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Israel's pandemic response was fast. I worry a rapid return to normal is a mistake.

Israel stopped all tourism, kept Israelis home, and helped curb the spread of COVID-19. But the rush to reopen society feels haphazard.
People wearing masks visit a reopened market in Tel Aviv on May 7, 2020.Ariel Schalit / AP

TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel's plans for a gradual return to school in small, controlled groups after two months of coronavirus lockdowns were all but completely abandoned last week in favor of an an immediate return with full classes across much of the country. A group of principals lashed out at the decision (of which they were informed through news reports) as Israeli chaos.

Israel has embarked on an overly hasty modern-day Exodus from “Corona Times.”

That government decision only added to my feeling that Israel has embarked on an overly hasty modern-day Exodus from “corona times” even though the education ministry was concerned a staggered return would not work for students. The beaches are suddenly packed, as quickly as they were emptied, malls are open, with long lines crowding passageways to shop at Zara, and on the streets, most people are no longer even pretending to be vigilant. Masks, if they are seen at all beyond the confines of stores and schools, are usually dangling from a sleeve, or hanging on a chin.

The change is bewildering. In early March, the first flights from Europe were halted; soon after all daily flights but one from the United States stopped. Quarantine was mandatory for Israeli nationals returning from abroad. Israelis were given strict social distancing restrictions, including a measured distance from each home. Even protests of the government were held in Tel Aviv's Rabin Square with each protester standing a marked six feet apart. And infection rates reflected that enormous effort.

As of Monday, Israel has had over 16,700 cases of the coronavirus diagnosed and some 280 deaths out of a population numbering just under 9 million. For some comparison, New Jersey whose population and size is equivalent to Israel, has seen over 154,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths.

Israel’s European neighbors with similarly low coronavirus infection rates, like Germany and Norway, or across the globe, in New Zealand, have instituted gradual and science based methodical re-openings.

But while Israel’s European neighbors with similarly low coronavirus infection rates, such as Germany and Norway, or across the globe, in New Zealand, have instituted gradual and science based methodical reopenings, in Israel the approach to reentry may have started out that way, but pressure to reopen the economy has quickly given way to something far more worrisome.

The night before my two children had their first day back to school May 19, a friend forwarded me videos and photos from her son’s first day back a day earlier. The photos, shared by the teacher, reveal a classroom of sixth graders, mostly without masks, playing a game where the kids lie down on the floor next to each other (at about a 2 inch distance at best) and then raise themselves up plank style for a classmate to crawl on their belly beneath them. I, with my American eyes, did a double-take seeing the photos. I was astonished the teacher would find nothing wrong holding an activity that practically seemed designed to ensure the spread of germs.

It made me, with my American sensibilities and as someone keeping a close eye on the situation in the country of my birth, feel deep unease at the pace and seeming haphazardness of Israel’s opening of the floodgates.

But you don’t have to be an American living in Israel to be confused or skeptical at the near “game over” approach, exhibited by much of the public and overseen by the government. A poll conducted by the nonpartisan Israeli Democracy Institute found that 39 percent of Israelis think the government’s steps to reopen were implemented too quickly. Another 30 percent said they think they were appropriate and 25 percent think they were too slow.

Israel’s government tamped down hard and fast on the virus with strict and relatively early shelter-in-place restrictions and closing down of Israel’s borders. Although it’s worth noting that in the first days of the crisis, when it was already becoming apparent a significant number of infections were coming in via travelers flying in from the United States, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly pressured by his allies in the White House not to halt incoming American flights. A recent Tel Aviv University study found 70 percent of COVID-19 infections in Israel stemmed from those arriving from the United States. Had Netanyahu cut those flights sooner, in other words, perhaps a great number of Israelis could have been spared.

But there’s been a marked decline in the public’s trust of government authorities, the same poll suggests. It found that while the majority of the Israeli public said they had trust in Netanyahu’s management of the pandemic until mid-April, those numbers have now dropped from as high as 57 percent to today’s 38 percent. Its trust in government health experts, however remain high –- at 61 percent.

Still, another poll, conducted by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, that looked at attitudes regarding the COVID-19 crisis across several countries, found that Israelis and Palestinians living in the West Bank were among those with the highest confidence that their governments had been prepared for the pandemic -– and they remained the most optimistic about the future. The findings were a marked contrast to people in the United States and several European countries, including Italy and Poland, who were unimpressed by their country's preparedness for the pandemic.

