NEW YORK – As the coronavirus began sweeping New York in mid-March, Liz Benatar decided to pack her bags and head home to Israel.
After more than four months at her parents’ coastal abode in Or Akiva, Benatar, 34, finally returned to New York – her home for nearly a decade – at the end of July.
She admits she still had concerns when she left Israel, but was reassured when she saw that New Yorkers “were all wearing masks – and not like in Israel, where you see people wear masks on their chins or without covering their nose.
“Here, even when people are walking by themselves in the street, they still wear a mask,” the Jewish preschool worker tells Haaretz in a phone interview from her Upper West Side home.
As Israeli expats who fled New York in spring start returning, people like Benatar (and others interviewed by Haaretz) say they now feel safer in the Big Apple than their homeland – at least when it comes to COVID-19.
Almost six months after the first coronavirus case hit New York on March 1, the state has seemingly managed to get the disease under control. It was initially the hardest-hit state, and has now lost over 25,000 people to COVID-19. But as of this weekend, the state’s rate of positive tests remained below 1 percent for the 15th consecutive day.
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“New Yorkers were ground zero for the COVID virus and have gone from one of the highest infection rates on the globe to one of the lowest,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in his Democratic National Convention speech last Monday. “We climbed the impossible mountain, and right now we are on the other side.”
In Israel, meanwhile, where cases had fallen to about 16 a day by mid-May, a second wave hit the country after it reopened its schools, bars and event halls that same month. By the end of July, Israel had recorded its highest daily total of coronavirus cases, 2,062, with the infection rate standing at 8.4 percent.
Adam Blufarb, 29, had traveled to Israel at the beginning of March for a friend’s wedding – which was subsequently canceled due to restrictions on large gatherings. He says he could feel the different levels of cautiousness being taken by members of the public as soon as he returned to New York at the end of June.
“When I arrived here, I saw that coffee shops were open and people walked around the streets. But I would say 95 percent of people are wearing masks and being very careful,” he observes. “In Israel, it felt like as soon as things reopened, the coronavirus was ‘over.’ People just came out and you barely saw any masks.”
The digital designer also contrasts the approaches being taken by the two leaderships. “I think they’re doing very responsible work in New York,” he says. “In Israel, it felt like Bibi [Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] goes into a room, comes out and issues the rules. Here, they have numbers and statistics – and based on that, they make the rules. Everything feels more organized.”
Blufarb, who lives in Williamsburg, adds that he feels “in good hands” now he’s back in New York. “I feel like there’s a responsible leadership, and social responsibility among the people. I feel safer here than in Israel.”
Yasmine Lidsky also spent some time in Israel during the lockdown. She and her family flew from New York to Tel Aviv when Israel was starting to reopen in mid-May, staying for almost two months.
“At first it was a culture shock,” says Lidsky, 35, who works in high-tech. “I came from a lockdown [in New York] where everyone was using hand sanitizer, didn’t touch each other, there was no interaction. And then I got to Israel: It felt like there was no coronavirus there.”
When she landed in Tel Aviv, Lidsky, a mother of two, could enjoy the freedom compared to New York City. But, she reflects, “When I left Israel, the numbers were spiking and it felt irresponsible that everything had opened at once and not gradually like here.”
Now she’s back in New York, she says she feels safe again. “The numbers are down, it looks like people really respect the guidelines, everyone is wearing masks,” she says.
That observation is confirmed by Osnat Ziv, who says New Yorkers are taking the pandemic “very seriously. They even call you out if you don’t have a mask on. I’m not concerned at all about the coronavirus here at the moment.”
Ziv, 47, has lived in New York for some seven years. The stay-at-home mom decided to fly to Israel in mid-March with her husband and 10-year-old daughter after sensing that the local authorities were not moving in the right direction to combat the pandemic. Or, as she puts it now, “They were clueless.”
