Days before one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar, Israel has started a second lockdown
Israelis are no strangers to internal divisions, and certainly not to a general sense of political despair, but nothing could prepare them for the grim news of a second coronavirus lockdown, going into effect on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
While many citizens are struggling to make sense of the new instructions, the country’s Health Ministry has reported yet another record high of new daily infections (4,973 at the time of writing), making Israelis feel that despite the upcoming feast, there isn’t really much to celebrate.
This ongoing spike is what prompted the government to impose a second lockdown, scheduled to last through the entire three-week Jewish High Holiday season. But it has resulted in a particularly gloomy atmosphere, atypical for this otherwise warm, cheerful time of year.
Instead, excitement has made way for confusion, lively food markets were replaced by angry protests, and vibrant café conversations were taken over by frail sighs.
Unlike in previous years, people are not busy with holiday preparations, but rather, are in a rush to arrange impromptu dinners, hoping to see their relatives one last time before lockdown begins.
Between friends, on WhatsApp groups or on Facebook, people are sharing advice on how to survive what many feel are draconian measures, such as the requirement to remain within 500 metres of one’s home or the complete prohibition of takeaway services.
Adding insult to injury is the constant revision of the guidelines, contributing to the general feeling of desperation and apathy – a reaction almost unheard of during the first lockdown in mid-March.
Admittedly, as a news junky myself, there were days when I received more than five different push notifications, each alerting me to a new change to the guidelines.
Even the most obedient citizen would find it hard to follow, let alone when many rules seem quite arbitrary, leaving Israelis to wonder why group prayers are allowed but family gathering aren’t, or what exactly the Health Ministry means by naming “helping a person in distress” an approved exception.
Very few Israelis deny the existence of Covid-19 or its severe health risks, as the country has recorded over 162,000 cases and more than 1,140 deaths. Rather, they are frustrated at the way the crisis has been handled and are far more sceptical of the government’s intentions than before.
With weekly demonstrations against Netanyahu and his government which draw thousands, and a resignation of an ultra-Orthodox minister over prayer limitations in synagogues, many Israelis are doubting the official reasons behind the measures.
Merely six months ago, people were still obsessively spraying fruits and vegetables with disinfectant, refraining from family visits, and adjusting to the strictest of rules with the not-uncommon approach of ‘we’re in this together.’ Now, Israel has one of the world’s highest infection rates.
To put it in one of my friend’s words: Israelis feel like their own government is gaslighting them, and there aren’t many things Israelis despise more than dishonesty and indirectness.
In fact, if you’ve ever spent time with Israelis, you probably know that they appreciate straightforwardness – many times to the level of being rude – over sweet talk, which is why it’s unlikely that they will adhere to the regulations as strictly as during the first lockdown.
Numerous business owners have even declared they would remain open in order to avoid collapse, while other fellow citizens admitted to their intention to defy future orders. Like many in the country of nine million, they no longer believe a single word their leaders say.
It was hardly surprising, then, that Israelis remained unimpressed when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted on a televised speech that “this is not the holiday time we’re used to,” and acknowledged that “these measures will exact a heavy price from all of us.”
To most, his words are no more than a sad joke.
A lifeline lost
Even the country’s key airport – Ben Gurion International – is taking a hit and will remain open only to flights booked and confirmed in advance. No new tickets are available, hitting Israelis right where it hurts them most.
Growing up in Israel, a damage to your more-or-less only international airport is perceived as one of the greatest disasters possible – cutting the last option to breathe air of peaceful regions, where people know how to queue, or choose tea over black coffee.
It’s a lifeline helping us know there’s always a way out – even if just in theory. Now, a feeling of catastrophe is in the air, and our one emergency exit is blocked.
The news about flight suspension only added to the anger and dismay. A brief scroll through posts on social media only confirms what I had thought would be the Israeli mindset right now: fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
The lack of sufficient information about the virus in its early days made most people willing to make sacrifices and fight together to flatten the curve.
Now, Israelis feel like the government had enough time to prepare for a second wave, but instead did nothing, punishing obedient citizens disproportionally. It is no wonder that they’re taking the new regulations with a grain of salt.
“There are many things in my life I look back at thinking how stupid I was for doing them,” a friend from Haifa told me over the phone. “But you can’t run your life like that, in a constant consciousness of catastrophe,” she said in defence of those who would risk getting sick by defying the lockdown.
Funny, I thought, living in a consciousness of catastrophe seemed to me like the one thing Israelis do have in common. But perhaps it’s the lack of trust that is now so commonly shared across the board. And maybe it would be that despair that brings in its wake actions for a better future.