Is Jewish ‘fear of the other’ driving Israel’s response to coronavirus?

Israel has taken some of the earliest, most severe steps in the world.

RESIDENTS HOLD placards (this one reads ‘No to corona’) as they demonstrate against a report that Israel may quarantine visitors from South Korea at a military base in Har Gilo, on February 23.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
RESIDENTS HOLD placards (this one reads ‘No to corona’) as they demonstrate against a report that Israel may quarantine visitors from South Korea at a military base in Har Gilo, on February 23.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
As COVID-19, the disease caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, transitions into a global pandemic, numerous countries have enacted varying degrees of travel bans and quarantines.
Israel has taken some of the earliest, most severe steps in the world, banning travelers from affected regions, canceling public events and conferences, placing tens of thousands of potentially infectious travelers in 14-day home quarantines, and recommending that Israelis not fly abroad for the time being, prompting pictures shared to social media of an eerily empty Ben-Gurion Airport.
Many Israelis are up in arms over the disruption to their lives the new regulations are causing.
They have some reason to be skeptical.
Travel bans simply don’t work for these kinds of respiratory viruses “because they move too quickly,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I think this virus will turn up everywhere because that’s how respiratory viruses tend to spread.”
Harvard epidemiology professor Marc Lipsitch predicts that within the coming year, some 40%-70% of people around the world will be infected with COVID-19, although he emphasized in an article in The Atlantic that most will have mild disease or be asymptomatic. By this time next year, he quipped, “cold and flu season” could become “cold, flu and COVID-19 season.”
A 2014 British meta-analysis on the effect of travel restrictions on influenza outbreaks concluded that bans slowed disease spread by no more than 3%. But that may be enough to stop a country-wide outbreak that overwhelms the medical system. If we can push the full contagion off until after the “regular” winter flu season, the thinking goes, it may be more manageable.
I’d like to suggest another reason why Israel has been so extreme in its approach: a longstanding fear of the other.
The new coronavirus is highly triggering to the Jewish people’s collective memory. It reminds us of all those in our past who have tried to wipe us out (even if this time it’s not a nation doing the killing). The holiday of Purim only reinforces that message.
Now that we have our own state, we Israelis are hyper-aware of anyone – or anything – coming to harm us; our commitment to “never again” means that Jewish survival has become one of our ultimate imperatives.
While that may provide some explanation for what’s happening in the country, there is still something unsettling about Israel shutting itself off from the world and turning into a ghetto of its own making.
I know we’re talking about a health ghetto whose borders are intended to save lives. But there have been less savory examples of “others” that recent Israeli governments have tried to keep out: refugees from Africa, immigrants with Jewish backgrounds deemed “questionable” by the rabbinate, and leftists whose political activism is seen as threatening.
This is clearly not an approach that I support. So, should it also impact my views on COVID-19-prompted bans and quarantines?
I’ve found myself ping-ponging over the last few weeks – at times defiant (“bans are stupid”), other times appreciative (as someone who is immunocompromised from cancer treatment, I’m in the group that’s most vulnerable to coronavirus complications).
There’s a lesson from Israel’s recent past that may help guide us through this confusing period. Let’s treat COVID-19 as we do terrorist attacks.
How do Israelis respond to bus bombings and stabbings and rockets? By continuing to live our lives.
Sure, during the Second Intifada, we took precautions. We made sure to frequent cafés with armed guards and kept the keys to our bomb shelters handy. Tourists were wary, but many still came.
Terrorism didn’t break us, nor should the new coronavirus.
Terrorist attacks – like viruses – can arise at any point. Missiles from Gaza, Lebanon and Syria are always poised to be launched, but that hasn’t stopped us from going about our daily activities, just like we don’t think twice about driving our cars on Israel’s dangerous roads. It’s how we compartmentalize risk in the Middle East.
That doesn’t mean we should ignore the Ministry of Health’s advisories. If I were to come in contact with someone who had the virus, I would of course accede to the ministry’s regulations.
Depicting COVID-19 as a viral terrorist confounds the narrative of fearing the other. It allows us to think logically – from experience – not out of hysteria.
Indeed, much of the strategy to contain COVID-19 seems driven by panic. It’s like when two airplanes crash in quick succession.
“Flying suddenly feels scarier, even if your conscious mind knows that those crashes are a statistical aberration with little bearing on the safety of your next flight,” writes Max Fisher in The New York Times. With the new coronavirus, we’re focused on the fatalities, not on the 98% of people who are recovering or who had mild cases.
That’s why, when a friend’s mother died recently, we went to the shiva. A few days later, we attended a house concert (with just 30 people) of a lovely new indie folk band (shout out to Saltwater). At the same time, we’ve adopted a form of greeting that I promoted in this column already two years ago when I started chemotherapy: elbow bumps instead of handshakes. Now it’s public policy.
I’m not trying to be fatalistic. Obviously, if the situation deteriorates, I’ll not stand on chutzpah or ceremony.
Still, I hope that a smart balance can demonstrate that “fear of the other” is not the inevitable epigenetic legacy of the Jewish people’s millennia-long shared trauma and that there are better ways to formulate a response to these challenging times.
The writer’s book, Totaled: The Billion-Dollar Crash of the Startup that Took on Big Auto, Big Oil and the World, is available on Amazon and other online booksellers.