Vaccination Miracle Brings Israel Back to Its Roots

In just under three months, Israel will head to the polls for the fourth time in two years. With parties still being formed, old alliances collapsing and new partnerships emerging, it is too early to predict the outcome. Nonetheless, most polls indicate that for the first time ever, the Labor Party will get no seats in the Knesset.

Labor was Israel’s founding party, the party of its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, the party that ruled almost absolutely for Israel’s first 29 years. Thus, Labor’s apparent demise is yet another indicator that the Israel of 1948 is all but gone.

The image of Israel as a small country surrounded by enemies is giving way to a new Middle East in which Israel has peace with Egypt and Jordan, normalized relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, made progress with Morocco and, apparently, movement with Saudi Arabia. A country that barely held on in the face of what seemed imminent economic collapse in the 1950’s is now a technology powerhouse and boasts a formidable economy. Its population has grown tenfold since 1948, from approximately 800,000 in 1948 to 8.6 million now.

While Israelis take pride in all they’ve accomplished, we are often wistful for the simpler, more innocent Israel of yesteryear. We miss that sense of social cohesion that once felt omnipresent, the sense of shared destiny that early socialist roots cultivated.

Few would have predicted that the simple process of getting vaccinated against Covid-19 would restore, however briefly, the Israel we sometimes long for.

Every Israeli citizen is a member of one of a handful of national HMO’s, so we are fairly easily reached. A couple of days before the vaccinations were set to begin — first for frontline medical staff and the next day for those 60 years old and above — we got emails inviting us to make an appointment. The demand was overwhelming, but after a few tries, I got us appointments for the end of the first day that the vaccine would be available to non-medical staff.

As the vaccinations were being given in one of Jerusalem’s large sports arenas, I anticipated utter bedlam, the sort of Israeli chaos that I usually can’t stand, and drove to the arena with a bit of dread. But I was entirely mistaken. Inside, there was a hushed calm, even a sense of sanctity.

We waited only a very few minutes, and as I looked at the eyes of other people waiting, their faces hidden behind their masks, I could tell that I was not the only one overwhelmed by a profound sense of gratitude for being part of this country. None of us knew — and still don’t — how exactly Israel managed to procure so many doses of a vaccine developed in part by an American company but still not easily obtainable in America. But we were deeply grateful that it had.

The small army of nurses and medical techs injecting one person after another with utter efficiency was that old Israel, the Israel that knows how to come together when facing a mortal enemy. It’s a different sort of enemy this time, but the battle still evoked that abiding belief in our national resilience.

When my family moved to Israel more than 20 years ago, we were astonished that our 12-year-old daughter and her friends would stay out with their youth group until 1 a.m. Parents didn’t worry about their daughters being out late at night, and for the most part, they still don’t.

This is still a country that when a little kid is crying outside without an adult in obvious proximity, people scoop him or her up and wait for someone to show; it never crosses their mind that parents would object to their child being held by strangers, just as it rarely occurs to a parent that anything untoward is going to happen to their lost child. These past few weeks have evoked once again that Israel that sees itself as a family.

Still, I was momentarily confused as we waited the required 15 minutes after the shot before leaving, as staff members walked around handing out copies of little booklets. “Games for children?” they asked quietly, offering people as many copies as they wanted. “What on earth are these for?” I wondered. “We’re not vaccinating kids, it’s nighttime and there isn’t a kid in sight. Except for the staff we’re all over 60. Who needs kids’ games?”

And then it struck me, as people happily and gratefully took copies of the booklet — and then asked for another copy or two. The booklets weren’t for us — they were for our grandchildren. The HMO intuited why so many of us were there that night; we hadn’t hugged our grandchildren in almost nine months. Obviously, we were also relieved to reduce the possibility of getting sick, but somebody in an office somewhere, far from the arena, understood instinctively who would be getting on line first, and why.

Friends of ours, just a few years too young to have been eligible for the vaccine, look after an elderly woman who lives not far from them. When she needs a ride or assistance with something, they’re there for her. She, of course, was eligible, and got an appointment; so they drove her downtown to her HMO’s location. Parking downtown is often impossible, so they went together — the wife would take the woman inside while the husband waited in the car.

But a few minutes later, my friend told me, his wife called, told him to park the car and come inside right away. “They’re going to vaccinate us,” she told him. When he reminded the nurse that they weren’t really eligible because they were still too young, she simply said, “You brought in an elderly person who needed to get here? You deserve to get the vaccine,” and soon thereafter, the three of them walked out, vaccinated.

It reminded him, he told me, of that Israel that so many of us miss.

At moments, in these recent weeks, the warmth of the past and the promise of the future seemed to meld. A prominent Arab physician from the Galilee told another friend of mine what these past months of being on the front lines have felt like to him. “Usually, when Israel goes to war,” he said to her, “we’re not in the army, we can’t help. But this time, Israel went to war again, and we Arabs got to be soldiers, too!” When she wiped a tear from her eye, she told me, his eyes also watered.

Israel has now inoculated nearly a million people. Israel’s is a very young population, so almost a third are too young to get the vaccine anyway — which means that in two weeks, this country vaccinated just shy of 20% of eligible citizens. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose political future looked precarious just a week or two ago, is hoping that a national sense of gratitude for this extraordinary accomplishment might just catapult him back into office — and things could well play out that way. After crises, Israelis often rip their governments apart; in the midst of the challenge, though, they often bond together, even at the ballot box.

Israel, like most countries, still has enormous obstacles to address, many of them important, a few of them existential. But there are still moments here when we recognize that this is not a country like any other. It is a country that was founded to give sanctuary to a particular people that desperately needed it, one that has weathered more in seven decades than most countries do in centuries, and that has produced a sort of familial resilience that can’t be replicated anywhere else.

For decades, Israelis have often gazed across the ocean at Americans, wondering when we could be just like them. These past few weeks, we’ve been profoundly grateful to be just who we are.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. His latest book is “We Stand Divided: The Rift Between American Jews and Israel.”

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