From Purim to Purim: What Israel has learned in a year of coronavirus

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Coronavirus has upended Israeli life more than any other disaster, and in the process, we've learned more about ourselves and our country, the good and the bad.

A TALE OF two Purims – last year in Tel Aviv, and (right) this week in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90/MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A TALE OF two Purims – last year in Tel Aviv, and (right) this week in Jerusalem.
 It all seemed so draconian back then, a year ago on Purim.
What wars and terror, rockets and suicide bombers could not do for years, a tiny microbe did in less than a week – completely upend Israeli life.
In the first week of March 2020, a week before Purim, flights were canceled, international conferences called off, Israelis arriving from five western European countries forced to go into quarantine, and people told to stop shaking hands.
Permanent features on the Israeli calendar, such as the annual Purim parade and carnival in Holon, as well as street parties in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market, were scratched. Gatherings of more than 5,000 were prohibited. It all seemed so other-worldly.
Now, after undergoing the type of year the country has undergone, all that back then – all those regulations – seem downright quaint.
No gathering of more than 5,000? A few parades called off? Some flights canceled? Today that sounds like the good ‘ole days, the stuff of which nostalgia is made – at least compared to what we have all experienced since.
It’s been a trying full cycle of holidays for Israel, from Purim of the year past to Purim present.
Who last Purim imagined the regulations of that holiday would be enhanced manyfold and still be in force by Passover a month later, and that Seders would be celebrated only with members of the nuclear family living under the same roof?.
And how many people at Passover imagined that all this would continue through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when services would have to be held in small groups outdoors, rather than in massive minyanim in synagogues? And then Sukkot came, and Hanukkah – each with their strict COVID-19 regulations – and now we are back at Purim, again with tight limits on whom one can invite for the festive Purim meal, and how many people can hear the Book of Esther read in synagogues.
Purim is a holiday of costumes and masks. Over the past year, by contrast, the coronavirus has unmasked and revealed various aspects of Israeli society that were hidden, some positive and others less so.
The country enjoys less solidarity than we like to think
One national character trait that we like to boast of is that as a nation we are endowed with an uncommon sense of solidarity, a sense of common purpose and shared destiny.
This solidarity, Israelis like to say, stands it in good stead during times of crisis, of which there have been many. But that solidarity – that commonality of interests and mutual sympathy and responsibility one for the other – frayed under the weight of the pandemic.
Perhaps because the enemy this time is a germ, not an enemy army or terrorist organization, there was no one to blame. And absent anyone to blame, we blame ourselves. And when we point fingers at ourselves, solidarity suffers and falls by the wayside.
We saw this repeatedly over the last year: the media blamed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; Netanyahu blamed the opposition; the opposition blamed the haredim (ultra-Orthodox); the haredim blamed Health Ministry officials; Health Ministry officials blamed populist politicians overeager to please the people, whom they were reluctant to blame. The end result of this “Had Gadya”-like situation is that instead of one cohesive society banding together and battling the plague in unison, the country deteriorated into warring camps.
And that reality goes against what Israelis have been telling each other – and the world – for 73 years: that when there is a crisis, this splintered society bands together and bounces back.
Well, not always.
The extent of societal fissures are revealed
Not only did the nation fail to band together as one to fend off the plague, but rather the plague revealed that in many senses there is not one, but there are three autonomous entities here.
There is the general population, there is the haredi community, and there is the Arab sector – and at times they all seem to be playing by a different set of rules and answering to different authorities.
The inability, or unwillingness, of the government to enforce its own rules and regulations – be it to close yeshivot in Bnei Brak or halt mass funerals in Jerusalem, or to shut down large weddings in Umm el-Fahm or stop massive Friday afternoon prayer services on the Temple Mount – revealed a central government whose control and authority does not extend evenly across all parts of this small land.
Last year Tomar Lotan, chief of staff for the coronavirus czar, said in a radio interview that he was shocked at the depth of some of the societal fissures the novel coronavirus laid bare.
“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, many more issues that have been with us for years. The coronavirus revealed them and intensified them a great deal.
“Things that Israel had difficulty solving in more than 70 years, it is difficult – to be honest – to solve in a couple of months,” he said, bewailing the weakness of the country’s governance across various sectors.
Israelis are more disciplined than given credit for
When various regulations started being implemented in the week before last Purim, there was more than a little skepticism whether Israelis – not necessarily known as a people punctilious in following orders or listening to authority – would actually listen.
One of the most impressive – and perhaps surprising – elements of Israel’s early dealing with the crisis was the degree of discipline demonstrated by most of the people. Not everybody – there were, of course, those pockets of the population who did not follow the rules – but most did.
Proof of this discipline is how the incidences of infection decreased following each of the country’s three lockdowns – and decreased significantly following the first two – an indication that most people were abiding to a large extent by the regulations.
Some look at the fact that Israel has spent more days in lockdown than any other country in the world as an indication that the population is not disciplined since a government only locks down its people if it knows they would not voluntarily abide by the regulations.
But the opposite case can also be argued: that the fact that Israelis have spent so many days in lockdown, and that the number of new COVID-19 cases drops afterward, is proof that they listen when they must and that they were disciplined during the lockdowns.
It was stunning to watch last March how Netanyahu told the nation to stay indoors, and it stayed indoors. The nation was told not to visit grandparents, and they did not. People were ordered to wear masks, and masks were – for the most part – worn.
It did not take long for Israelis to understand that this was serious and that it was in their own interest to follow the directives.
When did following the directives begin to fade? When the country’s leaders – from Netanyahu through former health minister Ya’acov Litzman, President Reuven Rivlin, and other top-tier politicians – were seen not following their own instructions.
The country is good with big projects
Israelis, as former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov pointed out in an article he wrote in December, have a tendency to vacillate from euphoria to anxiety, even though neither emotion is justified.
Following the first lockdown last spring there was a sense that the country had done well, and that it was showing the world how to deal with the crisis. This was followed by the hasty return to normal after that lockdown and the resurgence of cases in the summer that led to a second lockdown and a sense that Israel was facing another Yom Kippur War moment – that overconfidence led it to let its guard down and place it on the cusp of disaster.
But then came the vaccines, and the pendulum swung back – even if just temporarily – to euphoria as the country enjoyed wide acclaim for the way it procured the vaccines, distributed them and actually got them into people’s arms.
The vaccine roll-out revealed what Israel is very good at: organizing and implementing major logistical projects, an aptitude born from experience it has garnered in the past having had to deal with so many crises.
Israel has the infrastructure in place to deal with national emergencies, as well as a highly digitized and well-organized – though woefully underfunded – health-care system with health funds to which everyone is connected.
That 20-year-olds in Israel were getting their second dose of the vaccines while people in their 60s in the United States are still waiting for their first shot illustrates that despite all of Israel’s problems dealing with the pandemic – self-inflicted and otherwise – it has since last Purim not been a bad place to be while the world faces its biggest challenge since World War II.•