The coronavirus panic has shaken up Israel

In Context: Generally unflappable in crisis, panic atacks take hold

ELECTION MONITORS wearing protective gear count Monday’s election votes cast by Israelis in home quarantine over coronavirus concerns. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
ELECTION MONITORS wearing protective gear count Monday’s election votes cast by Israelis in home quarantine over coronavirus concerns.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
What the suicide bus bombings of the Second Intifada could not do in five years, what tens of thousands of rockets from Gaza failed to do in a decade, what the US killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani couldn’t do in January, the novel coronavirus has managed to do in less than a week: fundamentally disrupt Israel’s daily life.
Flights canceled, international conferences postponed, annual Purim parades scratched, sporting events held without spectators, tens of thousands of people holed up in their homes – welcome to Israel, circa March 2020.
What a difference two months makes.
In January, while much of the world was in a tizzy over Iran’s threat to retaliate for the killing of Soleimani, Israelis pretty much took it all in stride.
As millions of people flooded Tehran’s streets for Soleimani’s funeral, as top Iranian officials threatened revenge on the US and Israel, as the story was the lead item for days in newspapers around the world warning that a major war was just around the corner, Israelis yawned.
The story did not dominate the news here, and Israelis did not alter their lives a whit.
The contrast between the reaction to Iran’s threats and bluster and the reaction to the COVID-19 bug is staggering. An Iranian threat to incinerate Tel Aviv did not register at all; the coronavirus is registering a nine on the country’s Richter scale, forcing a drastic change in the way Israelis live their lives.
This time, as the world is panicking, Israel is panicking with it – maybe even more so. And one of the interesting aspects of the Israeli reaction to the virus is that it seems so un-Israeli, running very much against the grain of how Israelis like to perceive themselves.
Israelis see themselves as a battle-tested, tragedy-hardened people not easily frightened or panicked. And, with the exception of how the country closes down in the face of a rare snowstorm, this self-perception is for the most part accurate: a deadly terrorist attack hits the streets in the afternoon, by the evening people are back on that same road; rockets fall relentlessly on Sderot, yet more people are moving into that city than moving out.
Look at Israeli travel to Sinai, for example. The government has for years warned Israelis – especially around the holiday seasons – not to travel there, because of concrete terrorist threats. Yet, year after year, new records are set of Israelis crossing at the Taba checkpoint to go camping in Sinai. Ask people why, and they reply that the chances of getting killed in a car accident on Route 1 are greater than getting beheaded by Islamic State on the Dahab beach. The subtext: a little terrorist threat is not going to deter us.
And, indeed, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s boasts of a coming missile storm, Iran’s threats, even real terrorism on the streets has not stopped Israelis from living as they want. This resilience, this unwillingness to cower in the face of threats or change direction in the face of dangers, is a secret to this country’s strength and survival.
Until now.
The coronavirus has suddenly altered life here in a way completely unexpected. Why? Because of a feeling of a total lack of control.
Israelis don’t panic in the light of terrorism and war, because, for the most part, they trust that the IDF can deal with those dangers. No such confidence exists with the current virus. The country has shown historically that it has great confidence in its chiefs of staff, regardless of who they are. That confidence does not, however, extend to Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman.
And some of the steps that the government has taken – such as opening the ballots this week of those self-quarantined with the virus by people in white suits with gloves and masks, something health experts said was “overkill” – does little to instill confidence. The country, like others in the world, is not quite certain of how to combat this new plague, and as a result is taking precautions, and more precautions, and precautions on top of those.
Israel’s ban on visitors from a bevy of European countries is among the most severe steps taken in the world. Why take this step? Because it can.
In Europe, where the virus is spreading, European Union countries have no way of closing their open borders. Israel, on the other hand, can, and is doing so in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. Here it is very much willing to err on the side of caution.
In the process, however, it is asking Israelis to be, well, very un-Israeli.
First of all, it is asking of Israelis – primarily those who must quarantine themselves – a dose of discipline and a willingness to listen to instructions that the country’s citizens are not particularly known for.
This difficulty to abide by the rules came out a few weeks ago during the peak of the crisis on the Diamond Princess, when 14 Israelis were among the 3,700 people in quarantine aboard the cruise ship. One radio news program host, speaking to an Israeli man ordered locked up in his room on the ship for two weeks, asked him whether he was really staying in his room, or whether through “kombinot” – slyness – he was able to sneak out from time to time for some fresh air.
The premise to the question said it all: Israelis are not going to listen to these types of directions, just as many have difficulty obeying a stewardess telling them on a flight from New York to Tel Aviv not to leave their seats until the plane comes to a complete stop and the seat belt sign is no longer lit. Following directions, obeying the everyday rules, are not strong Israeli character traits.
Aware of this, the Health Ministry, on its page about how to deal with the virus, has an online form where people can report friends, relatives, neighbors and acquaintances who are breaking the terms of their self-quarantine. If people won’t listen on their own – if they think that the rules don’t apply to them – then this is meant to scare them into compliance.
“The corona crisis is showing everything beautiful about Israelis,” a woman in a parody that spread this week on social media said. “At the moment of truth, everyone enlists, gets up, and informs on other Israelis.”
THE CORONAVIRUS is also changing the way people live in very basic ways, from forcing them to cancel trips abroad – travel has become as much a part of Israeli life as falafel – to compelling them to forgo kissing mezuzot, so as not to spread or contract germs.
“Don’t shake hands,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press conference Wednesday, echoing instructions put out by the Health Ministry. And that is something that will prove very difficult in this hands-happy country, where everyone seems to be touching, hugging and kissing on two cheeks.
Israelis, Netanyahu acknowledged, are being called upon to do something “that is against our character and against human nature, against our nature as a people and society – to refrain from shaking hands.”
“There is no choice,” he said. Then, clasping his hands together in front of him in a traditional Indian greeting, he added, “You can adopt the Indian way and say ‘Namaste.’”
Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum took to Twitter to even sharpen the Health Ministry guidelines.
“General Public: Try to avoid hugs, kisses and any unnecessary contact with your friends. Ashkenazim – continue as usual,” she joked.
The bottom line, however, is that the coronavirus that hit like a tidal wave this week is a force compelling even this country – which prides itself on its ability to continue on as usual even under the most difficult circumstances – to alter course... at least temporarily.