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TARB Extra

Our Strange Victory: Quarantine Reflections

What's it been like living in Israel during coronavirus, and how is the 'new normal' panning out?

I knew that victory was near when my elderly neighbor sent a different kind of message to the building WhatsApp group. A former chef, for the duration of the lockdown he had been baking pizzas and offering them at an affordable price to the many families and singles in our residential high-rise. Then, on day 39, he sent out a cry for help:

It’s not clear to me why I wear a mask, which is supposed to protect those same people who walk right past me without one.”

During the lockdown, life in our building felt stifling and claustrophobic, but a sense of solidarity prevailed. The WhatsApp group was full of posts about bakers, flower shops, restaurateurs, and caterers who were suddenly out of work and needed help. There was even a daily menu of sorts: order malabi from a young guy in Kfar Saba, get artichokes (by the case) from a nearby moshav, homemade masks from an unemployed seamstress, cupcakes and a decorating kit from a caterer, gourmet cheeses from a restaurant supplier suddenly without clients.

But this solidarity had a shelf life. For well over a week now, the WhatsApp group has reverted to its pre-pandemic self: the same three or four people complaining about noise or trash left outside the garbage room, people giving away furniture, people looking for a recommendation for a plumber, people accidentally butt-dialing a 10 second recording of pocket static to all 102 units in the tower.

The camaraderie was a silver lining of sorts to the stress and isolation of the lockdown. But when we started baking less and returned to our normal Israeli way of shaming and yelling at each other, it was a sign that we had the virus beat.

Israel’s Strange Victory

In Israel, we’ve all but declared victory over the coronavirus. The malls and markets have reopened, traffics jams are back, and children have returned to school. The death toll stands at 262, and the number of people who have recovered—more than 12,000—is nearly three times the number of people currently ill with COVID-19. In contrast, in my home country, more than 80,000 Americans have died and around 20,000 new infections are confirmed every day.

It was in that other country, 20 years ago, that I was doing jobs that would now qualify me as an “essential worker.”

I worked as a pizza delivery driver in Austin, Texas off and on from 1998-2001. I drove all over town listening to sports radio, Murda Muzik and Stankonia, and eating pizza every day.

There was nothing heroic about it, but what if the coronavirus pandemic had happened back then, and I was on the front lines?

What about when I was in college? Or when I was living with roommates in Tel Aviv 15 years ago? When I first started dating my wife? Would she have deemed me “quarantine worthy” that early in the relationship? No chance.

I keep thinking about the timing of this tragedy, and how fortunate I am that this pandemic broke out when I was at my most prepared: a married, 40-year-old father of two young children, with a job that I can do from home.

As much as anything, I feel fortunate to be living in Israel during this crisis.

I hate to say it, but when a pandemic breaks out, a small, militarized country with a deeply entrenched security apparatus is not a bad place to be. Citizens—at least initially—quickly fell in line for the common good. Israelis are used to feeling that they live on an island, isolated from the world around them; shutting down the borders and airport were drastic measures, but in Israel this move arguably only magnified that feeling. In the wake of the many recent wars/operations/intifadas, which have seen the home front become the front line, people seem more capable of adapting to a war footing in their suburban, civilian environs.

Israel is a largely free, quasi-democracy, and Israelis scoff at rank and formality. They do not share Americans’ obsession with “freedom”—at least, not the type of personal freedom that claims that, even in a national emergency, you can put your loved ones and neighbors in danger as a sort of principle.

Also, gun-toting, mask-less Israelis are not rallying around the country to defend their right to eat at a chain restaurant, get their hair cut, or go to Home Depot. In Israel, people can be unbelievably entitled, but there is an understanding that, unavoidably and necessarily, everyone has to suffer the hard times together, at least once in a while.

People also seem to be aware that if they try to enter government buildings with semi-automatic rifles and their faces covered, they might not make it back home in one piece.

