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“We will keep the rules and, with God’s Help they’ll keep us.”

— By Cliff Keller — Israelis got a scolding on Saturday evening. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed regret in reporting “a change in direction” in Israel’s fight to halt the spread of COVID 19.

“I must show you…a steep increase [in COVID‑19 diagnoses] in recent days,” Netanyahu told the nation in a speech. “…It is too early to say if it is a general change in the trend but it is not too early to say that there has been a general loosening in discipline.”

Not to make light of the spike in occurrences of the new and, as yet, not well-understood disease, but any mention of Israelis and discipline together, to those of us who live here, presents a challenge. The two terms side-by-side amount to something more than an oxymoron. Government workers exist. Humans can be alone together, or clearly misunderstood. Devout atheists? Even odds? We’ve all seen examples.

Israelis during lock-down, with varying degrees of compliance at wearing masks
Israelis during lock-down, with varying degrees of compliance at wearing masks

But a disciplined Israeli?

Although often cooperative, amenable, helpful, caring, well-intentioned and trustworthy, Israelis are never willingly disciplined. They do not, as a rule, follow rules. 

“We will keep the rules,” Netanyahu told Israelis, “and with God’s help they will keep us.”

But Israelis had not kept the rules since business and social restrictions began to be lifted. Netanyahu announced the initial easing by saying, “we want to help the economy,” but also to “ease your lives, to make it possible for you to get out, return to normalcy, get a cup of coffee, a glass of beer as well, so first of all have fun.”

Inviting Israelis to have fun is like encouraging fish to swim. Netanyahu had also warned, when announcing the partial opening of the economy, that his administration would continue monitoring the outbreak and he expressed hope that “we won’t have to change anything” if a new spike in coronavirus cases should occur.

A spike did, indeed, occur but, before going further, it is important to note that Israel’s initial response to this crisis, although certainly not perfect, was, comparatively, hugely successful. Two-hundred-eighty-five deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus in Israel to date. During the same period, for example, New Jersey, in the United States, with a population and land mass nearly identical to Israel’s (although Jersey is home to almost a half-million more residents over 65), has attributed 11,698 deaths to COVID‑19, 41 times more than in Israel.

Graph: Israel experienced a spike in reported COVID-19 diagnoses at Shavuot

Between May 16 and 25, Israel averaged about 13 new reported coronavirus cases per day. (The U.S. number of reported cases during that period per every 9 million residents is roughly 600 per day.) But in the 5 days between Memorial Day in the States and the end of Shavuot in Israel, Israel’s average reported cases per day spiked to 54. The most dramatic increase occurred among students and teachers at Gymnasia Rechavia, a high school in Jerusalem, which experienced 120 new cases.

Parents and students reported that social distancing rules in the school were largely ignored. Authorities were accused of having lax attitudes.

 “They said everyone needed to wear a mask and then decided that masks were not required because of the heat wave,” a parent told the Jerusalem Post. “What happened at the Gymnasia happened because people were not wearing masks.”

“The rules are simple,” Netanyahu said during his speech to the nation. “Maintain two meters distance. Wear masks in the public sphere. Wash your hands and maintain the rules of hygiene. If we do not do this, there will be no choice but to go back to restrictions… If we do this, we will be able to continue to open our economy, bring back jobs, restore growth and restore hope.

“From now on, we will do three things in tandem. We will tighten the discipline regarding the corona rules that had loosened. We will encourage activity by businesses that respect this discipline and we will act against whoever does not strictly uphold the rules and thus endangers the health of us all.”

Time will tell. Until COVID‑19 becomes manageable, Israelis literally hold their breath while waiting.