Coronavirus Crisis: In Touchy-feely Israel, Social Distancing Creates a Big Challenge

In a country where the concept of personal space is virtually nonexistent, many Israelis are struggling to deal with the new requirements

Judy Maltz
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Israelis go shopping as they fear coronavirus might affect food supplies.
Israelis go shopping as they fear coronavirus might affect food supplies. Credit: Emil Salman
Judy Maltz

Over the weekend, 40 young Israelis participating in a pre-military gap-year program were sent a list of instructions they would be required to follow once they returned to their base.

The purpose was to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in their already close quarters.

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Toward the bottom of the list was a new decree that required its own special introduction: “This one is not simple, and we hope you will be strong,” the program director wrote in a group WhatsApp message.

“It is absolutely forbidden to hug, kiss, shake hands, and the like,” he instructed his co-ed charges. “Seriously, I know it’s not easy, but make your utmost effort to comply.”

The social distancing mandated by the crackdown introduced at the weekend is definitely not easy for those who have grown up in a touchy-feely culture, one where the concept of personal space is virtually nonexistent.

And it is not only the young who are struggling. Orna Kerner, a physiotherapist from Ramat Hasharon – an affluent suburb north of Tel Aviv – concedes that it is difficult to break old habits. “Maybe it comes with the profession I’m in,” the 52-year-old says.

“My patients are always hugging and kissing me. That’s their way of thanking me for helping them alleviate pain,” she says. “And for me, it’s very difficult to behave otherwise. Hugging and kissing is something I do automatically. So sometimes, when someone comes up to me to give me a hug, I have to stop myself and say, ‘Just a minute, you can’t do this anymore.’”

One big family

Since the outbreak was officially recognized as a pandemic, Israelis have been urged to refrain from close contact and substitute hugs, kisses and handshakes with elbow bumps, heel kicks and even salutes.

Initially, gatherings of more than 1,000 people were prohibited, with that figure reduced to 100 last week. And on Saturday night, the government announced even more drastic measure to prevent the spread of the virus, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, and the shuttering of all restaurants, cafés, malls and theaters.

Israelis were also urged to maintain a distance of 2 meters (about 6.5 feet) from one another.

“The mandate to create social distancing challenges Israelis in ways they have never experienced before,” says Gad Yair, a professor in the department of sociology and anthropology at the Hebrew University.

“People in this country – when they embrace, they really embrace,” he explains. “There’s no doing it with just one arm. Meetings tend to be close and intimate. It is common in Israel when you see a pregnant woman to put your hand on her stomach. There’s no social distance between people because there’s this feeling that we’re all the same family and we’re allowed to touch.”

Perhaps especially challenging for Israelis in the age of COVID-19, he says, is the need to keep away from the elderly – the population most vulnerable to the coronavirus.

“Even the most secular Israeli families get together with their parents and grandparents for Shabbat lunch or dinner,” Yair says. “Sharing food is considered a sign of love. Compare that with places like Germany or the United States, where families rarely get together more than once or twice a year.”

Special strain

Partly because Israel is such a small country, it is common for working parents to rely on their own parents for supplementary child care. Very often, young couples move near their parents for that very purpose. Being forced to turn down assistance from grandparents, for fear of exposing them to the disease, has suddenly put a special strain on parents of young children.

Hillel Meyer, 50, an executive at a travel firm based in the Tel Aviv area, is a very physical type of guy. That is to say, in the past he would not have been able to imagine greeting friends without a big hug and a peck on each cheek. Not now though.

“These days, it’s either air kisses, elbow bumps or [heel] kicks,” Meyer says. “I’ve started getting used to it, though, and I don’t find it that big a problem – maybe because this whole thing is freaking me out so much.”

For Dr. Roi Kordevani, a Tel-Aviv based family physician in his late thirties, convincing his patients of the virtues of social distancing is no small challenge.

“Israelis don’t know how to keep sufficient distance between themselves, whether it’s when they’re standing in line or talking to one another,” he says. “There’s just no respect for personal space. It’s a cultural thing.”

To make matters worse, Israelis tend to go to work when they’re sick and send their sick kids to day care and school. “In a country like Japan, that would be a real no-no, but here it seems that people are less considerate,” Kordevani says.

“I can’t tell you how many times I have parents begging me to write notes for their kids saying they’re well enough to go back to school,” he adds. “I don’t know if it’s simple lack of consideration or they need to work themselves and have no choice in the matter, but that’s the way things are here.”

Crisis management

Yaron Sivan, 34, is the founder of Ulpan Bayit, a private Hebrew-language school in Tel Aviv. Many of his students are the spouses and partners of Israelis, who moved to the country because they fell in love with the culture, he says.

Usually, at the conclusion of each class, he bids farewell to them with a hug and a kiss. It’s become difficult to have to suppress that impulse, he admits.

“It’s easier for me when I’m with Israeli friends, to just motion them not to get too close,” he says. “But when I’m dealing with my students, who are foreigners, I’m more concerned they’ll take it the wrong way, so I often just give in.”

Recent days have at least provided him with some respite: With the shutdown of most nonessential businesses in Israel, he has moved his classes online.

Israelis may find social distancing a cultural challenge, but their ability to shift gears and comply is quite admirable, especially compared with other countries facing the same challenge, says American-born Arthur Lenk, 56, a former Israeli diplomat.

“Just having returned from a trip to the United States, I’m in a position to compare with what’s going on there,” says the former ambassador to South Africa and Azerbaijan.

“Israelis are very disciplined when dealing with emergency situations. There’s this idea that ‘The group or the tribe is bigger than me,’” Lenk says. “I literally just returned from a funeral in the United States. There were dozens of people there, and there was nonstop hugging and kissing. I think I was the only one there trying to keep a distance.”

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