A postcard from corona Israel

As the country turns 72, Israelis are not yet out of the woods

Medical staff at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center wave at an Israel Air Force flyover on Independence Day (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Medical staff at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center wave at an Israel Air Force flyover on Independence Day
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

We live in strange times.
Wherever you are in the world you will be living with the dramatic changes coronavirus has wrought on society. Over the course of the last month or so I’ve spoken to people in many parts of the globe and they all say the same thing; how poorly their government has responded to the crisis; how dismayed they are at reports of a lack of personal protective equipment for front-line healthcare staff and carers; and how the lockdown is having a detrimental effect on people’s physical and mental health.
All the above appear to be true. Here in Israel – with the help of the Mossad’s “Acquisitions Branch” – we’re muddling through. Whether it’s more by luck than judgment is a matter for debate.
I’ll take you back to the beginning – or at least my beginning. I was in South Korea at the start of February providing international TV commentary on a major figure skating competition. I was, honestly!
Seoul was in managed lockdown while most of the world outside China hadn’t yet cottoned on to the spread of COVID-19. I passed through six temperature tests a day and traveled to and from the stadium along streets filled with mask-wearing Koreans whose government had implored them to take the virus seriously. They did, while the rest of the world didn’t. Koreans tend to follow rules without a great deal of questioning and that unquestioning observance has probably saved many thousands of Korean lives.
I received a text from my wife while changing planes in Moscow on the return journey informing me the Israeli government had just taken a decision that those arriving from South Korea must now self-isolate for 14 days. I was a little miffed, but there was nothing I could do about it. Our next-door neighbors were overseas and kindly offered their abode as my isolation pad. Not so bad, thought I. I’d still be able to get chicken soup from over the garden wall, glimpse my kith and kin from afar, and watch my aged, incontinent hound from the adjoining upstairs balcony as he sniffed around our garden.
But on landing at Tel Aviv there was confusion. The government had very quickly changed its mind. People arriving from South Korea were now not obliged to self-isolate unless showing symptoms. I wasn’t, so I would be able to head home to my own bed.
My fellow passengers and I were certain we would at least be temperature tested on passing through Ben-Gurion Airport but there were absolutely no tests done and no questions asked. We waltzed through unchallenged despite our flight including a group of around one hundred Korean Christian pilgrims who some reports later suggested may have been associated with the church that was the source of the virus in Korea. Unbelievable!
That was on February 11. Two months later planes were still arriving in Israel from New York – now one of the worst hit COVID-19 hot spots on the planet – and still no one was being tested on disembarking. What a shambles. According to media reports, it transpired that one-quarter of those arriving from New York in April tested positive for the virus. No lessons learned by a country with no properly functioning government.
Realistically, what could we expect from Israel’s health ministry when the embattled, bewildered health minister himself, Ya’acov Litzman, asked in mid-March how his followers would cope with the social distancing rules that meant there would be no Passover Seder for the extended family, responded that, “Of course there will. The Messiah will have arrived by Pesach!”
I, and millions of Israelis like me - religiously observant or not - understood that if that’s the extent of our country’s COVID-19 policy we’re in trouble. Litzman, who has subsequently left the Health Ministry in search of taking over the housing portfolio, refused to follow his ministry’s own social distancing rules and both he and his wife were duly struck down by the illness. To the best of my knowledge the Messiah hasn’t arrived. Thankfully Litzman and his wife have recovered, I believe. He might defend the disappointment of the non-arrival of the Messiah as being due to Ben-Gurion Airport now being closed to incoming passengers – so he couldn’t get through.
THEN PASSOVER itself and we see that both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin broke their own social distancing rules by inviting family members over for seder.  It seems it’s one rule for them and another rule for the rest of us. A case me thinks of “Do as I say, not as I do.”
Our Seder meal was delicious but enjoyed just by my wife and I and our younger daughter - my older daughter was confined to her base in the West Bank where she’s doing military service. So we “virtually Sedered” with my in-laws via the wonder of the apparently unsecured Zoom. A surreal experience, but being able to hit the mute button on my mother-in-law was no small compensation!
Leaving politics aside, the pathetic merry-go-round of non-governance having apparently shuddered to a halt with a unity government formed primarily between Likud and Blue and White on April 20, relative to many similar sized countries Israel has thus far suffered a lower number of fatalities from the illness and, to a great extent those steering the ship deserve some credit. We’re not out of the woods yet though.
I’ve been genuinely impressed at the way the vast majority of my countrymen have dealt with the lockdown. Israelis are not known for endless patience and for following rules but for the most part rules have been adhered to. There were signs though that people were beginning to go a little stir crazy.
I ventured beyond the proscribed social distancing limit despite the embarrassment of my rapidly increasing mop-head of hair. All barbers and hairdressers have been closed for some time, of course. I’m beginning to resemble a cross between the Beatles and Kramer from Seinfeld.
