Claire Trilling

Shared Society During a Global Pandemic

The Abraham Initiatives hosted an online screening of the bilingual play “Shmulikipod” from the Elmina Theatre for 1,050 Jewish and Arab students as a part of the Shared Learning program.

While much of my volunteering in Lod has slowed down or come to a halt in the two weeks since Israel closed schools and moved into isolation, work for my internship with The Abraham Initiatives has only picked up. In addition to continuing with their other shared society projects, The Abraham Initiatives has been focusing on how social gaps and inequalities have left Arab society particularly vulnerable to the spread and impacts of COVID-19. With more time to spend on my internship, I’ve had the space to reflect on the importance of shared society work. Across my experiences in Israel, I’ve been confronted with the idea that shared society work is unnecessary or secondary to other issues. I’ve had my interest in it dismissed as a leftist luxury or a bleeding-heart pursuit. With the spread of COVID-19, however, the need for shared society and equality work is becoming brutally clear. A virus doesn’t care if someone is Arab or Jewish, only that they have human cells. An Arab and a Jewish citizen who have never exchanged words can still share the virus with one another if they shop at the same supermarket or stop at the same gas station. In a time of pandemic, as long as Arab society remains in a situation of increased vulnerability, so too does the rest of the Israeli population.

The reason for this heightened vulnerability lies in a combination of cultural, economic, and political factors that make it more challenging to flatten the curve of infection. An emphasis on family ties in Arab society means that Arab citizens tend to have larger families that live closer together, interact more regularly, and gather in big groups for important events more frequently. Social distancing practices require a major shift in daily life for many Arab citizens and are therefore likely to take longer to be adopted. On an economic level, higher poverty rates in Arab society may lead Arab workers to continue leaving the house in order to provide for their families, leaving them at higher risk of infection. Economic inequalities also play out in the technological realm, as those without access to digital technologies or strong Internet service can’t rely on online shopping or remote employment, making it more of a necessity to leave the house. The digital gap also impacts Arab citizens’ access to online educational materials or social media platforms that might alleviate the mental toll of isolation.

On the political side, mistrust in the national government poses a major barrier to effective protective measures for Arab society. A long history of feeling neglected and attacked by the Israeli government has created deep mistrust towards national leadership, which makes Arab citizens less inclined to adhere to public health regulations. The inflammatory and inciteful comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against Arab society during the last election cycle only further exacerbates these tensions and undermines the government’s ability to enact unifying protective measures. In addition to mistrust, emergency preparedness for Arab communities is far less developed than it is for the rest of Israeli society. Since emergency preparedness in Israel usually revolves around security threats and regional conflicts, emergency services and procedures have tended to view Arab society as less threatened, if not as a part of the threat itself. As a result, emergency procedures and infrastructure for Arab society are far less prepared to respond to the outbreak and consequences of COVID-19. Crisis management efforts are further inhibited by weak local governments. In many Arab towns, tribal conflicts weaken local authorities’ ability to carry out routine governance, let alone crisis management. From a national to local level, underlying political issues have led to a higher risk situation for Arab populations with regard to COVID-19.

The more I researched the current COVID-19 situation for Arab society, the more familiar the underlying causes felt. The risks, challenges, and inequalities facing Arab society at a moment of global pandemic are, for the most part, nothing new. On the contrary, the underlying issues preventing an effective response to COVID-19 are some of the very same issues that have left Arab citizens vulnerable in the face of a number of threats. Underdeveloped infrastructure in Arab localities has continuously meant greater damage from flooding. Both mistrust in state authorities and weak local governance have been barriers to tackling crime and violence in Arab society. A lack of emergency preparedness has left Bedouin towns more vulnerable to rocket attacks during wars with Gaza. With these realities in mind, I can’t help wondering, if these same inequalities and issues had already been addressed, would the spread and impact of COVID-19 be far less threatening for Arab society today?

I am hopeful that this crisis could have a positive impact on people’s understanding of the need to address these inequalities and work towards shared society in Israel. While connecting the dots between how other issues in Arab society have a negative impact on Israeli society at large, the nature of a pandemic makes it clear how inequalities are deeply relevant to the entire population. Social divides, whether along lines of ethnicity, religion, or class, can make us feel and act like we live in entirely separate worlds from those around us. The outbreak of COVID-19 reminds us how deeply interconnected all of our lives actually are, for better or worse. When forced to confront our common reality, the question becomes one of how to go about sharing this world – and that’s precisely the question that shared society organizations like The Abraham Initiatives are already answering.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in Israel, The Abraham Initiatives has sent out analyses and recommendations to the Home Front Command and Ministry of Education about how best to combat the virus within Arab society. The Safe Communities Initiative has begun mapping community needs and carrying out a public awareness campaign targeting Arab society. Another social media campaign is highlighting the positive results of mixed Arab-Jewish hospital staffs, who continue acting out shared society values on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19. The Abraham Initiatives is also looking beyond this crisis. By continuing with Arabic lessons for Hebrew-speaking journalists, media can become a shared space, one that better reaches and represents Arab society in Israel. By continuing with shared learning initiatives for schools and pre-army academies, future generations will understand the importance of shared society and have stronger Arab-Jewish relations. My personal hope is that this time of isolation and quarantine may, somewhat ironically, give people a greater understanding and appreciation for our shared reality and the need to build shared society.

Click here for more information about The Abraham Initiatives response to COVID-19.


About the Author
Claire graduated from Tufts University in 2019 with a B.A. in International Relations and Anthropology. She is currently living in Lod, Israel as a Yahel Social Change Fellow, where she teaches English at a local elementary school and works at an after school program for at-risk youth. Claire is also an intern with the Abraham Initiatives, a non-profit organization that seeks to build shared society and promote political and social equality for both Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel.
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