Life in Israel under COVID-19

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As we grapple with COVID-19 in North America and adjust to major life and societal changes, it’s easy to forget that this is a global pandemic. Israel has also had to confront the disease and adopt incredible measures to halt the spread of the virus and flatten the curve of infection rates. True to form though, they’re doing it in a distinctly Israeli fashion.

So, what is life like in Israel under COVID-19? Mostly quiet and a little surreal. In other words, very much like it is here. Israel was very aggressive in its early efforts to combat the spread of the virus, taking immediate measures to limit public gatherings, closing all non-essential businesses, and cancelling almost every major event in the country. Extreme yes, but also very safe.

The once bustling street markets, where for decades, vendors have cajoled, haggled, and joked with each other, are now mostly empty. Israel’s famous café culture has ground to a halt overnight. Patios that would normally be full of friends gossiping, old men arguing, and quiet people watchers soaking in the atmosphere now sit unoccupied. No one is breaking the rules no matter how much they miss their espresso. Even Israel’s world-famous beaches stand desolate, not so much as a frisbee in sight.

Perhaps more eerie and startling though are Israel’s many religious and historical sites. Last week, workers donning hazmat suits and breathing apparatuses scrubbed and sanitized the Western Wall in Jerusalem, removing prayer notes and limiting access to the site. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity has been closed to the public this Easter, an unthinkable prospect that has become our new reality. Many other locations have been closed completely in a move that has hammered home the severity of the virus and the life-changing steps that must be taken to combat it. 

These major disruptions paint a grim picture, but are the people of Israel panicking? No, they’re making do and staying as positive as they can under the circumstance. With stay-at-home orders and quarantine conditions keeping the majority of Israelis home, families are using the time to connect and tackle some home projects. Some have been tending their gardens and fruit trees (a popular Israeli home addition) or growing windowsill herb boxes to help provide the home with fresh food and flavor without risking a trip to the market. President Reuven Rivlin took to Facebook to encourage families to use the time to read and bond, demonstrating with his own reading of the Israeli classic "A Flat for Rent.” From the response on social media, it seems a lot of families have followed his lead with their own nightly readings.

Viral videos have documented impromptu balcony sing-alongs among cooped up apartment dwellers, and moments of strange beauty such as wild animals making themselves at home in the now empty airports and streets. This is a time of great change, but also one of community and resilience. These are two things Israel knows a lot about.

Israel as a nation is well prepared to deal with an outbreak like this. For one, they have a strong cultural spirit of facing hardships together. From the legacy of the holocaust to the ongoing instability and conflict in the West Bank, the Israeli people know what it is to confront horror and fear. While a virus is not the same as a violent attack, the methods used to meet it (sacrifice, cooperation, and shared support) are similar and it’s how Israelis have dealt with many challenges over the years. Take the kibbutz system, it was formed under the idea of coming together for the common good. The first kibbutz built in the young nation of Israel featured multiple families tending the same crops, building infrastructure in the same community, sharing the same lodgings in some cases. All to build something out of nothing in the desert. That takes dedication, that takes a true commitment to the spirit of community, and that tradition has carried forward in Israeli society. You can see it in the compulsory service in the IDF to the number of people who cheerfully report unearthed artifacts and historical discoveries to the Israeli Antiquity Authority without a thought to keeping it or selling it themselves. 

It’s also a nation with a strong technical backbone. Over the past few years, Tel Aviv has become the silicon valley of the East and the Israeli medical sector is responsible for several recent breakthroughs. While the country is in lock down, the best minds Israel has to offer have gone to work on ways to combat this virus. From creating better, cheaper testing kits and working on potential vaccines, to making the stress of isolation less burdensome by offering virtual tours of some of Israel’s most interesting location they’re focused on solutions to this problem. Israel isn’t the kind of nation to back down from a challenge and we should look to that spirit of determination in ourselves as we face this crisis!

While the looming uncertainty of what the virus means and what we need to do to combat it doesn’t show any sign of being over in the near future, Israel seems prepared to handle it. Life has changed for sure, but it hasn’t ended. This is not the first storm Israel has had to weather. We should strive to adopt the same kind of resilience here at home. 

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