Looking back on her decision to return to Israel, she describes it as “sort of a Jewish instinct. I told my friends I was going to leave – they didn’t understand me. It’s a sort of instinct to just take everything and leave. Once [New York] figured things out, the rules were very clear. But it took time to get to that,” she says.
Trauma and common courtesy
Benatar attributes the difference in American and Israeli attitudes to the fact that “Israelis think they know better than everybody else; they’re the smartest and always right, no one will tell them what to do,” she says. “Americans think more ‘inside the box’: If they’re told this is the law, that’s what they’ll [generally] do.
“There’s also the concept of common courtesy, social norms” in New York, she says. “If right now the common courtesy is to wear a mask because you care about others, that’s what you do.”
Ziv believes there was another factor at play too. “In Israel, there was a sense that it was over, that Israel beat the coronavirus,” she says. “When we’re told to mobilize for battle, we’re good at it, and only afterward do we start complaining and comparing ourselves to the entire world.”
In the United States, she says, “you can only manage things with clear laws and guidelines; you can’t manage things with rules that are open for interpretation. In Israel, it’s very much like that: they explain it to you, and then people think the law is a suggestion.”
Blufarb says he’s noticed that his friends who remained in New York during the lockdown are “much more careful” than his friends in Israel. “They don’t go to each other’s homes; they meet only outside; they don’t shake hands.”
Because Israel’s death rate never reached the scale of New York – the total number of COVID-19 victims in Israel is some 820 people – Blufarb believes Israelis don’t feel “as much pressure to follow the guidelines. It feels like here [in New York], they went through trauma and they don’t want to go back there,” he relays.
For Lidsky, the current difference in attitudes is “more related to political issues, and the fact that in Israel people really were pushed to the edge” financially, and may have less patience as a result.
“Here, [President Donald] Trump gave money to people, and for a lot of young people their unemployment sums are bigger than what they got on their jobs before,” she continues. “In Israel, people really got to low points, and you can see it now with the protests” against Netanyahu and his government’s handling of the crisis.
‘Not what it used to be’
For these adopted New Yorkers, returning to the city has proved a slightly discombobulating experience. New York may be on the other side of the “impossible mountain,” as Cuomo says, but that doesn’t mean things have returned to normal. Far from it.
For Ziv, “coronavirus-wise, everything is perfect in New York,” but the disease being minimized hasn’t restored her sense of security.
Beyond the fact that her Financial District neighborhood – known for its office buildings and thousands of workers populating lunch spots daily – is currently deserted, Ziv says she’s encountered a lot more people experiencing homelessness than ever before.
In an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus in crowded shelters during the height of the crisis, the city paid dozens of hotels citywide to temporarily house those living on the streets. Now, over a month after the city’s “phase 4” reopening, residents of upscale neighborhoods in Midtown and the Upper West Side (where the hotels are located) are complaining about alleged antisocial behavior from some of the homeless.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is facing most of the criticism, announced last Monday that the city would be “starting the process of reducing the reliance on hotels,” but did not give a timeline.
“My daughter and I are literally scared of leaving the house,” Ziv says. “We walked home from Union Square the other day and a homeless man just came toward us and started masturbating in front of me and my daughter. That’s where I draw the line.”
Ziv adds that she never felt scared in New York City before, but now she feels “constantly on alert, constantly checking my surroundings.”
She adds: “I’m really in shock; I didn’t expect that at all. But a lot of people who have been here since March tell me it was a lot worse. I wasn’t here for that: I left a beautiful New York and I came back to this – so for me the difference is huge.”
While Lidsky agrees that “the city is not what it used to be,” she also sees a positive side, calling it a “historic” time to be in Manhattan. “It’s crazy to see New York this way,” she says as the city that never sleeps is forced to take a siesta. “There’s something kind of nice about being here right now.”
Blufarb too is “really enjoying” New York being less hectic and crowded than usual. “If I was a tourist, I think this would be a good time to come to New York,” he laughs. “Everything is relaxed, it feels like Tel Aviv. Everyone is sitting outside – I love it!”