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Corona in Jerusalem: What story will we tell?

The morning after Israel’s first non-military emergency, will we awake even more divided against ourselves or remember we were all in this together?
(Illustration by Avi Katz)
(Illustration by Avi Katz)

In times of trouble the Jewish mind turns to memory for precedent and guidance. And in a way, we’ve been here before. The emptied streets, the confinement to small spaces: Israelis recall the terrifying days of the Gulf War of early 1991, when Saddam Hussein threatened us with chemical attack. Sleepless nights interrupted by sirens; the ritual gathering in the “sealed room,” windows covered with plastic and wet cloth laid under the door; young parents forcing gas masks onto small children and placing the smallest in plastic-covered cribs fitted with filters.

And yet that memory seems inadequate for this time. The dread was real enough, but the actual threat almost farcical. Saddam did fire 39 Scud rockets at Tel Aviv and Haifa. (Of course we remember the number; we’re still counting the Egyptian plagues.) But those Scuds were merely big and clumsy, laughable compared to the tens of thousands of precision missiles now aimed at our cities. In six weeks of national shutdown, a single Israeli was killed. More Israelis died of suffocation by forgetting to remove the plug over their gas mask filter than were killed by Scuds.

We were released from sporadic confinement by the end of the Gulf War, which happened to fall on Purim, holiday of reprieve from threat. The Jewish imagination didn’t need to work too hard on Purim 1991.

There will be no Purim at the end of Corona, only the permanent imprint of our vulnerability. We dread a more brutalized world that could emerge from our mass confinement. After all, what did Israelis learn from our existential Purim play? To be kinder and gentler to each other? Hardly. The Gulf War was followed by the Oslo process, the tearing apart of Israeli society, the assassination of a prime minister. Perhaps the experience of going through a war separated from each other in our sealed rooms accelerated that breakdown of our most minimal sense of commonality.

Jews remember not for the sake of memory alone but for meaning. The Israeli experience of the Gulf War is so troubling as memory precisely because it seems to offer no lessons, merely lingering as suppressed trauma.

But perhaps there is some comfort even in that seemingly useless memory. One of the advantages of ancient memory is the reassurance that, no matter what happens, there always is a morning after. The comfort of memory is memory itself, turning threat into story. (That is one definition of Jewishness.) And of course, the memory of endurance offers the reassurance of precedence.

The second memory to which the Israeli mind returns in the time of Corona is the Second Intifada, the four years of suicide bombings that followed the collapse of the peace process. Israel entered the 21st century with the shattering of its hopes – its illusions – about peace.

And with the loss of our public spaces. Once again we were confined to our homes, this time not because of government order but dread. Congregating with too many of our fellow citizens, we knew, could attract a suicide killer. And so our restaurants and cafes and theaters gradually emptied. And only those with no choice rode public transportation.

We internalized the logic of the terrorists, trying to outwit their intent. When we managed to overcome our fear and venture out to a restaurant or café, we debated which was safer: a small intimate spot which couldn’t afford to hire a security guard but which was unlikely to be targeted by a bomber, or a larger restaurant with a guard at the door but which was also a more tempting target?

The Second Intifada permanently transformed us. Our politics turned wary, hard. Even now, two decades later, when I board a bus, I still find myself imagining explosion. And yet there is also the bracing memory of resilience. In the end we defeated the Second Intifada, by a combination of military daring and civilian courage. Even before the army figured out how to fight that war, we won by reclaiming our public spaces, refusing in the end to yield to fear.

Those tactics of course are useless now, when survival requires the abandonment of shared space, of foolish acts of bravado. And so, again, the limitations of memory.

And yet I remember the time of the suicide bombings as that moment when Israeli society began to come together again after the bitter divide of the Oslo years, began to recall its commonality. I remember too a time of intense prayer, of surrender to our mortality. “There is no one on whom to depend,” read a popular bumper sticker of the time, “except on our Father in Heaven.” Acute spiritual longing emerged among Israelis, that most pragmatic of peoples, best expressed by our musicians, who began the improbable but intensely rich fusion of rock and traditional prayer that transformed Israeli identity, realigning us with the centuries of Diaspora culture that secular Zionism tried to displace.

What Israel will emerge from this time of dread – of random death, economic devastation, political upheaval? Will the new emergency measures of mass technological surveillance become the new norm? Will our democratic institutions, already under internal assault, survive the erosion of trust?

Or might our democracy be strengthened by the commonality of threat suddenly shared by Arabs and Jews? This is, after all, Israel’s first security threat that isn’t coming from our borders and aimed at our existence as a Jewish state. Our first “civic” emergency.

Corona coincides with the first real attempts to include Arab Israelis in the political mainstream. The cautious dance between the Blue and White party and the Arab United List is fraught with mutual ambivalence. There is good reason for Jews to be wary of a political party that includes supporters of terrorism, and which opposes Israel’s essential self-definition as a Jewish state. And yet, for the first time, there appears an opening, however slender, for some form of shared Israeli identity between Arabs and Jews.

There is a kind of justice in the convergence of that possibility with a time of medical emergency. Israel’s Arabs and Jews, after all, know each other most intimately in hospitals and clinics. We share our moments of birth, sickness, death. Twenty percent of Israeli doctors are Arabs; 30 percent of our nurses; 40 percent of our pharmacists. There is blessing, even in sickness.

And finally: What is the world that will emerge from Corona? Will it be even more divided against itself, or chastened by shared trauma? Corona, after all, imparts a paradoxical legacy. It has forced nations to shut their borders against outsiders and citizens to barricade themselves off from one another. And yet Corona is also the first truly universal experience of this time. We follow the rising numbers in Italy, the declining numbers in China. We are alone in our lockdowns, yet together with humanity.

What will we remember the morning after? Even as we internalize the indispensability of borders, will we also remember the experience of our oneness?

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.
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