Imagining life in Israel after the coronavirus

IN CONTEXT: What will the ‘day after’ mean when the post-corona life takes hold?

THE FORMERLY UNKNOWN practice of keeping personal space is likely to continue for Israelis after the crisis... at least for a while.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE FORMERLY UNKNOWN practice of keeping personal space is likely to continue for Israelis after the crisis... at least for a while.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
It’s now clear to most that until a vaccine is found and widely distributed, we will not be moving seamlessly to that longed-for “day after the coronavirus.”
There will not be one day marking the end to this period. It is not as if on a Sunday we will be in the grips of the plague, and then on a Monday an all-clear signal will be sounded and life will return to normal.
We will, hopefully soon, be able to emerge from our homes, gradually go back to work, to school, to synagogues, to restaurants, to movies... but it will be gradual, and it will be different: with masks, gloves and apprehension, and without hand-shaking, hugging or backslapping.
Until, of course, the vaccine is found. Then life is expected to return, more or less, to what we knew before – except that all of us will carry the memory, and many of us the traumas, of these past few weeks, and perhaps adjust our behavior accordingly.
In Israel, with its unique flavor and rhythm, there are likely to be significant changes in how the country feels during that period between when we embark on an exit strategy, and when a vaccine is found and we return to our old selves. 
Here are a few areas where we are likely to sense some of those changes:
The pace of life
Though the coronavirus has upended our lives in a myriad different ways, not all of it has been for the worse. This tiny microbe has slowed us down.
Israeli life runs at a feverish pace. The cities bustle, the streets are packed – the intense and hectic pace is what gives this country its energy. But over the past few weeks, that has changed. The cities are dead, the streets are empty, and people – many of whom are now out of work – have much more time. And this has led to some changes in behavior.
A local pharmacist said this week that people waiting outside his pharmacy – he lets them inside one at a time – are now more polite, both because they are afraid and because they have more time. If you really have nowhere to go, he reasoned, you can wait in line without feeling tense and taking it out on either the guy in front of you or the person serving you.
As business goes back to usual, as more and more places of employment reopen, the pace will once again pick up, and with it the tension that comes with always having to do something or be somewhere. But in the meantime – until everything reopens – the country will feel more mellow than it has for years. 
Israel’s politics is likely to change in ways we can’t even imagine. By the time of the next election, whether in August if no coalition is formed, or in a few years if an emergency government is put together, there will be new political players that will emerge out of this crisis.
It may be a party whose raison d’etre is overhauling and improving the health system, or another that will represent the small business owners suffering enormous economic problems as a result of this trauma. It could be a party centered solely on domestic social issues.
The last great national trauma of the magnitude of the coronavirus, which touched everyone – the 1973 Yom Kippur War – gave birth to two movements that significantly impacted on the country for years: Gush Emunim on the Right, and Peace Now on the Left. The coronavirus will also spawn protest movements and parties likely to significantly impact on the country for the next generation as well.
One surprising element about the last two of the three elections the country suffered through within a year was that they did not give birth to any parties or political personalities. A few small mergers, some name changes, but no new party promoting a new agenda with new faces. It remained, election after election, the same old, same old: Likud, Blue and White, Joint List, Yisrael Beyteneu, Shas, UTJ, Yamina, Gesher-Labor-Meretz.
Next time, prepare for a few new parties, with new people whose focus will be on economic, health and social welfare issues not at all related to the usual political dividing lines: security, the settlements and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Personal space
When Israel banned smoking on buses in 1983, many thought that this was the perfect example of a regulation that the public would simply be unable to abide by. Up until 1983, smoking on the bus was as Israeli as saying “nu.”
Yet the public did adapt, and in a matter of years this country’s buses – going against what was then the cultural norm – became smoke-free. It wasn’t painless, but it happened.
We are now living through a similar revolution, only it has to do with personal space, not smoke. Personal space in Israel is a foreign concept. People stand on top of each other in bus lines, at the ATM, at the supermarkets and at the health clinics. Private space is a premium – partly because of cultural mores, partly because this is physically just a tiny country.
And then the coronavirus hit and people were forced to keep their distance. First 1 meter, then 2. Now you walk down the street and see people obviously wary of getting physically close to one another. This quickly learned habit is likely to continue during that twilight period when we are freed from our homes, but have yet to be injected with a corona vaccine. Until that time, there will be no need to yell at the guy behind you in the ATM to give you some room; he probably will do so of his own volition.
Tourism has become part of our personal and national lives.
