Lenny Ben-David

Resilience — Israel’s Reaction to Covid-19 Plague

This American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU) arrived in Palestine in 1918 (Joint archives)
This American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU) arrived in Palestine in 1918 (Joint archives)

Will Israel apply lessons from fighting the first wave of the disease to the second?

A version of this article appeared in The Jewish Policy Center’s InFocus quarterly

The first wave of the Covid-19 hit Israel in February when a passenger from the Diamond Princess ship in Japan returned to Israel. By March 11, Israel began social distancing and other restrictions. Israeli ministries and the army responded with alacrity and effectiveness. However, relaxation of restrictions on public gatherings, schools, and restaurants came too early, and Israel is now in the midst of Covid-19’s second wave. Realizing that, Israel’s response and public behavior should again be characterized by resilience.

The following was first written in June:

The Mayo Clinic provides a definition of “psychological resilience” that is appropriate for Israel.

“The ability to adapt to difficult situations. When stress, adversity, or trauma strikes, you still experience anger, grief, and pain, but you’re able to keep functioning — both physically and psychologically.”

While the Mayo Clinic adds to its definition that resilience also requires the ability to seek help, Israel has added a new feature: the ability to offer help, take the offensive, improvise, muster human and financial resources, and defeat the adversity.

Yes, those actions sound like they apply to battlefield emergencies. Indeed, they have been applied for such military purposes as developing the Arrow and Iron Dome missile defense systems, investing in cyber defenses and offenses, designing the Merkava tank and its reactive and active defenses, and more. But the threat of and response to the invading Coronavirus required the same resilience and early responses in closing borders, quarantining likely carriers, establishing field hospitals, training staff, and employing the Mossad to secure vital medical supplies. Israel deployed IDF troops to close infected neighborhoods, create hostels for Covid-19 patients who did not require hospitalization, deliver supplies to elderly shut-ins, and even babysit for the children of essential healthcare workers.  Immediately, IDF and government-sponsored laboratories were redirected to design and build emergency respirators and hospital robots for patient care. Laboratories were reassigned to research possible vaccines.

IDF naval commandos redeployed to check readiness of hospital oxygen tanks.(IDF Spokesperson’s office)

Obviously, “resiliency” is the most important word to describe the Jewish People immediately after the Holocaust. Defiance, vengefulness, heroism are also apt descriptions, but not one of those words by itself can explain the formation of a Jewish state only three years after World War I better than the Jewish People’s “resiliency.”

 The History of Complacency and Resiliency in Palestine

The contradictory traits of resiliency and complacency were exhibited during the near eradication of the Jews of Palestine in the early 20th century.  They were ravaged by a locust plague, starvation, malaria, cholera, typhus, expulsion, and the Ottomans forced conscription, cruelty, and persecution that bordered on a repeat of the Armenian genocide.  Epidemics were spread by the deployment of disease-carrying Turkish troops throughout the Middle East, and the diseases struck the Jewish populations hard.  In Jerusalem, the situation was so desperate that hundreds of Jewish women, desperate for food and care for their children, and not knowing the fate of their husbands, turned to prostitution and, as one historian has written, “went to the wrong with German and Turkish troops.”

A Turkish military hospital in Magdabah, Sinai, 1916, (Library of Congress).

It is evident that the epidemics of 100 years ago were spread by the movement of Turkish armies across the region. “Widespread epidemics consumed Ottoman soldiers and civilians alike during the Great War.” contended Prof. Melanie Schulze-Tanielian of the University of Michigan. “The fact that soldiers often had to march to and from the front made it difficult for Ottoman sanitary officials to maintain adequate hygiene.  It was during these marches that soldiers would at random mingle with civilians, picking up or leaving behind germs and microbes…”

German General Otto Liman von Sanders, who would command the Turkish-German forces in Palestine during World War I, reported on the medical state of “poor or even non-existing hygiene, vermin infestations, and rampant sicknesses among the troops. There were no bathing facilities in the barracks; military hospitals were in an appalling state. A permeating stench and overwhelming dirt met him as he entered overcrowded hospital rooms. There was no separation between patients with physical injuries and those infected with diseases; men slept in the same beds or crowded on the floor.”

