The lockdown came early. In early March, Israel closed its borders and put into place tough restrictions on people’s movements. Some of the measures were draconian, some thought — the government, despite grave privacy concerns, used cell phone data for public health purposes in tracking people infected with Covid-19.
The early and disciplined actions worked, and Israel has been able to flatten its Covid-19 curve: By late May, the country recorded only three deaths for every 100,000 people; the figure for the United States was 10 times higher.
Now that the government is easing restrictions — schools, synagogues and hotels have reopened, and the beaches are packed — Israelis are taking stock of the changes the virus has wrought on society, and pondering what these changes might mean for the future.
By all accounts, one of the pandemic’s silver linings has been the strengthening ties between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
According to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute released in early May, 56 percent of Jewish Israelis and 64 percent of Arab Israelis believe that relations have improved between Jews and Arabs since the start of the outbreak. (At the same time, the survey found that more than 6-in-10 Israelis believe that relations between charedi Orthodox Jews — some of whom have been criticized for flouting social distancing rules — and the rest of Israelis were damaged during the outbreak.)
“Relations between Jews and Arabs were already improving prior to the Covid-19 crisis,” said Thabet Abu Rass, co-director of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, an organization that promotes equality in Israel. “They have improved even more during the crisis.”
The fact that Benny Gantz, the head of the centrist Blue & White political party, initially courted the Arab Joint List coalition of Arab parties during the latest campaign season “demonstrated to many Israelis that we are an important part of the political process,” Abu Rass said. “It also reminded us and others that everyone has one vote. There aren’t many times when we feel equal, but on Election Day, we were equal.”
Arab Israelis have also received a great deal of positive media attention — and gratitude from the public — for being on the front lines in the fight against the virus.
The fact that 30 percent of Israeli hospital staff members are Arab is a source of pride for both Arab and Jewish citizens, Abu Rass said. “It’s shown that when it comes to the virus, we are combating it together.”
Another first: Arab Israelis got to see a positive side of Israel’s security apparatus. The IDF delivered tons of food packages to Arab families under lockdown, just in time for Ramadan.
“For the first time in 72 years we saw soldiers in uniform on a positive mission, helping people get food. Our polls show that the overwhelming majority of Arab citizens mistrust the Israeli police, but the police have been helping us during this crisis. Israel is taking our citizenship more seriously, and is doing a really good job helping the Arab community,” Abu Rass said.
To maintain this forward momentum, the Abraham Fund Initiatives plans to contact every government minister, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, about the challenges facing the Arab community.
“The time is right. Jews and Arabs understand that unless we work together, there will be no equality,” Abu Rass said.
Rabbi Seth Farber, a congregational rabbi and founder of ITIM: The Jewish Life Advocacy Center, said that when it came to religious practices and Covid-19, the government acted “responsibly” by demanding that all places of worship — synagogues, mosques and churches — be closed.
“It limited the size of and required necessary precautions (social distancing, masks) at gatherings, such as weddings. It issued reasonable protocols regarding the use of ritual baths. The government developed practical burial solutions that both maintained religious traditions and protected public health.”
In some instances, Rabbi Farber said, some religious authorities “demonstrated unprecedented courage and halachic creativity,” which, he said, has “spurred a new discussion focusing on human needs and halacha,” or Jewish law, “that will hopefully be continued beyond the crisis.”
Rachel Stomel, director of English communications for the Center for Women’s Justice, lauded the “innovative and empathetic spirit” of several rabbis who permitted minyans to be held via Zoom and circumcisions to be performed on balconies (which allow more people to “attend” while maintaining social distancing).
But she lamented that no such empathy has been extended to longstanding women’s issues.
“Men temporarily trapped at home can turn to a virtual minyan, but where can women turn when they are permanently trapped in dead marriages as agunot?” she asked, referring to women whose husbands refuse to grant them a religious divorce. “Do the rabbis not see our suffering as a crisis? Is it that women’s issues do not warrant solutions because they are not seen as an aberration from the norm?”
On the medical front, Jonathan Halevy, president of Shaare Zedek Medical Center, said Israel’s experience with Covid-19 demonstrated that Israel’s health system was better prepared for a pandemic than health systems in many other countries, because it is accustomed to dealing with mass casualty events. His hospital, which built nine Covid wards within a couple of weeks (some are now closed due to far fewer people needing to be hospitalized), frequently holds mass casualty drills.
It also helped that Israel has universal health care, so citizens did not hesitate to seek treatment.
While Israel has dealt very well with Covid-19, Halevy said, the virus also exposed Israel’s woefully inadequate supply of hospital beds, the extremely long hours medical residents are required to work and other problems within the under-funded health care system.
Halevy said that if the Israeli government is smart, it will learn valuable lessons from the pandemic: It will increase funding in order to hire more doctors and nurses, and will encourage telemedicine, especially for routine matters like prescriptions and assessments.
“This will ease the load on primary physicians, and hopefully older physicians will adopt telemedicine, too,” Halevy said.
Israel’s healthcare system, though the envy of many a country, “is severely under-budgeted,” Halevy said.
“I believe our calls for higher budgets will be treated favorably during the next couple of months. Hopefully there will be more slots to hire physicians, more investment in infrastructure, and the congestion in the emergency rooms will be eased.”
Whereas other Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries spend an average 8.5-9.3 percent of their GDP on healthcare, Israel spends just 7.5 percent, Halevy said.
“Some of my colleagues think I’m naïve, but if the crisis has achieved anything, it’s the recognition that Israel has to increase its healthcare spending.”