Coronavirus Days in Tel Aviv

Reflections on summertime lockdown and increasing public resentment over the coalition’s failure to control the pandemic.

I left New York on March 14, 2020, having “closed the doors” of the last art museum open in town, to start a two-week self-quarantine in Tel Aviv. However, everybody was soon ordered to stay within a 100 meters of home. For over two months the country remained under strict rules of lockdown, a soundless atmosphere reminiscent of the Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). Only supermarkets and other emergency services remained open. Working from home and teaching online allowed for some normal business, employment, and educational activities. Initially, two specific sites were assumed to be critical hotbeds of the virus: senior sheltered compounds, and ultra-orthodox neighborhoods. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quite different in character from his close ally, Donald Trump, appeared daily on all prime-time evening news channels, informing the nation at length of the grim prospects awaiting them as well as of their present remarkable achievements in comparison with other countries. The government issued a plan to partly compensate employees who lost their jobs, but left a wide range of self-employed and other professional and business operators with little or no solution.

The coronavirus management is not free of continuing current debates

In reality, efforts to address the spread of COVID-19 were totally controlled by the prime minister, supported by the subservient Ministry of Health’s general director (an economist), with little effort to engage with medical and other leading experts. The lockdown coincided with hectic political circumstances following three national election campaigns within a year, and under the shadow of public tensions surrounding the lawsuits indicting the prime minister of financial wrongdoings. Moreover, the political arena dominated by right-wing parties was pressured by time  constraints to take advantage of the Trump “peace plan” permitting annexation of Palestinian territories in the West Bank. The “corona coalition government” that included the Blue and White opposition central party, however, had little impact on plague management. The pandemic control administration seemed to many observers as deeply intertwined with the politics of the day, thus boosting the prime minister’s standing in public opinion as a national savior.

Indeed, the strict closure of most commercial, educational, entertainment and other public activities resulted in a notable decrease in the spread of COVID-19. With signs of reopening after two to three months, however, the public began to refuse to follow strict rules of social distancing, and growing resentment also emerged from those badly affected by the economic devastation. This included a wide spectrum of business, arts and nonprofit ventures, and about a million citizens unemployed and mostly not supported by the state. Within a few weeks of the rules of distancing being relaxed, the virus returned with full force! Consequently, despite earlier claims that the pandemic had been defeated and the borders (including the skies) reopened, Israel soon lost its privileged “healthy” status. It joined the company of stigmatized countries, with Israeli citizens banned from entering “healthy” (“green”) countries. Trying to reverse the scary return of the plague, the government re-closed or severely limited the scope of participation in public activities (restaurants, clubs, weddings, synagogues, theaters, gyms, etc.). It also increased the fines for misconduct in public, particularly for not wearing face-masks.

As I record these events in early July, the public mood is becoming openly vehement about the vacillating security tactics and the government figures engaged in combating the coronavirus.  The so-called corona coalition government includes 36 ministers and 15 sub-ministers, a political machine built to satisfy the coalition partners (Likud, Blue and White, Ashkenazi and Sephardi religious parties, and small sectorial parties). That emergency “wartime” political alliance exhibits an immense waste of public resources and blatant cynicism at a time of growing unemployment and clear signs of poverty among particular at-risk groups. Public anger and loss of faith reached a climax when a minister without portfolio (an invented task as part of the coalition partnership bargain), a close associate of the prime minister, declared in particularly offensive terms in a TV interview that claims of starvation among Israeli citizens are pure nonsense.

The “corona coalition government,” however, had little impact on plague management.

There is no doubt, Israeli society is deeply divided in daily life. Particularly evident are right-wingers (including settlers in the West Bank) versus left-wingers (concerning options of peace and borders alongside a Palestinian state), secular versus religious groups (of different shades), Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, and Jewish versus Arab citizens. The coronavirus management is not free of continuing current debates such as annexation plans, or from real social divisions such as different family lifestyles or the daily comportment of the ultra-orthodox (haredim) in public places like synagogues and Yeshiva schools. Finally, a highly politicized society is confronting an unexpected elusive enemy that seems to overshadow its routine battleground, engaging external, seemingly threatening adversary forces combined with internal acute social, ideological, and cultural divisions. A recent event epitomizes the tense present-day social-political atmosphere in Israel. The minister of higher education (another new portfolio invented by the coalition and separate from the Ministry of Education), a Likud party member, started dictating the management personnel of the Federation of Academic Institutions. In response the acting chair, president of Haifa University, resigned, issuing a warning letter entitled “Turkey is Here,” referring to Erdogan’s undemocratic regime (July 14).

At this time, one cannot predict the script of the ensuing coronavirus drama….

Moshe Shokeid is professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

Cite as: Shokeid, Moshe. 2020. “Coronavirus Days in Tel Aviv.” Anthropology News website, September 25, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1508

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Kol hakvod (all due honor) to Moshe for his insightful report on the current situation in Israel!

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