While the death toll in my native Texas has been far lower than elsewhere in America—New York City in particular—following the news has been disturbing nonetheless. There is the usual chorus of conspiracy theorists, conservative state legislators, and talk radio hosts (sometimes, all three can be the same person) spouting about “freedom” and railing against scientists. But it goes beyond that. There are also the people in Houston heading back to bars without masks even as the infection rate continues to rise, and the mask-less (often armed) crowds outside the state capitol in Austin—about a 10 minute drive from where my family lives—chanting “fire (Anthony) Fauci” and “arrest Bill Gates.” Israelis I know have shared videos like these online, confused about what is going on in America.

There are two types of videos I have seen from the States during the coronavirus pandemic. There are the ones of neighbors in decorated cars doing drive-by birthday parties for kids, and people (mainly in the New York area) on their balconies, porches, and fire escapes applauding first responders and healthcare workers. The rest are the sort of videos we have become accustomed to during the Trump years: protestors harassing a journalist; a woman streaming herself berating cusomers for being “sheep” at a Trader Joe’s as she’s kicked out for refusing to wear a mask; “reopen” protestors shouting at a healthcare worker who is blocking their truck; and the daily press briefings full of praise for the President and abuse for the press, the Democrats, and other enemies of the state.

The Netanyahu years have been defined in large part by the demonization of Arab citizens of Israel, the left (or what remains of it), and the media. The prevailing sentiment has been “you are either with us, or against the country.” But I have not seen this play out much in the coronavirus response. While there are Israelis who have dismissed the threat, and videos and posts like “Plandemic did gain an audience in Israel, this sort of conspiracy theory skepticism did not overwhelm the debate or hijack the government’s response. Even in this hyper-political country, the crisis has not – at least for now been politicized like it has been in the United States.

The Ceasefire

For me, and many others, the coronavirus lockdown in Israel officially lifted on Day 57, when both of my daughters—aged four and six—were able to go back to preschool and kindergarten for the first time. In those suddenly quiet hours in our apartment, I started wondering how I would rate my performance in this war.

The last couple months have seemed like a trial run for the apocalypse. A test of how I would cope as a parent if the world really did turn upside down. Did I keep them safe? So far so good, but that is as much luck as it is good parenting. The fact that my wife and I are both fortunate enough to be able to work from home and be with the kids all day was a huge blessing.

As for education? Well, both girls can now say “Giannis Antetokounmpo” pretty much like the YouTube tutorial, one knows the chorus to “Barracuda” by Heart (from Trolls 2), and both learned to love the original Disney Robin Hood. The day-to-day, though, was overcome by putting out fires, running around the house, washing dishes in a never-ending loop, and catching up on work each night after the girls fell asleep in a tent on the living room floor.

News about the “cuhwonavirus” (as they call it) has bombarded them for months on end. While they do not seem to show any clear signs of distress, who knows what effect this has had? I look at my girls and envision some sort of long-lasting, unseen trauma growing that will surface later in life.

I know that my experience as a father during the pandemic is by no means unique. I cannot help but think, though, that being in Israel has made a difference.

For one thing, I never had to worry about health care or access to treatment if my family got sick. I was more confident that, in this baby-mad country, being able to work from home would not be an issue. As has often been the case, ever since Trump took office, my faith in Israel’s leadership has increased—odd as that might seem.

If I were still in Texas, no doubt some aspects of lockdown would probably be easier. It is unlikely we would be living in this 17-story building where every trip to take the kids out for fresh air feels like a game of Frogger: waiting for people to get off the elevator, avoiding them in the lobby, and dodging the kids and delivery guys downstairs until we make it to the vacant lot across the street. We would probably have a yard, a bigger house, and the supermarket would have aisles that are at least two meters wide.

On the other hand, over the course of 20 years living in Israel, no matter how bad things have gotten, I have never truly feared violent upheaval or worried that people might start using those assault rifles they have been collecting.

I still want to give my kids the quality of life America has to offer. For now, though, the risks seem to outweigh the benefits.

