Like a first-rate burglar breaking into every apartment in a condominium, the COVID-19 pandemic has breached almost every country in the world, catching each one in its own incidental moment of current affairs. Israel is no exception (except that it is always an exception). The bio-intruder caught us at the third peak of a prolonged political stalemate: The third election in a year in early March yielded a third draw. This time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was an indicted suspect for three corruption charges, and his center-left nemesis Benny Gantz was even louder in his reproach. Enter the coronavirus: By May, Netanyahu and Gantz had joined forces to create the most wasteful coalition government in Israel’s history; a pending Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley is destroying delicate arrangements with moderate Palestinian and Middle Eastern leaders, and the Israeli left and right have never loathed each other more.
If the immediate effects of the corona quake on Israel’s already quaking democracy leave you gasping, save your breath for the long-term effects. The virus has sent the country’s two largest minority groups, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, spiraling off in almost opposite directions. Future historians are likely to say that COVID-19 was a powerful factor, perhaps a tipping point, in the transformation of these two communities. But could the pandemic be pushing both groups in the same direction, albeit by different paths?
Some of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities have been badly hit by the coronavirus. All of them face an undiscerning, but understandable, public fury. Several spiritual luminaries, most effectively Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, ordered schools and synagogues to remain open. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a Ger Hasid and corruption suspect, performed dismally but fortunately let responsible civil servants manage the crisis. The virus augmented a leadership crisis that may accelerate the entry of ultra-Orthodox individuals and groups into secular education, the professions and civil society. Where rabbis and their puppet politicians have failed, women and the younger generation could spearhead a new beginning.
By contrast, Israel’s corona crisis gave members of Israel’s Arab minority a rare chance to display their civic virtues and win some long-deserved credit. Here is a story that touches my very own kishkes. In October 2019 I found myself in an emergency surgery room with a burst appendix. As I faded out, cheery voices wished me well in Hebrew and Arabic. I woke up with my life saved and my political ire reinvigorated. Just weeks earlier, in the September elections, Netanyahu’s cronies had brutalized Gantz for planning to govern “with the help of the Arabs.” They accused the Jewish center-left of treason for courting support from Ayman Odeh’s exceptionally successful Joint List, a party representing the majority of Israeli Arab voters and tens of thousands of peace-seeking Israeli Jews. Netanyahu’s demeaning of every Arab in the country was especially hurtful to those who take an active part in Israel’s society and economy.
Many of them serve in the police and emergency forces, and even more in the public health system. Figures released in 2017 put the number of Arab medical students at 19.2 percent of the total, dentistry students at 24.7 percent and a staggering 42 percent of nursing students. At least 38 percent of Israel’s pharmacists are Arabs, and so are some of the country’s finest surgeons and best medical scientists. Men and women embrace this tough but dignified career—much as young European Jews did when emancipation allowed them into universities.
You will be hard-pressed to find an Arab, Druze or Bedouin village in Israel where no medics live. Still, their political backing looks sinister to Netanyahu and his ilk. Following my medical ordeal, this racist cynicism felt all the more bloodcurdling.
On the way home, I tweeted: “I was hospitalized, diagnosed, operated, cared for, healed and released home—all with the help of the Arabs.” A few months and more than 15,000 COVID-19 cases later, most Israelis have come to understand that the full participation (not “help”!) of thousands of Arab Israeli medics, paramedics and medical support staff, men and women, has been crucial to our relatively successful battle against the virus. More important, the Arab minority, already embarked on a long-term “civic turn,” is feeling its newfound power not only in the political arena, but also in its now-evident civil and professional contribution. The Joint List promises biting activism from its opposition benches, while young Arab scientists, artists, academics and professionals of both sexes are swelling the ranks of Israel’s middle class.
Israel’s two largest cultural minorities, the Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox, are facing historic crossroads, deeply concerned about their future standing in Israeli society. The latter would do well to follow the former into a “civic turn” of their own. If that happens, someday women and men from both communities will meet each other in the hot, noisy and vibrant Mediterranean city square of Israeli society. They will also meet, no doubt, as surgeons in the operating theater, but please count me out of that one.
Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli historian and essayist and a professor at the University of Haifa.