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Under siege but not alone

Israel faces crucial political tests in a pandemic

Under siege but not alone

An Israeli medical worker wearing protective gear takes a swab from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man for a coronavirus test, as part of the government’s measures to stop the spread of the virus, in the orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a suburb of Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Within hours late Wednesday, Israel recorded five new deaths from the coronavirus, then by midday Thursday seven more, bringing to 33 the number who have died since the virus reached the country with its first recorded case on Feb. 21. 

For an affluent democracy accustomed to crisis, and with one of the best health systems in the Middle East, the tiny Jewish nation is taking an outsized hit from COVID-19. The number of cases in Israel topped 6,000 this week. At 704 cases per 1 million people, it’s currently the largest per capita rate of infection in the world outside of Europe. For comparison, hard-hit Iran has 567 cases per 1 million people, and the United States—now with the most reported cases in the world—tallies 636 confirmed cases per 1 million people.

Most of Israel’s deaths have been elderly victims with underlying medical conditions, but on Tuesday a 49-year-old single mother became the youngest Israeli to die of the disease. On Wednesday—with more than 700 new cases reported in a nation that’s roughly the size of New Jersey—a 5-week-old baby in Galilee also tested positive, becoming the youngest person in the world known to have the virus.

Concerned about the spread, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new restrictions in a televised address Wednesday night aimed at preparing Israelis for upcoming religious events. Israel this month enters its peak holiday season for Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Passover begins April 8, Easter is April 12, and Ramadan starts April 23. 

In a stark departure from tradition, Netanyahu said Jews must mark Passover “with the nuclear family only,” warning that including elderly relatives would “endanger them.” 

Netanyahu said the same restrictions will apply to Christians celebrating Easter and Muslims during Ramadan, the one-month season of dawn-to-dusk fasting and overnight feasting. 

Netanyahu instructed all Israelis to begin wearing surgical-type masks in public. He also announced a $22 billion economic stimulus to offset unemployment nearing 24 percent. The package includes a “Passover gift” of 500 shekels each (about $140) per child and for elderly Israelis. 

Israel for nearly a month has been on an unprecedented lockdown, with businesses and landmarks shuttered and only essential work and excursions allowed. Gatherings of more than two people, except in families, are prohibited. A March 9 order by Netanyahu, quarantining for 14 days anyone entering the country, brought tourism to a halt. 

The Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock are closed. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre—believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion—has closed indefinitely, the first time since the bubonic plague outbreak in 1349. In Bethlehem, officials closed the Church of the Nativity and banned tourists from entering the city. 

“This is what Israel feels like when it is at war,” said Israeli author and scholar Yossi Klein Halevi. “We are under siege, and for the first time we don’t feel alone. The whole world is going through this.”

Israelis may be accustomed to crisis, but a global health emergency hits Israel amid perhaps the most consequential political crisis in its 70-year history. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu awaits trial on corruption charges and is under indictment for bribery and breach of trust. Yet he continues to lead the Likud Party’s rightist bloc. Israelis have been to the polls three times in the past year as his embattled government has struggled to hold onto power in a parliamentary system. They may be forced to vote yet again, as the most recent election on March 2 ended in another stalemate.

Netanyahu’s Likud bloc has played tug-of-war with its centrist rival, the Blue and White bloc led by Benny Gantz, with neither able to form a governing majority. On March 26 Israel’s High Court stepped in to appoint a temporary speaker of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and to order the election of a new speaker. Then Gantz abruptly announced he would run for speaker and won that election as part of an “emergency” government of national unity under Netanyahu. That move quickly threatened the breakup of the Blue and White bloc, a situation likely to hasten another election.

Many Israelis believe Netanyahu “has held the system hostage to his legal situation,” said Halevi, speaking from his home in Jerusalem during an online briefing sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs on March 27. “It’s the worst crisis in Israeli history, and it’s happening in the middle of a pandemic.”

AP Photo/Ariel Schalit

Israel Health Minister Yaakov Litzman delivers a statement as he visits a makeshift tent for quarantined coronavirus voters in Tel Aviv, Israel. Litzman, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials, has the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The prime minister, completing his own self-quarantine this week after exposure to the coronavirus through an adviser, has postponed his own trial by suspending the lower courts due to the health emergency. Early Thursday morning, Israelis learned that Netanyahu’s health minister, 71-year-old Yaakov Litzman, tested positive for the coronavirus, along with his wife. Litzman is the most senior member of the government to contract the virus, and he has played a prominent role in managing the pandemic alongside Netanyahu.

Litzman is also an ultra-Orthodox Jew and part of a community that pushed to delay enacting stringent measures to fight the coronavirus spread. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis last month continued to direct weddings, funerals, and bar mitzvahs despite restrictions on group gatherings. Their enclaves typically are close-knit with large families. The ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak community outside Tel Aviv saw its cases more than double to 723 residents this week. In his Wednesday speech, Netanyahu announced a blockade of sorts on Bnei Brak, limiting travel to and from the area.

“This is an apocalyptic moment” for Israel, as it is for much of the world, said Halevi. He described a scene in his own living room last week, where a healthcare worker wrapped in white protective gear and wearing a helmet showed up to test his son for the coronavirus. “But Jewish people have already been through an apocalypse,” he continued. “We thought 1945 was the end of the Jewish people. And so we will draw on our history. We know we have the fortitude to get through this.”

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.