At least, unlike my friends raising kids in New York, my children haven’t spent weeks indoors hearing sirens all day long, or had to live in close quarters with parents coping with a more clear and present danger.

But this might just be the first ceasefire of many. I’ve started to grasp that there is a real possibility (remote or not) that this situation could become a permanent one. That my daughters will mark their lives by recurring infection waves and lockdowns, through elementary school, high school, college, and the rest of their lives. It could be the only way they ever learn how to live, never knowing what it was like for a kid like me, how easy it was.

Riding my bike around the neighborhood at 11:30 on a Friday night, I got a glimpse of what that future might hold. On street corners and in the park, I saw teenagers in masks, hanging out, talking and sitting in circles, seeing their friends for the first time in weeks but with everything still closed and nowhere to go—not even to Tel Aviv. I can imagine what it would be like to be a teenager now (so easy to vandalize if everyone gets to wear a mask!) and it actually seemed almost normal, like something that would be a pain in the ass, but one you can get used to.

If this virus is a recurring fact of life, it raises another question: Can we ever leave? What if you move to a place less prepared than Israel and then the next wave comes? If you had asked me six months ago, I would have jumped at the chance to relocate with the family to Europe or America for a couple of years. Now our calculation has changed.

What Life Do We Get to Imagine Now?

There is always a sliding scale of suffering in the world. My life in lockdown was not nearly as tough as that of a parent with eight kids in a tiny apartment in Bnei Brak (Israel’s coronavirus capital), nor a single person with an immunodeficiency in an apartment in Tel Aviv and no one to shop for them, or an elderly person living alone in poverty. It’s certainly not as tough as the situation for just about anybody in New York, or countless people elsewhere in the US.

We are constantly told that we are the fortunate ones. That you have to be grateful and learn humility— because the situation in Israel is so much better than in other countries. It is a fact: we both are healthy and employed, and Israel has done a better job with the pandemic than most. But true as this may be, is it enough? Maybe we have to be grateful, but do we also get to be happy too?

None of the things I miss are worth dying for. Nevertheless, they are valuable, and they make it easier to live in this place. Now that I don’t know when or how these things will return, it’s hard to know which things to yearn for now that my old ways and daydreams—the next trip to Europe, who’s visiting from the States next, what’s a concert I’d I would like to see—are gone for who knows how long.

We’re on Our Own Again

Israel does well when a national crisis hits but seems to falter with day-to-day life and preparing us for how to cope in the gaps between the “escalations.”

In every major military operation, war, or intifada, the entire Israeli apparatus works towards a single goal: a ceasefire, a “return to normal.” School is canceled, the reserves are called up, funerals and live statements by the Prime Minister are broadcast on the evening news, and then at some point it is all over, suddenly, like it never happened.

When the guns go silent, all the drive and determination evaporate: the collective, national effort never pivots toward a larger goal of changing our lives and our country radically and for the better, in a way that could prevent the next wave. Instead, we build walls, find new ways to locate and blow up tunnels, add new wanted men to the “target bank,” and prepare for the next round.

If every past wave of violence, “operation,” or war in this country is any indication, Israelis will get back to what qualifies as our normal as quickly as possible. You can already see it this week, as Israel has just sworn in its largest government ever, a “national emergency unity government” with 36 ministers (the US has 15 cabinet members). The swearing in was postponed because some Likud Mks were upset that they were not offered ministerial posts. We were told this a necessity after Israel held three national elections in one year and found itself facing the greatest public health crisis in its history.

Like always, we will be on our own to carry the trauma and rebuild our lives. At least when the next wave comes – two weeks from now, or a year or five or ten – we will have the benefit of our experience, and we’ll still probably be in a better position than the United States.

And like all those other times, we will mobilize overnight, until the moment we can go back to what passes for normal again.

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Ben Hartman

Ben Hartman is an American-Israeli writer originally from Austin, TX. You can often find him on Twitter.

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