JERUSALEM – Amid rising political protest over lockdowns, Israel is struggling to get back to work, as some health officials warn of a possible “second wave” of COVID-19 after reports of about 200 people contracting the virus.
But the figures belie a really mixed message, because the total death rate – 302 – has increased by one in the last week, and the number of serious cases requiring ventilators has also not moved.
“The numbers are rising again,” asserted Dr. Sigal Sidletzki of the Health Ministry, “but I have to admit we do not completely understand the phenomenon.” She has championed a hard-line approach, supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, that is now under attack by several cabinet ministers.
Many Israelis now wear masks infrequently, especially in Tel Aviv – evidence of “virus fatigue.” One of the ironies is that Haredi communities, slow to adhere to regulations and hard-hit by virus casualties, are now sticking to mask-wearing, almost religiously. On a deeper level, there is a sense that government health edicts have been inconsistent and often draconian, while government aid has been fitful and ineffective.
Most Israelis agree that early social distancing, border closing and lockdowns were justified, keeping a low death rate (3 per 100,000 population, versus 10 or 20 times that rate in the U.S. and Britain). Doctors are not sure but they believe that early action and popular self-discipline, together with a relatively young population and relatively warm weather, may have all combined with the grace of God to produce fewer deaths.
Now, however, the population wants to move on.
The country has gotten so healthy that some hospitals have closed their COVID-19 treatment wards, but there has been a small spike of new cases – very mild cases – reported in some schools in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, spurring some officials to insist that most schools stay closed for the foreseeable future, angering many parents who cannot go to work if they have to watch their children at home. School will likely close in early July – but not because of the coronavirus but due to ongoing turf fights with teacher unions. Still, the parents are not alone in the their frustration.
“I don’t understand why there can be weddings with 250 people, but theaters have to remain closed,” asserted a leading theater manager as he led a sit-down on a highway entrance to Jerusalem last week.
Independent small-business owners have actually formed their own new political party to protest the Finance Ministry’s apparent insensitivity to their plight, calling themselves Ha-Shulmanim, or The Shulmans, a reference to an Israeli joke about a guy named Shulman who always gets stuck paying the bill. Early polls show the party could easily garner five to six Knesset seats, and politicians are beginning to take them seriously.
Israel’s economy has been the envy of the world (including OECD powerhouses like the U.S. and Germany) with high growth and low unemployment, and the shekel has held its own against foreign currencies. However, in the first quarter of the year, after the virus struck, unemployment soared 7 percent. Some officials say that as many as one in four Israelis are out of work as employers have furloughed staffs on unpaid leave.
The national airline, El Al, which was suffering before the health crisis, may be forced to close its doors or totally restructure as part of a government bailout. Most of its 6,500 employees are at home and unpaid, and there does not seem much chance for change, as El Al operates mostly as a freight mover.
Despite the lingering problems, there is a general sense of optimism and a realization that Israel has handled its affairs better than almost any other Western democracy, and this perception is reinforced by immigration figures from the U.S. showing a doubling of monthly “Israel-ation” – immigration to Israel commonly known by the Hebrew word: Aliya.
In addition to new arrivals, there has already been a noted phenomenon of Israelis who want to repatriate.
“There is a strong sense that many Israelis living abroad want to come home,” immigration officials told the Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, adding that Israelis living on the East and West Coasts of the U.S. were shocked by the relatively poor government response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This negative mood has deepened with violent disturbances in many American cities.
Dr. Michael Widlanski is author of “Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat.” He was strategic affairs advisor in Israel ’s Ministry of Public Security, editing captured PLO documents. Earlier he advised Israeli negotiation teams at the Madrid and Washington talks in 1991-92.