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Amid deepening coronavirus pain, Israelis show unexpected solidarity

“Hello. My name is Omer. I represent the hospital residents belonging to the Organization of the State Employed Physicians and the Israel Medical Association, and I’m calling on you to help us. I’m a doctor who’s a resident in [Sheba Medical Center] Tel Hashomer, my husband is also a doctor, and the children are at home. I’m here at work and we need help at home. Anyone who can watch our children for a few hours, a long time, to give any help you can, we would appreciate it. Please help us help you.”

This doctor’s video plea, posted on Facebook, opens a window to the difficulties Israel’s overworked doctors face, especially since schools were closed. They have been forced to work long shifts as clinics and hospitals fill up with coronavirus patients, but their children have nowhere to go.

In the many households where they are two medical professionals, the problem is 10 times worse. It’s not just that they can’t risk bringing elderly grandparents to babysit and the cost of paid babysitters would soon become astronomical, many people simply don’t want to take care of doctors’ children because they are afraid of being infected with the virus.

Into this vacuum stepped Guy Tavori, a social worker and CEO of the Ruth Vrobel Foundation, which together with the Organization of the State Employed Physicians and the National Union of Israeli Students, has enlisted education, nursing and medical students as volunteer babysitters. Doctor and babysitter are matched by geographical proximity.

In normal times, Tavori’s foundation helps support the chronically ill. Now, the nonprofit’s logistical capabilities are being channeled into connecting students with the medical staff. Today, 200 volunteers from all over Israel are helping out about the same number of medical professionals, he says. “Healthcare workers are ready to collapse, whether they work directly in the coronavirus wards or in other wards,” he says.

Itamar Beserman Navon decided to ask the public for help, too, though for a different reason and in a somewhat different way. Along with his partners in the Mona restaurant group, Moshiko Gamlieli and Roy Sabagh, he quickly posted a fundraising project on the Headstart website that will enable the chain’s Jerusalem restaurant to reopen when the lockdown ends.

“We’re closed but we can still come together. Support us today so that we can meet again the day after and give you in return tons of love and appreciation,” he explained.

“When the first reports of the coronavirus epidemic began arriving, we realized, like all restaurant owners, that this was going to affect us,” said Beserman Navon. “We began thinking about what we could do to survive. We thought about starting with deliveries, something we had never done until now, or maybe cutting costs and surviving it somehow. Very quickly, we discovered that it wouldn’t work and we had no choice but to close.”

On March 15, the day before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a partial lockdown, the partners gathered the 200 employees of the four restaurants and told them the bad news. “But at the same time, we needed to think about a way to raise money. We have to pay suppliers and other bills, pay salaries, and help for foreign workers who are getting no help at all from the government and are now without a living. We needed to get money to help them and us,” he says.

The campaign offers vouchers for future meals at the restaurant at different prices. The goal was to raise 200,000 shekels ($55,800) and within 48 hours they had sold vouchers worth half of that.

“We were shocked by how much interest there was. We were touched not only by the money but by the warm responses we received. … If [the government] had given us enough time to prepare for the lockdown maybe we could have gotten by, but it all happened in a second. The response of the crowd showed us how important it is to everyone to help preserve what was, so it will remain even after everything is over,” says Beserman Navon.

Such astonishing stories of help and support are not the exception these days. Among the reports of the coronavirus outbreak, the growing number of those infected, those unemployed and in isolation, stories began to surface about the acts of solidarity: restaurant owners who donated food they had left before they closed, others who decided to help farmers and buy their products before the goods had to be destroyed, volunteers working with the elderly. Many companies and businesspeople have donated money for all sorts of purposes.

A story that stands out is about El Al Airlines, which flew 16 hours to Peru to bring back 1,000 stranded young Israelis. Because they were not commercial flights, CEO Gonen Usishkin didn’t charge them. Instead, he donated $50,000 for the operation and raised the rest of the money to fund the three rescue planes from El Al’s business partners. A large number of companies contributed.

Meanwhile, Mellanox says it is donating eight ventilators to hospitals at an estimated cost of over 400,000 shekels.

Nonprofits that aid the needy in normal times have joined in. For instance, the algo-trading firm Final collaborated with the Zionism 2000 nonprofit, which operates normally in a poor neighborhood of Petah Tikva, to distribute food and games to area families. Neighborhood students packed and distributed the boxes. A helpline was set up with Amharic, Russian and Hebrew speakers so neighborhood residents could call in for things such as food and medicine. Volunteers are doing their shopping.

“The idea is that neighborhood residents are acting on behalf of neighborhood residents,” says the director of the program, Iris Aronin. “We’ve been investing in the neighborhood for five years, and when we saw the restrictions became stricter, we realized that we needed to help.”

