Notes from the quarantine

"We overcame Pharaoh; we shall overcome this, too"

Ofter Bavly headshot small image

At the time of writing, Israelis are instructed to remain at home and go out only for necessary needs, either medical or to buy food. International travel to and from Israel is all but canceled, schools and universities are closed, and all shopping malls, cinemas, restaurants, and cafes have shut down. Public transportation is very limited and may be shut down in the coming days. Government offices are closed and only a small number of duty officers are at their desks. All congregations of more than five people are discouraged, including synagogue minyans and sport events. People are being told not to invite friends over and senior homes are closed to visitors. But corona isn't our only challenge.

Israel has just gone through an unprecedented third election in less than a year-a sign of political instability the likes of which we have never experienced before. Even the third election cycle (March 7) ended inconclusively with the electorate split roughly down the middle between supporters of the right and left wing. That division, coupled with the similarly unprecedented case of an indicted prime minister, has created a situation in which our leadership is trying to navigate the corona crisis without the usual tools at the disposal of a stable, "normal" government and without the checks and balances normally provided by the Knesset.

And let us not forget that while we are dealing with corona and our dysfunctional political system, the threats of terrorism and the Iranian nuclear program have not vanished, either. So how do Israelis cope?

For one, we are inherently optimistic. The most common Israeli saying, "yhie be-seder," literally means "it will be fine" but actually means "it is what it is, so why worry about it?" There seems to be a certain sense of invincibility born out of a national realization that we have gone through far worse in our history-indeed, in our lifetime-so how bad can a virus be? Another common saying among us, very apt around Passover, is "We overcame Pharaoh, we shall overcome this, too"-a saying that has preceded the corona virus and will outlive it.

Like in the United States, though layered with an extra dose of Jewish and Israeli irony, Israelis, aided by the internet, indulge in gallows humor which is in its own way therapeutic.

That is not to say that Israelis are not worried. Of course we are, and the nightly news giving us a count of how many citizens have contracted the virus isn't helping the national mood. But the panels of experts making the rounds of television studios always include at least one optimist who shows the full half of the glass: we have a top-notch health system. We have scientists working on a variation of this virus for the past four years. And the rate of infection is slow and measured.

But with all the optimism, not to mention a dose of fatalism, Israelis by and large are heeding the warnings. We are staying at home and working remotely thanks to some very good technology and a good communications network. Our supermarkets, despite an initial tsunami of binge-buying, are well stocked and replenished regularly. Israelis are watching the developments in Italy and in Spain and understand that keeping our distance-however unnatural for us-is the best way to protect ourselves. As the prime minister said a few days ago, keeping our distance is the new way of showing love, so let's stop with all the hugging.

Israelis are, unfortunately, used to crises, albeit usually of a security nature. We handle crisis well. We are attentive to the media and seek instruction from the government and the military. One thing unaffected by this crisis, however, is the political battles which are not ceasing even as our politicians are forced to remain clear of one another. But then, if we didn't have a wild political situation to deal with at the same time as a pandemic, life here would be so-well, normal.

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.

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