My first Passover in Israel was one both of disappointment and profound revelation. This conflicting combination, especially in the throes of the coronavirus crisis, served to underscore the strength of the Jewish people—and that of the world’s only Jewish state.
The coronavirus dampened the traditional excitement around Passover in Israel for everyone here, because each household was for the first time forced by government order to celebrate on its own. Zero visitors—no grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins or good friends—were allowed to attend seders outside their own homes.
Think of Thanksgiving dinner with no guests. Bizarre. The sense of isolation here was palpable, for us and everyone we spoke to, as well as on local social media. Remember, too, that Israelis have for the past two weeks been restricted to within 100 meters (328 feet) from our homes, except to buy groceries or medicine, or to get medical attention, under penalty of stiff fines—which are being aggressively dispensed.
On the other hand, my moving Passover revelation was born of the opportunity to see Jewish Israelis pull together in inspiring solidarity, with our people, our story and our nation.
As Jews worldwide during the seder dinner told the story of our tribulations in Egypt and our long Exodus to freedom in the Promised Land, so, too, did this story remind us dramatically of the trial that the coronavirus pandemic is forcing on us today.
While the pandemic is making people all over the world feel isolated and threatened, the Jewish people—and particularly the Jews of Israel—are no strangers to segregation and life-threatening crisis.
Facing bigotry, persecution and forced isolation has been a way of life for Jews for thousands of years. But the ability of the Jewish people to retain a powerful sense of community and to forebear and survive countless historical challenges has indisputably made us stronger.
Even today Israel is inherently isolated, first because it is surrounded by 220 million Arab Muslims who generally oppose its very existence and who have many times tried to destroy it and murder its people.
However, fortunately, Israel is also the only democracy in the Middle East, and has become by far the region’s most developed—and strongest—nation. That national strength was evident to me as a newcomer to the Passover-in-Israel experience—and I’m not talking about the kind of strength that comes from military armaments. In fact, there are few weapons to be seen borne by young soldiers on Israel’s streets anymore, as there were when we visited 30 years ago.
Rather, the strength we saw on the streets of Israel—at least when we arrived two months ago, before the coronavirus crisis bloomed and isolation was imposed—was one of strong national identity and thriving families.
Coming from the United States, I was not accustomed to either of these features. Whereas millions of Israeli flags are flown and draped over balconies in honor of Israel’s upcoming Independence Day, we can’t remember such universal patriotism displayed for decades—even on the 4th of July—in our former home in Northern California.
We were also impressed by the degree of respect exhibited by Israelis in complying with very early and strict limitations enforced on their social activities and movement, to say nothing of donning gloves and masks, especially in grocery stores.
Few Americans today, even with a much higher incidence of COVID-19-related infection and death, are being so strictly limited or seem so cooperative with government directives.
Israel is also made powerful by its demonstrated commitment to the nuclear family and to filling itself with healthy children. Indeed, Israel’s birth rate of 3.1 children per family puts it ahead of almost all industrialized nations.
Above all, the people of Israel embody a commitment to nationhood unequaled in most other countries. Certainly, today’s bitter divisions in American society make the notion of universal (or even majority) love of country in the United States seem quaintly old-fashioned.
Even the distinct ethnic groups of Europe, while officially “unified” by the European Union, have over the past 27 years lost much of their sense of individual nationhood—and there’s virtually no sense of passionate loyalty on the part of its citizens to the European Union.
Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic has actually served to reinforce national boundaries and sensibilities the world over. Like Israel, virtually every nation has had to respond to the coronavirus on its own—closing off its borders and marshalling financial and healthcare resources to fight the plague independently of its neighbors.
Indeed, the responses of the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Switzerland and the other European Union countries to the coronavirus have almost exclusively been national, not communal.
While the pandemic’s devastation will surely rock the world’s economy and transform political relationships, it may bring the benefit—as it seems to have in Israel—of inspiring people to greater appreciation, dedication and even love for their own countries.
Many on the left may be distressed by this coronavirus-inspired trend toward nationalism, but in fact, national political formations based on tribal, cultural, ethnic and religious affinities have proven as useful throughout modern history as they are today in fighting a global pandemic.
Israel’s response to adversity over the last 72 years—as well as its rapid, resolute actions in the face of the current crisis—certainly affirm the efficacy of the Jewish formula of strong cultural, ethnic and religious national identities.
Until a vaccine for the coronavirus is found, our survival will depend on our ability to pull together as a nation—to make wise decisions for the common, national good, and to cooperate with each other to implement them.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.
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