From New York to Israel, the Great Coronavirus Escape

Israel’s decision to go on lockdown early and recognize the severity of the problem widely cited as a key factor. ‘New York felt like it’s not a question of if you will get infected – it’s a question of when,’ says one returnee

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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Gil Avidor, left, and Tslil Aloni.
Gil Avidor, left, and Tslil Aloni.Credit: Gil Avidor
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

With the United States leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases and New York the hardest-hit state, some Israelis living in the Big Apple have decided to head home.

“In a time of crisis, we prefer to be close to our loved ones,” Gil Avidor, who has lived in New York with her husband, Tslil Aloni, for the past three years, tells Haaretz in a phone interview. “I thought to myself that no matter where the situation will be worse, I prefer to be in a place where I have a bigger support system, where the people I love are and where I can help them,” the 29-year-old adds.

In his daily update on Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the state’s total death toll now stands at 1,941. In addition, the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 increased by 7,965 with 83,760 confirmed cases – more than half of which are in New York City itself.

Avidor and Aloni booked their flight home on March 10. By March 12, they had landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport and headed straight to Aloni’s parents’ house north of Tel Aviv for a 14-day quarantine, as ordered by the Israeli Health Ministry.

“We were following the statistics closely,” says Aloni, 30, who is pursuing his doctoral studies at NYU. “We understood that there is no way [the coronavirus] won’t get to New York.”

Seeing that life in New York was still running its usual course while dramatic moves were being made in Israel, it became clear to the couple that New Yorkers were in denial and they had to get out.

People walking during a sunny day in Central Park, New York City, April 1, 2020.Credit: BRENDAN MCDERMID/ REUTERS

“We walked in the streets and we saw people gathering in Washington Square Park; we understood it was a recipe for disaster,” Aloni says.

The couple adds that their being in Israel is not just making them feel more at ease but their families too. “They tell us this on a daily basis: ‘How lucky that you came!’” Avidor says.

Liz Benatar, 33, also made the decision to leave New York and fly to Israel after realizing the situation was about to get very bad.

“New York felt like it’s not a question of if you will get infected – it’s a question of when,” says the Jewish preschool worker, who has lived in the United States for eight years. “As someone who follows the news both in the U.S. and Israel, the situation really scared me.”

Benatar arrived in Israel some 10 days ago and is still in self-quarantine at her parents’ house in Or Akiva, in a separate unit they usually rent out but which is currently free. She still works remotely via video chat with the 3-year-old kids she usually sees everyday.

“I haven’t seen my family in a year and they came to get me from the airport. But I couldn’t say hello [properly], I couldn’t hug them,” she recalls. “They came with two cars, and left me one of them to drive home separately.”

She continues: “My parents are here, my sisters are here. One of them, who just gave birth, is here with the new baby and I see everyone from the window,” she says, counting down the days till her quarantine ends.

The Empire State building is lit in red and white lights to honor emergency medical workers, New York, March 31, 2020.Credit: Frank Franklin II,AP

Contrasting responses

A 30-year-old Israeli man who has lived in Manhattan for eight years and spoke to Haaretz on condition of anonymity also says family was the decisive factor in his decision to leave New York City.

“My worst-case scenario was that if one of my parents gets sick, God forbid, and I had to come back home, I would have to go into quarantine for two weeks and I want to help,” he says. “My parents are in their sixties, they should not go to the supermarket. I need to be their link to the outside world.”

Feeling this sense of responsibility, the man, who works in advertising, wanted to reach Israel as soon as possible and finish his self-isolation. “That way, if something happens, [I] can help.”

After finishing his two-week quarantine at an empty family apartment, he admits that being in Israel is a relief. “I made the right choice, even though I didn’t want to fly now,” he says. “I really didn’t want to come back.”

Many Israelis living in New York say they are still connected to the news in Israel – both through the media and discussions with family and friends. Comparing the measures being taken in Israel to what they were experiencing in New York was, for many, a sign that they should leave.

“I saw the authorities in New York were not really doing much compared to the authorities in Israel,” says Benatar, whose husband is in Australia and has not been able to make his way back. “I saw [New Yorkers’] indifference and complacency, and I started understanding that in Israel this was being taken very seriously – and in the U.S. it is just not.

“I started understanding that no one is going to protect me and I have to leave as soon as possible,” she adds.

“When Israel started talking about social distancing [when there were] a very small number of cases, people in New York didn’t even talk about it,” Aloni says. For both him and his wife, this was a very “rational” decision.

“We are in one of the biggest tourism hubs in the world, with a very high density,” Avidor adds. “It was clear to us that this thing has a much higher catastrophe potential in Manhattan than in Israel.”

Beyond noticing that things were not being taken as seriously as fast in New York, the anonymous man says he also doesn’t trust President Donald Trump to handle the situation.

“Trump is completely irresponsible and is behaving in his usual stupid way,” he says. “He is the worst person who could ever be leading in this situation.”

The sane option

As the Israeli government has tightened its measures to combat the spread of the disease, there has been some criticism about Israelis arriving from New York, suggesting that they should all be quarantined in local hotels rather than at family homes.

Last month, a group of 114 Israeli Chabad followers who flew from New York on the same El Al flight were placed in quarantine at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem. This was the only case of Israelis arriving from New York being escorted into quarantine. The authorities said the group had been studying at a yeshiva in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, which the U.S. authorities fear has been the site of a major outbreak. Last week, over half of them tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Israel’s Channel 12 News on Tuesday night, Prof. Gabi Barabash, who previously served as the Health Ministry’s director general, said he doesn’t believe returning Israeli expats should be treated like Israelis coming back from short trips.

“These are people who live in New York. They should go into quarantine in hotels – at their expense or at the government’s expense, it doesn’t matter. But they have to go into a forced quarantine, because we can’t be a satellite branch of New York in terms of health care,” he said.

Unsurprisingly, that reaction is not shared by the expats. “Israel is home to us, it’s always going to be home, and in this situation a lot of people felt the need to come home,” Benatar says. “My home may be in New York usually, but Israel is always going to be a part of me. I still spent most of my life in this country. I served in the army, I gave everything I could to this country.”

At this moment, she adds, Israel feels like a safe and “sane” place to be.

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