the disease per million people in countries around the world, Israel, at 349 fatalities per million as of December 27, was faring better than most of the developed world – its COVID-19 mortality rate lower than some 70% of the 37 OECD countries, and lower than 78% of the 27 EU states.
The country’s credit rating remains high, meaning there is confidence in Israel’s ability to bounce back economically, and it is a world leader in vaccinating its population.
In other words, our subjective perception of how we are doing as a society does not necessarily align with objective data regarding how we are doing relative to others in similar situations. Our situation is not the worst, nor necessarily the best; though if how we as a society are dealing with the crisis was a standardized scholastic achievement test where Israel’s score would be reported relative to others, we would be in the “upper percentiles.”
THE MIRROR the virus held up was not only for society, but also for the individuals that make it up. Public health expert Limor Aharonson-Daniel, head of the PREPARED Center for Emergency Response Research at Ben-Gurion University, said she believes that a lot of people “took the time during this period to look inward at their place in life and assess their values.”
The deprivations the pandemic caused in terms of the frequency of being able to see family and friends will have a positive long-term impact on how people view things they may have taken for granted in the past, she maintained.
“In regards to family. I think that many people – who met their children a little differently – were forced to see them in a better light,” she said. She also said the pandemic will compel some to reassess the balance in their lives between work and family.
Which is not to say, she added, that Israel is suddenly going to turn into a softer, gentler, less work-driven and less stressful nation.
 “Clearly many people who think now that ‘it will never be the same’ will find that it will be the same in many regards. But still there will be some who will be affected by these changes. I think that the minute it is possible to return to regular life, there will be – more or less – a return to regular lives. But we will return differently,” she said.
ONE WAY the country will return differently, said Adam Ferziger, a professor of modern and contemporary Judaism at Bar-Ilan University, is in terms of weddings, which have changed dramatically for most people over the last 10 months.
“I think weddings are going to be smaller,” he said. “People realize that you don’t need to invite everyone in the world.”
According to Ferziger, “When people see how much cheaper it is to make a wedding – and really, it is significant – they will say it is worth making a wedding for half the people and giving the children some of the money that would have been spent on a larger wedding.”
In certain haredi communities, however, Ferziger said it will be difficult to give up on the massive weddings – certainly those for the family of hassidic rebbes or other prominent members of the community.
“These weddings are a declaration, they’re not just about the couple, they are about, for instance, Vishnitz [hassidic dynasty] is alive and kicking. These weddings are statements: ‘We are a force.’ It is a social statement that goes way beyond the families.”
But in the secular and national-religious worlds, Ferziger said, smaller weddings are likely to take hold. He doesn’t, however, imagine there will be similar changes, or any type of revolution, in the country’s synagogues as a result of the balcony and street minyanim that have sprung up all across the land as COVID-19 forces synagogues to close. Some of the minyanim might carry on, but overall he doubts that the experience of praying outside, in smaller groups and at a significantly quicker pace, will “revolutionize” the country’s synagogues.
But what the coronavirus has done, he said, is “make people realize that they can have very significant religious experiences by themselves, in their living rooms, in front of their computers– and this is true not only for Jews.”
The explosion of Zoom prayer services and Torah classes during COVID-19 did not only mean that people who were unable to physically get to synagogue or classes would be able to participate, but that “you could expose yourself to a much richer and diverse variety. You could go to an Ashkenazi or a Sephardi synagogue, you could go to different countries, and it is not just the service, it is lectures and discussions.”
Corona, he said, has pulled open the curtain on all types of technology that could significantly enrich an individual’s religious experience.
And although the pandemic has, as Ferziger said, made people realize they can have significant religious experiences by themselves, this is not going to spill over to a desire to do so on the holidays. While the country was forced to significantly scale down family gatherings on Passover and Rosh Hashanah, and many people said they actually enjoyed and found more meaning in a smaller Seder, Ferziger does not believe this is something that will outlive the pandemic.
“There is nothing in the religious menu or on the religious calendar that people missed more than the Seder and Rosh Hashanah family meals. Those are things that most people really look forward to,” he said, adding that people are not going to prefer the two-, three- and four-people Seders of 2020 to the larger Seders of years past.
ONE PREVALENT feature at large festival gatherings is the Israeli knack for self-criticism, and one frequent target for criticism is the nation’s fabled lack of discipline and a marked Israeli disinclination to listen to directives or people in authority.
But David Leiser, dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences at Netanya Academic College and a professor of psychology at Ben-Gurion University, said this stigma is overblown.
“The image of the Israeli who doesn’t listen to directives and does whatever he wants is a distorted one,” he said. “Sure, there are pockets of people and groups who don’t listen, but in general, when there were closures, people abided by them and listened. The media highlights those who did not, but in general people did.”
How does Leiser know? By looking at the figures.
“Look how the number of new coronavirus cases fell during the closures so quickly, also in comparison to other countries. This shows people were listening, or that would not have happened.”
Leiser takes issue with a perception that the country – both the government and the society as a whole – failed miserably in dealing with the pandemic. This sense, he said, was reinforced by the media which highlights the negative both because of the belief that by shining a light on shortcomings, they can help correct them, and by believing this garners more attention and thereby builds larger audiences.
“Who would have thought a year ago that the state and its citizens could deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude,” he said.
“You see that as a whole the state managed: in terms of restricting the spread of the disease, providing for the needs of the citizens – also in terms of private initiatives that have sprung up. Most of the major problems were dealt with, though there is a question of whether enough money was given to those hurt financially, but there was no question about things getting out of control.”
On a societal level, in terms of defining the country’s true fault lines, Leiser said the virus made clear that Israel’s true divisions are not between the religious and the secular or on the political spectrum – unlike in the US, where to don a mask became a point of contention between Right and Left.
Rather, he said, the virus clarified for all that Israeli society is split into three categories: the general population, the haredim and the Arabs. What is different in this breakdown as opposed to how Israeli society has been viewed in the past is in placing the national-religious in the same category with Jewish secular Israelis.
“I think there is now a change in the consciousness of what the true structure of Israeli society is,” he said.
While over the past 10 months Israel’s Right and Left were in the same corona boat – regardless of on which side of the Green Line people lived – the haredim and Arabs often seemed to be traveling in different vessels altogether, highlighting issues that will need to be corrected in post-corona Israel.
TOMER LOTAN, chief of staff for the country’s coronavirus czar, said last month in a Kan Bet interview that he was surprised at the depth of some of the societal fissures uncovered by the virus.
When his staff began setting up the infrastructure to battle corona, he said, “I did not know how deeply we would meet the general problems facing Israeli society – problems connected to the Arab sector, the haredi sector, the Jerusalem Municipality, the Bedouin, illegal Palestinian workers and many more issues that have been with us for years. The coronavirus revealed them and intensified them a great deal.
These are things Israel has had difficulty solving over more than 70 years, and are “difficult – to be honest – to solve in a couple of months,” Lotan noted, adding that the pandemic put a spotlight on the areas in which the country’s governance was very weak.
The hope, said Ben-Gurion’s Aharonson-Daniel, is that the virus – which accentuated the tensions between the different sectors of Israeli society and also highlighted problems long ignored – will trigger, when it fades, a constructive conversation regarding how to deal with those problems.
When people get up after a crisis, she said, they generally don’t get up at exactly the same spot. Something changes. But, she added, don’t expect those changes to be revolutionary.
“I don’t think we are going to behave differently,” she said. “There will be individuals who will act differently for a certain period, but I don’t think that there will be a general change in the nation’s DNA.” 