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A woman wearing a protective mask watches the Mediterranean sea in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2020.JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
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In Israel, Stiff Upper Lips and Gallows Humor Greet the Coronavirus

Forget toilet paper or hand sanitizer: In Tel Aviv, it’s take-out pizza and weed.

by
Dana Kessler
March 19, 2020
JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images
A woman wearing a protective mask watches the Mediterranean sea in Tel Aviv on March 18, 2020.JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Here in Israel, we are in semi-lockdown at the moment, with the threat of total lockdown looming. And the weird thing is that every time a high-pitched motorcycle whizzes by, our hearts stop for a millisecond, falsely anticipating the sirens to go off.

For Israelis, the combination of staying at home, obsessively listening to the news, and constantly feeling a nagging uncertainty and some sort of underlying dread is strangely familiar—even though we know it from somewhere else. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we anticipate the sirens and the missiles. The biggest difference is that during coronavirus-lockdown you can stay in your old and smelly pajamas, because you won’t need to run outside and meet all your neighbors on the stairwell or in the bomb shelter. Oh, and instead of wearing gas masks, people on the streets are sporting surgical face masks like they’re about to operate.

Fashion aside, coronavirus lockdown is pretty similar to good-ol’ Israeli wartime. And like during war time, keeping morale up, or at least keeping appearances up, is of utmost importance. Israeli old folks, who are a high-risk group, are the most undeterred. As opposed to young people who feel personally betrayed for not being able to go bar-hopping, the elderly know very well that they were never promised a rose garden. Holocaust survivors especially laugh coronavirus in the face. If you ask them—they survived hell and got this far, a little virus from China sure won’t kill them. In fact, many Israelis are much more worried about their friends and family abroad than the ones here: I heard a lady at the post office asking if she can mail a bottle of Alcogel Gel hand sanitizer to the States.

Things are changing daily. At the moment the most pressing concern for many is the financial one. People holding jobs in which one can work from home are the lucky ones—even if they have kids screaming in their ears and pouring yogurt on them while they are trying to conduct an online team meeting from the bedroom. The rest are experiencing furloughs and layoffs and facing a lot of uncertainty. And uncertainty is prevalent these days, not only around our financial future. People have lots of questions. All the time. They don’t know how many packs of toilet paper to get, they don’t know the level of humiliation they’ll feel when someone actually sees them opening the front door using their elbow, and if, after all this is over, they’ll get fined for their over-due library books or not.

Whether people are worried about their health or their ability to pay the rent, in a Jewish state this dire situation will obviously be exploited by some to put across their religious worldview. A Haredi journalist tweeted that Netanyahu started to lay Tefillin to stop the plague, and another guy blasted Shema Yisrael from his quarantined window in Rosh Ha’ayin to paraphrase the Italian balcony singing. On the other hand, a pretty amusing meme of Yaakov Litzman, Israel’s Haredi Minister of Health, wearing a giant toilet paper roll on his head instead of a shtreimel is making the rounds, to balance things out.

Litzman’s toilet paper hat is a reminder that unlike past crises, coronavirus is a digital age crisis. If a large part of day-to-day communication, in normal times, is done on social media, during social distancing this practice is naturally elevated to the max. And what do Israelis say about coronavirus on social media? The usual: bad jokes and bad memes. The fact that the Ministry of Health makes public all the locations that each infected individual has visited gave birth to a recurring online joke: “I’m just going to the public library for a bit so that people won’t think I’m an idiot if I’ll have to publicize where I went.”

In addition to endless not-so-clever comic relief, Israelis are also using social media—as per usual—for rants against Bibi Netanyahu. Granted, Netanyahu hasn’t handled the coronavirus outbreak quite as badly as Trump, but in liberal circles, people are shocked and appalled by his digital surveillance program designed to track the movements of infected citizens via their cell phones. Deeming this controversial would be an understatement, especially considering the non-democratic way it was done, like a burglary, under the cover of darkness, and without the approval of the Knesset.

Many of the online jokes, as well as the complaints toward governmental decisions, have to do with the current life of parents of young children. Schools and kindergartens are closed until at least the end of the Passover vacation, in mid-April, and the kids are at home. The evening it was announced that school’s out, a new meme circulated parents’ Whatsapp groups: “Wait a minute, they’re closing the schools with the kids inside, right?” Wrong. The kids are at home, but they’re not on vacation; they’re practicing what is known as distance learning. This means they’re hogging the computer. If one household has more than one kid in school and possesses a number of computers smaller than that amount of children plus the number of adults that need to work from home, they’re in big trouble. And since this whole distance learning business is a new concept, to teachers and pupils alike, the ones having to figure it all out—like why is the geometry website down—are the parents. Like we don’t have enough on our plates.

All things considered, Israelis seem to be handling the crisis pretty well. Between Netflix, online yoga classes, and art-projects with the kids, some are actually enjoying this time off. The fact that they are exempt from Shabbat dinner with the in-laws is often just a bonus. Being used to hardship, Israelis know how to keep sane and cheerful in these troubled times. Many stock up on weed instead of toilet paper. And while the country imposed bans on mass gatherings, people cancel self-imposed bans—on alcohol, cigarettes, and carbs. During coronavirus, all bets are off. Israelis know that in a time like this they should do whatever gets them through the night. If that means a marathon of illegally downloaded movies and take-away pizza (delivery is still allowed at the moment), then so be it.

Israelis like to complain about the little things. They like to bitch and whine. Generally speaking, most of them are probably not as worried of the potential danger of contracting the virus, as much as they are bummed out by the sacrifices that need to be made. But this is not going to last forever. And after all of this is over, Israel is expecting a post-coronavirus baby-boom, plus a long line at the rabbinical courts to get a divorce.

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.

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