In Israel, The Pandemic is a Slow-Motion Car Crash—And There's No Telling in What Shape our Democracy Will Emerge | Opinion

A few days ago, I spoke to my oldest friend, Dr. Ariel Hurwitz, a man who was born a few years before World War Two and has lived in Israel for over 65 years. He was wounded while serving in the army as a young man. Ariel has lived on a Kibbutz all of these years and holds a Ph.D. in History, specializing in Holocaust. We both agreed that COVID-19 presents the world with its greatest challenge since the war.

As I write this piece from the very center of Tel Aviv, the streets are nearly deserted, the bars and clubs are dark, as are the coffee shops. On most days (depending on the weather) planes destined for Ben Gurion Airport fly directly over the city on final approach. One often sees a convoy of planes lining the skies. But these days, hours pass between the arrival of one plane and the next at an airport that handled 25 million passengers last year.

Six thousand miles away, my four-year-old grandson just completed his 14 days of mandatory quarantine—just in time to find his own city (New Rochelle) closed in ways very similar to the shutdowns of Tel Aviv. These past few weeks have felt like a slow-motion car crash; one in which we are still unsure how severe the damage will be.

Israel began taking the coronavirus very seriously on January 30th, when it banned entry into the country of all non-residents coming from China, and forced residents returning from China to enter into quarantine. Those restrictions were extended shortly afterward to all of East Asia.

The US followed suit, banning entry from China on February 4th, but never took any action on flights from the rest of Asia. I remember being on-air at i24News on February 6th, during President Donald Trump's triumphal speech, after his acquittal by the Senate, saying he should not be wasting time on this [his impeachment trial]. Rather, he should be devoting his time to telling the nation how the US is preparing to defeat the burgeoning epidemic.

Back in Israel, more and more countries were added to the list of nations from which visitors required quarantine. A friend cut short his ski trip in Italy. One day I saw him in the park, the next day he was told he had to be in quarantine. The rollout of additional countries seemed haphazard.

Aliya Nussbaum, (originally from Hawaii and San Diego, currently a student at IDC, the Herzliya Interdisciplinary College) was en route back from Europe to attend a ceremony in which her brother participated, scheduled for March 4th. As she landed, Aliya received text messages from friends suggesting she not return home at this time, since a quarantine had been imposed on all those returning from Austria. It was too late: she had already landed back in Israel.

Upon arriving home, Aliya received no instructions. She was eventually contacted and told she had to remain in quarantine for 14 days. Regarding quarantine, she confided: "I can't say it was easy. When it's beautiful outside, it's hard. But as more and more people enter quarantine you feel you are not so alone." Aliya came out of quarantine this morning, as most of the country entered a national quarantine.

Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, in the place where I grew up, my 4 year old grandson was forced to remain quarantined. The disease began to spread from some source — unknown to this day — which infected a member of the Jewish community, who tested positive for the Coronavirus. Regrettably, by the time existence of the disease was discovered, the man and his children had interacted with dozens of people; many of whom tested positive for the disease. My grandson's school, Westchester Day School (which both I and my daughter attended) closed. Many other Jewish schools in the area shut down, as well.

The sudden closings caught the school administrations and faculties by surprise. Nevertheless, they are all trying their best to improvise. Rabbi Joshua Lookstein, the WDS principal said: "We have been moving ahead with distance-learning via Zoom's synchronized conference calls — it reconnects students and teachers." Lookstein went on to say about the online interactions: "The teacher's tone and demeanor are more important than their subjects".

Unfortunately, what WDS has implemented became the norm in Israel this week, and is quickly becoming the norm for much of the United States, as schools have been forced to shutter for a yet-to-be-determined length of time.

As of Monday afternoon, Israel has identified 1,283 residents who have tested positive for COVID-19:

590 = hospitalized; with 24 in serious/critical condition, and 34 in moderate condition

584 = confined to home or hotel

98 = condition to be determined

11 = recovered

Thankfully, at the time of this writing there have been only one death in Israel. The Israelis convalescing at home are all being monitored using a system developed by Datos designed specifically to oversee patients with COVID-19. According to Uri Bettesh, CEO of Datos Health, they were able to implement their monitoring system with all of Israel's HMO's and the Health Ministry. Every one of Israel's at-home patients is being monitored via the Datos system. According to Betttesh, starting today, their system will also be deployed by Rochester Regional Health. However, implementing Datos' solution in America's fractured health system will be a challenge.

Israel's economy has been slowly grinding to a halt, and our connections to the world dwindle. El Al, our national carrier, two months ago operated over 80 flights daily, buy has now cut back to four flights per day. Our international airport welcomed flights from 149 airlines, and most of them have suspended their flights.

Despite the fact that things in Israel are liable to get worse before they get better, there is a sense (perhaps false) that things are under control, at least to some extent. But I worry about my family in the USA, where a failure of national leadership has allowed the situation to get out of control.

The COVID-19 crisis could not have come at a worse time for Israel's political system, which has had a transitional interim government now for over year, despite having suffered through three elections. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been taking advantage the crisis. First, he had his confidante (whom he appointed as Interim Minister of Justice) close most of the court system at 1AM one night—thus delaying the opening of his own trial on bribery and breach of trust that was scheduled to begin last week. Next, Netanyahu authorized the Security Service to monitor digital tracking systems, in order to find people who might have been infected with the Coronavirus, despite the objections of the temporary Knesset Committee (whose term ran out, and without waiting for the new Knesset committees to form.)

Netanyahu has been continued to demand that Blue and White join an emergency unity government, which (according to him) only he can head for the first year and half—proclaiming: "This is the time for national unity"; while in his next breath, labeling the Arab members of the Joint List who hold 16 seats in this parliament, "terrorists".

In addition, Lucy Aharish, the very popular Arab-Israeli newscaster on the Public Broadcast Network Kan 11, was summarily fired for participating in a virtual rally, where she called for the end of hateful incitement, and for restoring respectful discourse.

And finally, repeated unsuccessful attempts have been made to stop the Knesset from meeting (because the opposition currently holds a majority), with claims such gathering would be dangerous because of the Coronavirus.

We have entered a very uncertain time — absolutely in terms of health, surely in terms of the economy, and unquestionably in terms of politics.

As the head of tourism for Jerusalem, Ilanit Melchior told me: "The world is looking for hope that there will be a future." Amen to that.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​