Ashley Rindsberg
Novelist & essayist.

How Meaning Helped Israel Beat Coronavirus

One of the stranger side-effects (so to speak) of the coronavirus pandemic is that big, sophisticated and wealthy nations like the US, UK, Italy and France have gotten hammered while the small, far less wealthy and generally much more chaotic State of Israel has been (in relative terms) unscathed. Why?

When we think of all the factors that would, intuitively, be major strengths in fighting the virus, we tend to think of things like money, infrastructure, and government efficiency. But, as we have seen with extremely countries that have extremely sophisticated economies and well developed infrastructure, such as the US (90,000 deaths and counting) and UK (35,000), that’s just not true.

Part of the problem is that is that our measurements can only take into account measurable things. But other factors are at least as important, if not more. In Israel’s case, meaning has played a huge role.

When you read reports like the ones put out by the Taub Center, or the government’s own State Comptroller reports, things don’t look so great in the Jewish State. Our infrastructure is inadequate. Education is declining. The health system (before the virus) had started to buckle. Corruption is high, transparency is low. That’s not a good state of affairs.

But what the outside world witnessed, and what we who live here already knew, is that Israelis possess a large store of something that’s not just hard to quantify, but to describe. It’s easier to think about it by way of examples.

In Israel, it’s unimaginable that someone might fall down on the street, or be involved in a car accident, and not see five, ten or more people race to them to help. And it’s perfectly imaginable that neighbors you might barely know would offer – wholeheartedly and with purity of intention – to take care of your kids in a pinch. I’ve never personally seen an older, disabled or pregnant person scrounge for a seat on the bus. Someone gets up immediately.

There are a million other cases, some tiny (the kids who put posters with rainbows painted with the words, “It’s going to be okay,” around Israeli neighborhoods during the crisis), some huge (the almost common stories of people donating organs to strangers). Either way, the pattern is there. Israelis live life motivated by a sense of meaning. Not just personal, private meaning—something that’s hard to come by on any continent and even harder to sustain—but collective meaning.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not about seeing public life in Israel through rose-tinted glasses. The frightening situation on the roads can only be characterized as an extreme  exercise of ego. In shops, government offices and just on a daily, general basis people here can suffer from emotional tunnel vision. The way we sometimes treat public places, including nature (the beaches, the parks, the Dead Sea!) is a national shonda. But in that other regard–namely, when it matters–Israelis are there for one another.

This is something unique to nations, or groups, that are deeply connected to a common purpose. By and large, people in Israel know why they’re here. There’s an ethos behind our existence, a point that goes far beyond living the good life. Sometimes, you see cars with large stickers on their rear windshields that read, in Hebrew, “I have no other land.” That’s one apt way of expressing the sentiment.

When the coronavirus struck, the notion of sacrificing personal freedoms for a little, or even long, while wasn’t particularly problematic. Everyone understood what was at stake. Our leaders, often and widely regarded by the public as cynical (if not inept), seemed to speak from a place of sincerity. We could put aside our biases for one second because the collective security of our citizens, residents and guests mattered more.

People like myself who have come to Israel from other places may sometimes gripe about the way things are here, versus back “there.” We don’t have Amazon funneling goods to us. Services are lackluster (to be kind). Prices are not exorbitant; they’re astronomical.

But in the crucible that is a pandemic, all these things—the cushions of life in the consumerist West—started to seem more like liabilities than strengths. And our hard-scrabble little country, with all its daily struggles and frustrations, which are as impactful for the native-born as the adoptive, revealed themselves in the form of a deep resiliency.

About the Author
Ashley Rindsberg is a novelist and essayist who lives in Israel's Emek Hefer region. You can read his fiction and other writing at www.ashleyrindsberg.com.
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