How does Israel do it? Why can’t we?

How does Israel do it? Why can’t we?

Sociologist’s webinar explores differences between responses in Israel and the United States

Back in pre-pandemic times, Dr. Noa Lavie teaches in person at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. (NOA LAVIE)
Back in pre-pandemic times, Dr. Noa Lavie teaches in person at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo. (NOA LAVIE)

How is it possible that there have been more coronavirus deaths in Bergen County — by a factor of five — than in the entire state of Israel, which has nearly 10 times the population? How is it possible that while most of us expect to remain under lockdown for weeks or months more, our Israeli friends are sending their kids to school or going to the mall?

A Hebrew webinar I recently attended by Israeli sociologist Noa Lavie provided food for thought about why Israel’s results differ so starkly from our own, and added to my ever-growing pride in Israel’s achievements. I’m looking forward to listening again next week, when a version will be offered in English. (See box.) Dr. Lavie, a visiting professor at the University of Chicago this year, comes from the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, a hub of innovation whose graduates fuel the start-up nation. Her empathic insight and energetic style, which she seems to have gotten from her rock-star father, the singer and actor Arik Lavie, and her mother, the actress Shoshik Shani, earned her Israel’s national student union award for best lecturer in 2016.

Dr. Lavie specializes in media and often focuses on the working experience of ethnic and racial minorities in television, film and other cultural industries. She began her webinar with a review of some of the most difficult moral aspects of the virus. Society is built on interaction and trust, she said, and the new reality created by covid-19 eliminates both. Suddenly everyone is dangerous— foreigners, members of other ethnic or religious groups, even your beloved grandparents could infect and kill you.

The moral panic this creates deepens suspicion and prejudice, including anti-Semitism and anti-charedi sentiment. In both Israel and the United States, charedi areas suffered some of the highest rates of infection, whether from overcrowding, a delayed understanding of the dangers as a result of the community’s disengagement from much of the media, or its prioritizing ritual observance over social distancing. That lead to such police action as cordoning off B’nai Brak. Interweaving current examples with insights from diverse thinkers from Thomas Hobbes to Ulrich Beck, Dr. Lavie creates a framework for understanding the moral, emotional, and political implications of the current situation.

Our fears are exacerbated by a so-called infodemic, where fakes and frauds are amplified via social media and even mainstream media, which, desperate to provide information that is emerging at a speed far slower than the news cycle, tempts us with half truths that feed the chaos and confusion. Political leadership grows ever more divided, both here and in Israel, where three elections yielded no government. All that grounded us — state, religion, economics, and science — has been shattered, subject to doubt and reexamination as we attempt to rebuild.

Yet as divided as Israel may be, the nation once again has achieved astonishing success in overcoming a threat that has leveled most of the world. Compared to almost everywhere else, Israel’s infection, death, and recovery rates appear miraculous, as if the divine hand once again saved our people from a plague. Dr. Lavie gives us a set of alternate explanations, grounded in culture and society. Fundamentally, Israel’s history of facing persistent violent conflict has prepared it to face and fight external threats, Dr. Lavie said.

First, it has honed the country’s ability to react quickly. Its willingness to acknowledge, recognize, and respond to threats contributed to Israel’s effective and swift response. The United States had its first cases in January but did not begin shutting down for months. On March 14, Teaneck became the first municipality in New Jersey to request voluntary self-quarantining. Israel, by contrast, shut down all flights from hard-hit countries, including Italy, within days of its reporting its first known cases, and soon imposed mandatory quarantining rules. Systems were put in place immediately to identify potential carriers, test them, and if necessary isolate from family in quarantine hotels, with care and feeding provided by the state. Israel’s outcomes were improved further by central coordination, enabling it to create a national plan rather than a patchwork of local social distancing mandates.

Next, Israeli experience with military service and wartime response promotes acceptance of limits to individual freedom when they are ordered by a central authority. Techniques that have been effective against threats of rockets and terror, such as surveillance and curfew, were more easily accepted by Israelis than similar measures would be in the United States. Although Israel’s mandates were far more restrictive than ours — for example, limiting people’s outdoor activity to within 100 meters of their home — compliance was widespread, and protests of the type we have seen here were virtually nonexistent. A medical system that is prepared for quick response to trauma, and a relatively healthy (and younger) population with accessible health care also contributed to the favorable outcomes.

Last, and incredibly inspiring, Israelis have shown themselves amply prepared to accept personal sacrifices for the sake of a collective good. They care for each other in a time of need. Individualism is tempered by a sense of membership, what Dr. Lavie calls a “family ethos.” Pulling together, putting aside personal desires to respond to an outside threat, and treating all members of society as valuable and necessary, are values that actually saved lives. Our local community has many examples of such sacrifice, but the idea of an entire nation embracing this ethos remains an aspiration.

Many questions remain, including whether Israel will maintain its success after its recent reopening. How will the risk be borne by various segments of society? Will the the values of a crisis response be sustainable over what by all accounts will be many months if not years? I look forward to hearing Dr. Lavie’s answers, and to seeing Israel’s continued success in responding to the greatest threat to our way of life — and to our lives — that we ever have known.

Laura Fein, an attorney and consultant, is quarantining with her family in Teaneck.

Who: Dr. Noa Lavie of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo

What: Presents a webinar, with a Q&A session, called “Order and Chaos: The Israeli Coronavirus Response in a Time of Political Instability.”

When: On May 17 at 11 a.m. EDT

To register: