Opinion

In This War, I Feel Far Safer in Israel Than in America

I've lived in Israel through wars, intifadas, threats of chemical attacks and exposed my children to the dangers of army service. This coronavirus crisis is the first time I feel it's more dangerous back in the U.S.A.

Allyn Fisher-Ilan
Allyn Fisher-Ilan
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Israeli civilian workers working for the Israeli army manufacture protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic, at the Israeli military base of Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. April 2, 2020
Israeli civilian workers working for the Israeli army manufacture protective masks during the coronavirus pandemic, at the Israeli military base of Tel Hashomer, near Tel Aviv. April 2, 2020Credit: AFP
Allyn Fisher-Ilan
Allyn Fisher-Ilan

After years – actually, decades - of weathering questions from others and doubts within myself about whether leaving a relatively calm and comfortable United States to opt for life in tumultuous conflict-ridden Israel is a sane thing to do, the coronavirus crisis has finally decided the issue. 

The years of crises spanning the first to the second intifada, two wars in Lebanon, the ’91 Gulf War, when I had to gas-mask my three-year-old, and, later, exposing my children to the dangers of military duty - all made it feel like moving to and then staying put in Israel was a giant sacrifice. 

But Israel’s handling of the pandemic we’re all experiencing, however, is the first case I can think of since living here, where Americans are just so much safer being in this disorderly corner of the world than back in the U.S.A. 

A rare but meaningful moment of sanity has, as unexpectedly as this rare contagion, descended upon the holy land.

All the threats of yesteryear seem to fade into the background, for now, as we power through social distancing and isolation to avoid becoming a pandemic statistic. The new terror we all fear, this tiny strand of RNA, has made the embattled Jewish state one of the safest places on earth.

The U.S. is another story, leading the pack with numbers of infections and third in the world, so far, in coronavirus fatalities, according to April 4 statistics. Israel is beyond 40th place in that category and the Palestinian territories are thus far doing even better, with one woman succumbing to the virus there.

Members of the Army National Guard by the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a temporary coronavirus treatment center, March 31, 2020 in New York City
Members of the Army National Guard by the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, a temporary coronavirus treatment center, March 31, 2020 in New York CityCredit: AFP

Israel rolled into a social distancing lockdown several weeks ago to rein in the corona outbreak, a policy that evidently flattens the infection curve, not least compared to many other countries, notably the U.S. 

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. Photographs and stories about the terribly overburdened hospitals, with annexes going up in parking lots, parks and convention centers. In New York, the epicenter of the outbreak, frantic SOS calls went out by text message for urgent healthcare volunteers. A private health system can’t seem to compete with universal or nationalized care (though the British example shows how poor political leadership hobbles the capacities of state-run medicine, too.)

Trump has set records in poor handling of the crisis. One of his latest gaffes, saying publicly he won’t personally follow recommendations to wear a face mask – just says it all about the lack of clear leadership in the U.S. that leaves the masses thoroughly confused, and hurting. It’s a tragedy to behold, and perhaps best from afar. 

Israel as always, has its issues handling this crisis, too, with a transition government still in charge and officials arguing at cross purposes and undercutting each other’s policies. Test kits for corona are scarce and the health system, though public and universal, has had funding crises in recent years that challenge its ability to cope with a medical crisis of unprecedented proportions. Added to the problem is a health minister widely accused of failing to address the crisis swiftly enough. 

President Donald Trump dismisses a journalist’s question to Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. April 5, 2020
President Donald Trump dismisses a journalist’s question to Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci. April 5, 2020Credit: AFP

Questions have also arisen over whether the lockdown in Israel is too severe, as it chokes the economy and knocks a very social-minded society of people who like togetherness, for a loop.

Despite all that, thus far, Israel seems to be coping with the pandemic much better than the United States, even allowing for it being a much smaller land, which one could argue might make it easier to manage except that this small number of people does include some very disparate groups.  

A deep sense of solidarity that many Israelis thought had been lost in the digital era, is helping to alleviate some of these differences, even easing tensions between Arabs and Jews. Young Arab professionals are now very prominently represented in the medical establishment. Despite their justified complaints of discrimination, Israel’s Arab minority are deeply involved in the fight against corona, in a way their lack of eligibility for the military draft has left them on the sidelines in other crises. 

While many Americans have also shown solidarity with each other across the country, there’s an overriding sense of confusion for lack of organized instruction and a fear of having nowhere to turn given the huge lapses in health care coverage in their largely private system, and seeing hospitals so overwhelmed by the seriously ill.   

The U.S. embassy keeps emailing its citizens to consider returning  or wind up stranded abroad during the pandemic. Absent in those messages are any promises of free - or at least, affordable - medical care for anyone who does return. 

So, no thanks, this Middle East hot spot with universal health care seems a much better bet for survival, certainly this time around.

Allyn Fisher-Ilan is an editor at Haaretz, a veteran journalist, formerly a correspondent at Reuters, AP, and contributor to The New York Times. Twitter: @afilan