To be honored as an elder in Israel: aging in the time of corona

Under stress, Europe is reverting to its long history of deeming some groups worthy of life; others, not so much. Happily, Israel is not Europe.

An elderly woman walks through a corridor of a retirement home as visits have been restricted due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) concerns, in Grevenbroich (photo credit: REUTERS)
An elderly woman walks through a corridor of a retirement home as visits have been restricted due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) concerns, in Grevenbroich
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis don’t shock easily. But we were shocked by recent news from Europe. First came the report of Spanish nursing home staff walking away from their responsibilities, leaving sick and frail patients to die alone in their beds. 
Then came the eyewitness news from an Israeli doctor in Italy who reported that Italian doctors were directed to withhold ventilators from severely ill COVID-19 patients over 60 years old in favor of younger patients. The directive was a death sentence for those older patients.
And then came the news from the Netherlands, more subtle, but no less deadly. That country decided to let the coronavirus spread naturally through the population, until it develops herd immunity. Although less blunt in its expression, the Dutch public health policy means the virus will kill off old people and others who may be susceptible, leaving survivors who will be immune.
Darwin would be pleased.
Under stress, Europe is reverting to its long history of deeming some groups worthy of life; others, not so much. Eugenics flourished at the turn of the 20th century. By mid-century, eugenic morality claimed the lives of 11 million people; Jews and the disabled, gays and the Roma.
Europe, a beacon of Western civilization so willing to preach ethics and humanitarianism to the rest of the world, is morally deficient itself once again.
Negative stereotypes of aging pervade Western culture, including, sadly, the ideas of many older adults themselves who have internalized the belief that the aged are unworthy. Those elderly people live in the shameful shadow of the West’s overvaluation of youth, productivity and speed. The message is constantly broadcast in every part of society, from fashion to entertainment, from employment to education, with a powerful drumbeat that says, “Old is bad. Young is good.”
Happily, Israel is not Europe. Perhaps it is no surprise that in a country where public buses remind passengers to give up their seats to older riders by posting words from Leviticus 19:32 (“You shall rise up before the aged and show deference to the old”), concern for the older population in this pandemic is an amalgam of tender care, respect and honor. The Israeli Defense Forces are charged with protecting and caring for the needs of the elderly in this pandemic.  Their special unit has been dubbed “Guards of Gold.”
The Secret Service protects the US president. Teenage army draftees in the IDF, Guards of Gold, protect Israel’s elders. Society chooses to provide special protection to certain citizens not just because of their vulnerability, but also because of their importance.
Back during the first Gulf war, an Israeli colleague, Chanie Wallach, and I conducted a study of elderly nursing home residents under Scud missile attacks.  We expected them to fare poorly. We were wrong. Not only did these frail elderly demonstrate remarkable resilience themselves, they were able to support the nursing home staff by sharing their experiences of past challenges overcome.
In that time of crisis, the elderly modeled the value of taking a long perspective, of relaxing with faith and good humor. The helpers and the helped benefited mutually. Their benefits were indivisible.
It is ironic that the negative stereotype of aging persists, despite such abundance of evidence to the contrary. Just last week, the winners of the Abel Prize, the Nobel Prize equivalent for mathematics, were announced. The winners were Hillel Furstenberg, 84, and Gregory Margulis, 74.
The most powerful people in the world are old – check out the ages of the world’s prime ministers, heads of state, members of legislative bodies and Supreme Court judges. They are typically much older than two-thirds of the population. And just look at who’s running for president of the United States this year: three men in their eighth decade of life - All members of the COVID-19 high-risk club.
Europe has a nasty habit of wagging its high-minded finger at Israel. During this pandemic, Europe ought to look to Israel for moral guidance.
Europe would do well to post this sentence from the Bible in its hospitals and medical centers and try to incorporate its moral injunction. “You shall rise up before the aged and show deference to the old.”
The writer is a Jerusalem-based psychologist, Middle East television commentator, and host of the Van Leer Series on Ideas with Renee Garfinkel. newbooksnetwork.com/category/van-leer-institute


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