A friend who is a secular educator with the Charedi community in Bnei Barak has a fascinating tale to tell of the pandemic. When the disease hit social distancing rules were regarded for other Israelis, not them. Hashem would shield them. It didn’t quite work like that and they suffered.
The government had no choice but to step in to protect lives and well-being, and chosen first responders were the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Suffice it to say the IDF has never been popular in the Charedi community, which regards Torah study as a more rewarding activity than defending the realm. Since the earliest days of the Jewish state, some Charedim have been reluctant to serve in the military. But when crisis hit during the pandemic it was the IDF that sacrificed its own safety to come to the rescue.
It mobilised to help transport the sick to their medical appointments, provide sanitation and made sure some of the largest and least well off Jewish families received daily glatt kosher food and drink deliveries. The IDF were angels sent by God to shield them from hardship and disease. What has been a historically fraught relationship warmed beyond past experience.
The experience of Israel’s Charedi community was shared with Israel’s other less well-off minority, the Israeli-Arabs. Never has there been an emergency in Israel’s history more able to demonstrate the value of Israeli-Arabs to society than a health crisis. Arab citizens make up 20 percent of Israel’s population but, like Asian and other minorities in the UK, are over-represented in Israel’s health and care system.
Pharmacies are largely in Arab ownership. And in much the same way as Jews saw medicine (my son or daughter the doctor) as the way to advancement in Britain and the US, so it is for Arab families in Israel. Across Israel, some 20 percent of doctors are Israeli-Arabs, 25 percent of nurses and in some hospitals – in partcicular in Haifa and Jerusalem – they are in the majority or a serious minority. Working shoulder to shoulder with their Jewish counterparts during the pandemic has added to their status and acceptance in Israeli society considerably.
My attention was first drawn to this by an admiring article in the Financial Times some weeks ago. I and my colleagues at The Abraham Initiatives (TAI) in the UK, a charity that works for a shared society in Israel, have encouraged Zoom briefings for donors in Britain and other Jewish and Zionist organisations.
Those turning in will have been impressed by the roles played by Israeli-Arabs in the hospitals. But equally uplifting is the story of what has happened in Arab towns in the Galilee, in the Bedouin towns and unauthorised communities in the Negev.
If the IDF were verboten in Bnei Barak, they were viewed even more suspiciously in Arab towns. The Abraham Initiatives reached out to the IDF about how best to make sure medicine, food and whatever else was necessary was delivered to needy Arab towns. The advice was for commanders to talk to elected Arab mayors, MKs and other local leaders so that when the IDF arrived to help, they would not be seen as an invading force. Not only did good community relations flourish, but the disease was largely kept away from Israeli-Arabs with relatively low rates of infection.
A broader lesson of Covid-19 is that, in extremis, the military is often a lifesaver. In the UK, when distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators et al were a problem, the army provided logistics.
It also helped build the Nightingale hospitals to Chinese schedules. If the Ministry of Defence, rather than Public Health England, had been given a bigger role in combatting the pandemic, Britain’s death toll might not have been outsized.
It is no accident that countries living with an external enemy for most of their modern existence such as Israel, South Korea and Taiwan, are among those that dealt with the coronavirus best. In Israel’s case, the IDF has won great new friends. Long may it last.