Solidarity is not confined to businesses. Alongside the big stories are small, poignant ones – stories of humanity, compassion, mutual help and partnership between neighbors, friends, co-workers and even complete strangers at a time when it seems Israeli society is more divided and riven than ever.

Prof. Tamar Hermann of the Open University and Israel Democracy Institute does not see this as a contradiction.

“There may be areas where Israeli society is very divided, but at bottom there’s a high degress of solidarity, which stems from Jewish history, the external conflict that still holds a large part of the feeling of ‘us and them,’ and from the Zionist ethos that is shared by the Jewish community,” she says.

“The Haredim may have their own feeling of solidarity, like the Arab community. But the desire [for national solidarity] can be clearly seen in Arab society, especially in the young middle class, to embrace Jewish society and feel embraced by it. You can see this in their enlisting during this crisis, as in previous crises,” says Hermann.

Israeli society is almost pre-modern as far as Israelis’ willingness to help one another is concerned, which comes out particularly in its family structure and in parents taking care of their adult children – something that is rarely seen in the United States, for example, says Hermann.

“I don’t want to idealize the situation, but I can say these expressions of solidarity aren’t surprising. Israeli society has more solidarity than it seems on a day-to-day basis, because in normal times it’s not sexy to talk about positive elements, so they focus on what is bad and divisive,” she says. “It’s true that on the way to Israel from Peru young people pushed each other to get on the plane, but in the end these same people who are writing ugly things in online posts are those who will help the elderly get food.”

Among the most surprising instances of solidarity was on the part of landlords all over the country coming to the aid of their tenants. Landlords are routinely accused of raising rents and taking advantage of their tenants, but stories have surfaced on social media of owners suspended rent payments or even canceled them.

One of them is Shachar Haas, a project manager for a high-tech company in Holon and a married father of three. A few days after the first lockdown went into force and many workers were put on unpaid leave, the young woman who’s renting a small apartment from him called Haas to alert him to dampness in one of its walls.

The conversation soon widened to the economic situation amid the spreading coronavirus. The woman, who is raising two children alone, told Haas she had been put on unpaid leave and was worried about the future. Haas, who is on unpaid leave himself, told her she need not pay the 3,800 shekels rent due for the month.

“She was very excited,” Haas recounts. “She said she had been going crazy trying to come up with the money. I’m also facing financial difficulties and have to pay 5,500 shekels of rent myself and support three children and my spouse who’s on unpaid leave. But we have our family behind us and our situation is less difficult, so it’ll be okay.”

For Iris (not her real name), the generosity of her landlord was a little more complicated and unexpected. In recent weeks, her life has been chaotic. Just before the coronavirus outbreak, she began renovating her home. She had been planning the project for months, found an apartment for her family to live in while the renovations were underway and signed a contract with a contractor for work that was expected to take three months.

But immediately all of Iris’ planning came undone. The subcontractors said they couldn’t get the building materials they needed because factories in China were shut. The homeowner whose apartment she had rented called to say his trip to the Far East had been canceled.

Iris felt her life collapsing around her. But the couple told her they would honor the agreement and instead travel to another country where it was still possible to fly.

The renovations began, but her problems weren’t over. Her contractor had to go into quarantine and his Palestinian workers could no longer enter Israel to work. The couple she was renting from called to say they had to return home early because flights were being canceled. They needed their home back because they would be going into quarantine.

Iris tried to get her home into livable condition in expectation she would be having to move back, and waited for the phone call from the couple telling her when they would be returning. The call came, but rather than ordering her out, they told her they understood her situation and said she could not only remain in their apartment, but stay beyond the three months, if needed.

Not everyone shares the view that the acts of solidarity and generosity are anything more than normal neighborly relations. In Israel there are good people just like there are all over the world. They are simply filling in where the government has failed, for instance in helping the elderly.

One of those taking this view is Prof. Danny Gutwein of Haifa University. He says Israeli society demonstrates no special solidarity and is more characterized by Darwinism and cruelty.

“People expect expressions of humanity, neighborliness and good citizenship. That’s fine, it’s really nice, but the concept of solidarity isn’t appropriate to describe it,” he says.

He gives as an example the large number of workers put on unpaid leave. “This is nothing less than employment terrorism. People have been thrown out of their places of work and it all happens without a peep. They differentiate between those who are critical and those who aren’t. Instead of talking about solidarity, it’s better to talk about the workplace terror that’s happening here thanks to the crisis and that could destroy Israeli society.”

Original: Anat Georgi, HAARETZ contributor

Header: Medical staff in the central laboratory of the Meuchedet health group. (Health Ministry)