Israel’s new unity government, formed in the name of fighting the pandemic after a year of multiple elections and political deadlock, was sworn in last week.

Aside from businesses reopening and people crowding public places, the real marker of post-lockdown life is this past week’s reopening of schools, not, as previously planned, in a staggered manner and in smaller groups termed “capsules” of some 15 kids, but with the full roster.

It’s not uncommon to have over 30 to as many as 40 students in an Israeli classroom. The Education Ministry guidelines were for students to sit 2 meters (6.5 feet) away from one another. But it seems to me that’s a near impossibility in most of the country where the average classroom measures 49 square meters, roughly twice that amount of space would be needed to accommodate the guidelines. This is a warning, I fear, for American schools pondering similar options.

Nitzan Waisburg, an industrial designer and teaching fellow at Tel Aviv University, wrote a post on her Facebook page excoriating the move. “These instructions are a new contract between the regime and the Israeli nation: You will continue to work hard, pay taxes. And in return, we abandon you,” she wrote, adding she understood the impetus to restart the economy, but at what price? “We will demand things of you that are completely absurd and you will cooperate,” she added.

I nervously allowed my kids return to school May 19

I wondered if I was doing something absurd when I nervously allowed my kids return to school May 19. My fellow neighborhood parents were all second-guessing ourselves together two days later when it was announced on the news that a nursey school aide teaching nearby had tested positive for COVID-19 and had a daughter attending my daughter’s middle school. The test, it soon emerged, was a false positive. But not before the story spread panic throughout Tel Aviv, on the heels of reports teachers in two other cities were found to have the virus.

Some of the quick choices to return may come down to demographic divisions: the largest number of cases of the virus have been found in the country’s ultra-Orthodox community who live for the most part in their own neighborhoods and towns. Many, if not most, secular or traditionally religious Jews and Arabs don’t know someone who was sick, let alone anyone who died from the virus. So the reality of the virus has felt more remote for most Israelis, despite how small the country is, because of the scant social mixing between ultra-Orthodox and other Israelis.

The reality of the virus has felt more remote for most Israelis, despite how small the country is

But I suspect another reason for the quick return is this: Israelis are good foot soldiers when “under attack," willing to listen to public safety orders, like entering bomb shelters during times of war. But they have trouble dealing with anything in the middle when it comes to a crisis. And they, like many of their global counterparts, are understandably fearful of economic disaster.

The question I have is: Is this fast-moving return from isolation approach the smart, nimble, Israeli chutzpa style one that others should be emulating, or could it be seen more as a sloppy rush that leaves Israelis more vulnerable than necessary, a reflection of a government more influenced by political pressure, whether that be from the ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox anxious to return to synagogue life or from business leaders and the finance ministry -- or both -- than it is by medical professionals?

Dr. Hagai Levine, an epidemiologist, public health physician and faculty member of the Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says there are potential upsides to an approach of a swift return to normal especially if the infection rate in Israel continues to remain low, which so far, it has. “There is a spirit of improvising and doing things very fast,” he told me. “I rather it be more planned.” He mused further, it appeared decisions are being made more due to political pressure than scientific data. “No one explains to us to the logic (of the decisions around timelines) so it this leaves the public confused,” he says. “No one speaks to us. We don’t get to ask questions and get answers.”

On the beach Thursday morning, a cool breeze felt welcome after days of record-breaking heat. With temperatures soaring between 102 and 112 degrees, the Health Ministry had decided at the last minute that children did not have to wear masks in the classroom as long as the heat wave lasted.

I fear that short memory that has been the Israeli playbook for returning to “normal life” after times of conflict could end disastrously.

Bar Zimmer, 46, manager of the Hilton Bay Surf Academy, stood on a ladder fixing an awning at the club which teaches surfing and windsurfing, and stores and rents surfing equipment

“We’ve been hit very hard, we were closed these two months, but the surfers are coming back,” he says. He’s grateful for that, but he fears the lessons of the corona shutdown are already being forgotten, in the rush to return to real life. “People have a short memory.”

If this speedy reopening style proves premature -- along with a marked lack of messaging reminding the public that precautions are still essential -- I fear that short memory that has been the Israeli playbook for returning to “normal life” after times of conflict could end disastrously now that the enemy is an unprecedented global pandemic.

I hope I’m wrong.