Von Sanders was faced with the complacency and carelessness of the Ottoman army. His suggestions to the Ottoman military command to improve the health crisis were “ignored, evaded, or met with outright resistance from higher officers of the military,” according to Prof.  Schulze-Tanielian.

Ḥemdah Ben-Yehudah, the wife of the pioneering Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, provided further details on the situation in Jerusalem, in her article, Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future, a 1918 volume of eyewitness essays:

“Ten-thousand Jews left Jerusalem in one week. The streets were filled with the exiles who had no carriages and conveyed their baggage on their own backs. Most of the houses were closed because the inhabitants were dead, or deported, exiled, or in prison. Deserted were the streets. The women kept house underground; but there was little food to prepare. They had forgotten the appearance of a loaf of bread. The babies died for lack of milk.”

Some 3,000 orphans were wandering the streets of Jerusalem out of a community of 26,000 people, according to writer, Chen Malul, of the National Library of Israel.

Almost miraculously, according to Mrs. Ben-Yehuda, the British army’s arrived in Jerusalem on Chanukah Eve, 1917.  She related the resiliency of Jerusalem’s remaining population that she witnessed as –

“…an impulse of life after the reign of death. The first to obey this overwhelming impulse were Jewish youths, the remnant that had been concealed hidden like the seed in the earth and had thus escaped the general persecution. These young men demanded the privilege of fighting side by side with the English, in the conquest of their own country. Their desire was granted. A battalion of native Jews was immediately enlisted, and the [numbers of] recruits increased.”

Jewish recruits in Jerusalem, summer 1918. (Imperial War Museum)

Other Jewish units arrived from overseas, including volunteer units to the Jewish Brigades in the British Army as well as volunteer medical teams from the groups such as Hadassah and the American Joint Distribution Committee.

This American Zionist Medical Unit (AZMU) arrived in Palestine in 1918 (Joint archives)

But the resilience of the Jewish community was not found in other communities in Palestine recovering from disease and war.  Contrast these two pictures of children of Jerusalem taken in 1918.

A group of the 600 orphans cared for by the Red Cross in Jerusalem in 1918. “Their fathers and mothers had died from typhus, dysentery, malaria, and exhaustion.” (Red Cross, Library of Congress).

On the other hand, researcher Ella Ayalon of Tel Aviv University, who wrote on the crisis of Jewish orphans after World War I, reported, “The [Jewish] Palestine Orphan Committee followed a progressive agenda and aspired to place the children under its care with families, and not in an orphanage.”

Jewish children of Jerusalem returning to the Old City from the Tomb of Simon the Just on the festival of Lag B’Omer, April 1918 (Library of Congress, colorized by the author). Certainly, orphans were among them.


How did the Jews of Eretz Yisrael recover and move forward after World War I, the Holocaust, the War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War, and all the other crises such as the Coronavirus epidemic?  I suggest a trait of resilience in their DNA or psyche.

I once had a discussion on religion with I. L. (Si) Kenen, the founder of AIPAC and my mentor. Si was notoriously non-religious, so much so that the office closed only for one day on Rosh Hashana and on Yom Kippur.  “I don’t believe in God,” he told me.

Si Kenen and the author

“What do you believe in?” I asked.

Si responded, “I believe in the destiny of Israel.”

“Si, You’re no less religious than me,” I answered. “We just call it different things.”

Today, I call it resiliency.

About the Author
Lenny Ben-David served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. He is a public affairs consultant, writer, researcher, editor, and historian of early photographs. Ben-David is the author of "American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs." He worked for AIPAC for 25 years in Washington and Jerusalem.
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