The Jewish paradox of the coronavirus

Everything we do in our national and religious identity is about gathering. Jews, and especially Israelis, do everything in groups.

Worshipers at the Western Wall adhere to Health Ministry regulations by maintaining social distance.  (photo credit: THE WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
Worshipers at the Western Wall adhere to Health Ministry regulations by maintaining social distance.
Israel’s war against the coronavirus went up a notch this week with the launching of a blitz. No, not a blitz of disease tests – those are still difficult to come by – nor a blitz of mask distribution to the public. Those will still cost you a small fortune at local pharmacies, which unfortunately are taking advantage of a public in need. I’m referring to the PR blitz being launched by the Mossad and the IDF.
It reminded me – as someone who has covered more than one war over the last couple of decades – of something that always seems to happen in the IDF. During the Second Lebanon War in 2006 for example, commanders announced successful operations that later became botched (Bint Jbeil is one well-known example). In Cast Lead in 2009, the IDF took pride in sending tanks to divide the Gaza Strip in a matter of hours, but then got bogged down fighting back Hamas.
In both cases and more, the declarations of so-called victories were premature. They were also irresponsible. Conflicts escalated, lives were lost, and the battles continued not just for days but for weeks, leaving people wondering what went wrong. What happened to the declarations of success just a few weeks before?
Take the head of the Mossad as an example. Yossi Cohen is an impressive figure within Israel’s defense establishment. He has forged strong ties with other spymasters around the world, and has led his men and women on jaw-dropping missions – like the stealing of Iran’s nuclear archive – that have succeeded in undermining our enemies’ capabilities.
Why, then, is he interviewing with TV stations like he has saved Israel from disaster? On Tuesday night he appeared on one channel whose reporter “happened” to stumble across him at the Sheba Medical Center. He is scheduled to appear on another channel on Friday night after another reporter – based on the video that has already come out – also just happened to meet him getting out of his car.
Yes, the Mossad is working on bringing essential medical equipment to Israel, and has already succeeded in bringing in millions of masks and more, but this mission is far from over. So why the congratulatory press tour?
The same can be said of the IDF’s 8200 intelligence unit, which came out of the shadows this week to brag about what it is doing to help the Health Ministry. We at The Jerusalem Post participated in the media festival with our own exclusive story published on Wednesday’s frontpage on how the famed commando unit Sayeret Matkal – known for amazing operations behind enemy lines – is now going into hospitals and warehouses searching for respirators and helping with testing.
In this battle against COVID-19, cooperation is the key. All hands are needed on deck to help fight this pandemic and there is nothing like making Israelis feel safe then pulling out the defense icons – the Mossad, Sayeret Matkal and 8200. When it comes to equipment, respirators are what every country is trying to get its hands on. Cohen’s Mossad is an essential part of that effort alongside the Defense Ministry, which announced this week that it is retrofitting a weapons assembly line to produce the life-saving machines.
Don’t misunderstand. All of this is important, and the IDF and the Mossad have capabilities that far surpass anything that the Health Ministry can do in terms of logistics, airlifts and large-scale testing and procurement. Nevertheless, this is a time for humility, not PR campaigns. Israel is still in the thick of this crisis, and the worse might still be on the horizon.
Everything has its time and place, and now is the time to work to save lives, not to think about publicity and the PR campaign. There will be plenty of time later to distribute the credit.
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ONE OF THE more interesting statistics that have appeared on the spread of COVID-19 in Israel was that until last week, a quarter of those infected had contracted the disease in a synagogue. Festive meals held by families over the two days of Purim are also known to have infected large numbers.
I’ve been wondering if this is something unique about Israel and its people. Everything we do in our national and religious identity is about gathering. Jews, and especially Israelis, do everything in groups.
A quorum for a prayer service is 10; a Brit needs a minyan so the blessings can be said; a wedding usually needs a minimum number of people as well for the Chuppah. What’s a Shabbat or holiday meal without guests surrounding your table? Everything is in the numbers, the size and the groups. Individual prayer and study are of course valuable and cherished, but in Judaism we put an emphasis on gathering and the collective.
Micha Goodman, acclaimed author of several bestselling books on canonical Jewish texts, explained to me that this is an idea that moves like a thread throughout Jewish history. In the Torah, for example, religion is not an individual institution.
“God didn’t give the Torah to each person but it was given to Am Yisrael, which is one organism,” he said.
The same, he went on, applies to the liturgy we say in our prayers. “Everything is in plural. You don’t say ‘Forgive Me’ in prayer, but ‘Forgive Us’. When you approach God, you think of yourself as a group bigger than just yourself.”
This runs counter to Western culture and practice, which is all about the individual. In the contemporary West, Goodman said, people are “hyper individualists,” and when someone thinks about staying healthy, they usually think about keeping themselves healthy, not anyone else.
“The whole point now,” he continued, “is that a pandemic challenges your individualistic instincts since to stay healthy I need to keep you healthy. If you are not healthy, I am not healthy. This is a rewiring of the way we think about health – we are forced to think about the other. And how do we do that? The answer is by staying away from people.”
In essence, what Goodman explained is the paradox that the coronavirus has brought into our lives. One of the ways for a nation to defeat this virus and to be able to one day emerge from isolation is to work as a collective to stay away from one another. “We collectively need to isolate,” is how Goodman put it.
In Israel, the rapid pace of infections – in synagogues, at Purim meals, and in yeshivas in Bnai Brak – stemmed from our collective spirit. That is what made us fragile and exposed to this deadly virus. But it is those same values we will need to draw on to be able to win.
On Wednesday night, when we gather to tell the story of the Jewish peoples’ liberation from slavery, we will do so from the confines of our homes and within the boundaries of our immediate nuclear family. We won’t have the usual coterie of guests – not grandparents, not siblings, nor cousins sitting alongside us.
It is true that this goes against our nature. One of the nights with the most traffic in the country is the night of the Passover Seder. Everyone is going somewhere to be with someone to share the joy of the holiday and the story of our collective past.
Not this year.
This year we will collectively be at home alone, but at the same time working united – as a collective – to defeat the coronavirus. Because even in individual lockdown, we are together.
Chag Pesach Sameach.