Badly let down by a disastrous first attempt at Israeli online shopping that after a 12-day wait supplied us with mostly unrequested items or nothing at all, I took courage. Armed with a mask and gloves I headed to our local supermarket in search of that most precious of necessities; eggs. Israel has been hit by an alarming lack of the yellow and white gold but I was in luck, acquiring one of the last remaining cartons. My timing, unusually, was impeccable. On Facebook I relayed the scene that followed just moments later:
“As I head away with my find a scuffle breaks out as four or possibly five people (it’s not easy to figure out who is with who), lay claim to one each of the three remaining cartons. It’ll take the Wisdom of Solomon to figure this one out. They’re barging and shouting, expletives flying in all directions. I fear for the safety of the 36 precious eggs. A security guard steps in and with a face like a hanging judge pronounces which three of the four/five will be going home happy and who will be this week’s unlucky losers. His proclamation does not go down well with the losers.”
Confined to home for so long I’ve learned to appreciate my Israeli garden so much more. The birds, insects, lizards, butterflies, and the stillness that surrounds us with so few cars on the roads. The noticeably better air quality and the vastly improved visibility allows me to see a great deal further from my hillside abode than ever before.
And every afternoon a pair of Tzofit (aka Palestine Sunbirds) alight on a small tree situated outside my home office window. She is a pale brown and he is a brilliant blue. When the sun hits his plumage it illuminates everything around it; an almost heavenly experience. I feel like Burt Lancaster’s Birdman of Alcatraz, silently gazing at this beauty and envying his ability to just fly away and go where he wishes.
Like so many expats with aging parents, I worry about my mother. She’s home alone in England. I call her every day and listen patiently to her tales of confinement, what she’s eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and what her Yorkshire Terrier has been doing. It’s the same daily routine and at times I roll my eyes and stifle a yawn.
But then a few days ago she told me that the elderly lady down the street – typically British, she doesn’t know her name but they have said hello and chatted on a regular basis for over 20 years – passed away in hospital from coronavirus. Then I feel guilty at myself for not being there and for rolling my eyes at the itemized account of mom’s daily food intake.
Local Israeli TV leaves plenty to be desired for the expat Anglo and so I’ve found myself whiling away the hours rediscovering YouTube videos of some of the great British and American talk shows of the ‘70s and ‘80s; Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, Michael Parkinson and others. It’s been thoroughly entertaining.
Here’s an example of the delights coronavirus has prompted me to uncover. The noted raconteur Kenneth Williams, the great British comedy actor from the Carry On movies, was interviewed on Parkinson’s BBC weekly show. He laid all the guests out with a story told to him by someone from the royal circles. The Queen apparently hosted some notable African leader, and the pair were being driven along the Mall towards Buckingham Palace in one of those amazing state carriages drawn by four gleaming horses ridden by spectacularly liveried outriders.
All of a sudden, the horse nearest The Queen broke wind “with alarming ferocity”. Her Majesty responded to this unexpected equine intervention by saying, “Ooh, whoops-a-daisy” to which the African potentate responded quick-as-a-flash, “Ma’am, if you hadn’t said anything, I would have assumed it was the horse.”
Remembrance Day began on the evening of April 27, the day Israel remembers those who have fallen in defense of this country and victims of terror. Controversially, the families of fallen soldiers were refused permission to visit the graves of their loved ones on the grounds that it would breach social distancing rules. But IKEA’s flat-pack stores had already been open for some days, attracting thousands of shoppers, many of whom flagrantly breached the same rules. Nothing was done about it though. What signal does this send about Israel’s priorities these days? 
AND THEN to Israel’s 72nd Independence Day. There was outrage on our town’s Facebook page a few days earlier when a rumor spread that the Zichron Ya’acov council was planning a costly fireworks display. It proved to be a false alarm, the council leader quickly confirming that all resources were being focused on keeping our little corner of Israel as safe as possible. So, while we’re all delighted to remain present and correct in this particular corner of the Middle East, it was an understandably subdued affair this time.
I ventured no further than my driveway, my waving of two five-shekel flags paling into insignificance against my neighbor’s super-duper, flag-poled deluxe version. The sentiment was no less heartfelt though and, as we all know, size isn’t everything.
I want to leave you with a positive recent personal experience at the hands of the Israeli medical fraternity. I don’t like hospitals. A wise man once told me “it’s very unhealthy to be sick.” I’ve done my best to heed his advice for the last five decades and more but had no choice as I was struck down temporarily with “a heart issue.”
I received amazing care and shared a room with a Jewish gardener who’d been bitten by a snake and two Arab guys; one who had a wobble similar to mine, and the other who chose not to discuss his condition. The four of us got along famously well while attended by both Jewish and Arab-Israeli doctors and nurses at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Hadera. They’re underpaid and understaffed but are stoical and marvelous in equal measures.
When you’re sick, all the crap about politics, land and religion isn’t worth a dime. Illness – whether understood or unfathomable, like the coronavirus – doesn’t differentiate between us. I discharged myself after one night, fearing the virus more than the consequences of not having further exploratory procedures.
I’m absolutely fine and got away with it this time but in these difficult days of fear, of unwanted change, of boredom, and of great uncertainty on so many fronts, the spirit I witnessed from both the Jewish and Arab-Israeli carers, and those cared for, gave a little hope that people here may become a shade more tolerant of one another after the pandemic has passed. Maybe. ■