On a personal level, lower airfares and higher income have turned Israelis into perpetual tourists, giving new meaning to the term “wandering Jew.” No sooner do people return from a visit to Barcelona than they are planning the next one to Bangkok.
This wanderlust, and the financial ability to act on those urges, spanned all generations: recently released soldiers, parents with school-age children, and retirees on what have become known in Hebrew as PIL tours – an acronym of the words “pahot yerusha la’yeladim” (less inheritance for the kids).
But once the members of the public are allowed out of their homes, it will take a while before they feel comfortable enough to board a plane for a 14-hour flight in the middle seat to San Francisco. First, people are going to have to get re-accustomed to going on buses and to the malls – something that in itself will take some mental readjustment.
And just as Israelis will not be flocking anytime soon to far-off locales, people from far-off locales – like China, for instance – will unlikely be flocking here either.
On a national level, Israelis have become accustomed over the last decade to seeing hordes of tourists on our streets and in our restaurants, not only from America and Western Europe but also from China, Russia and India. This has been a boon both for Israel’s economy and its perception abroad. Those days will return, but probably not until there is a vaccine.
Housing for seniors
That nursing homes and retirement facilities have been so badly hit by the coronavirus – not only in Israel but around the world – will lead people to rethink living options for seniors.
Some will want to take elderly parents out of live-in facilities, and some who were considering assisted living for themselves may now think twice and look for other options.
This will give rise to grassroots movements and calls for the government to make it easier and more affordable to bring caretakers into the homes of the elderly so they can continue to live in their own homes, as well as lead to a boom in the search for technologies that will allow seniors to live independently as long as they possibly can. 
Research toward predictive technologies that may be able to foresee a fall, as well as the further development of “smart home” and tele-health technology is likely to flourish. These are developments likely to remain even after a vaccine for the virus is found.
Bridging societal gaps
Out of the bitter sometimes comes the sweet. The curfew that the government imposed on Bnei Brak last week – a curfew managed by a former general and implemented by IDF soldiers – brought soldiers and haredim (the ultra-Orthodox) together in unprecedented ways.
All of a sudden, each side saw the other in a different light. The haredim saw soldiers not as part of an institution that is a threat to their way of life, but as guardians distributing food and transporting the elderly for their own safety. And soldiers saw haredim – if not face-to-face, at least mask-to-mask – at eye level as real people worthy of their empathy and sympathy, not as stereotypes or mere caricatures. 
That type of interaction, even if taking place in what is literally an unhealthy environment, is very healthy for the state. The irony is that a sickness that had people seeking refuge behind their own four walls may open cracks in the wall separating the haredim from the IDF and the rest of society. 
The same is true of relations between the country’s Jewish and Arab populations. For once, both the Jewish majority and the Arab minority were on the same side of an issue – and were working together to defeat an enemy out to kill both. Arab health providers worked tirelessly alongside their Jewish colleagues in trying to protect the country. 
When the virus is finally defeated, the country will most likely return to familiar patterns. But the cooperation between sectors that do not normally cooperate may linger. The haredim will have more trouble now viewing the IDF as a threatening force, Jews will have more difficulty seeing all Israeli-Arabs as those who only want to undermine their safety, and the Arab population will find it more difficult to demonize the state which made little distinction between Jew, Muslim or Christian in fighting for everyone’s health.
The coronavirus hit Israel just as it was carrying out its third election within a year, with each election outdoing the other in nastiness and negativity, accentuating and highlighting the country’s fissures and differences.
COVID-19 wiped much of that out. The nightly news programs are dominated now by health-related news, not reports of one politician insulting or delegitimizing one sector of the population or the other.
The Beautiful Israel, forced underground or into hiding during the successive campaigns, reemerged, along with a sense that we are all suffering together – rich and poor, Jew and Muslim, Right and Left, religious and secular. Granted, it was not all kumbaya; for a brief period, much anger was directed at the haredim. But, for the most part, a welcome sense of solidarity descended upon the land, as it does whenever there is a crisis.
The solidarity was visible in communal sing-alongs from balconies, social media groups popping up to help the vulnerable, people volunteering to deliver food to the elderly. There was definitely a sense that we are all in this together, and can emerge on the other side only if we abide by the rules and regulations, as restrictive, unnatural and draconian as they may seem.
Israeli history has shown that solidarity and unity forged in times of crisis rarely outlast the crisis. When the threat fades, so does that solidarity. This time is unlikely to be different, but that sense of national cohesion – or at least vestiges of it – will certainly remain until the arrival of the “day after the coronavirus,” until that longed-for all-clear signal is sounded. And that day still seems far off.