Why Israel Will Beat COVID-19
Sitting in the tiny, closet-like office, we could barely move the chairs around to get the four of us into the cramped space. There was a small desk behind which sat Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the Opposition, while facing him on the opposite side, I sat with our two guests. The year was 2008, and Dan Senor and Saul Singer were interviewing Netanyahu, as both a former prime minister and former minister of finance for a book they were working on.
They peppered Netanyahu with questions for over an hour on both the how and why Israel had become such a technological powerhouse. A central theme in this discussion was the Israeli military, and how central this rite of passage is in shaping the Israeli ecosystem. The women and men of the IDF are trained with a unique attitude and approach, and this was seen as critical in shaping the drive and motivation for a burgeoning tech sector, unparalleled the world round.
Roughly one year later, Senor and Singer’s bestseller, Start-up Nation, hit US bookshelves and became an instant hit. Not only did the book become a must-read among the pro-Israel and international business communities, but its title became synonymous with the tiny Jewish state.
When asked by a family member in the United States why Israel has been so successful in our battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, the start-up nation premise came to mind. The approach to which Senor and Singer attribute our success in the world of technology has another element to it. While Israeli soldiers are encouraged to ask questions and not just accept military strategy dictated from above, once a decision is finalized, military discipline is enforced without compromise. While the ability to question authority is a strength in developing a certain work ethic, the ability to follow final directives is an asset when fighting a pandemic.
Military service in Israel is mandatory, and as such much of the population has served or is currently serving. Thus, when Prime Minister Netanyahu, after much government debate and deliberation, outlined clear restrictions and regulations, military discipline kicked in. While many other countries struggled at first to take the necessary steps needed to slow this ugly wave, Israel was quick and agile in its response with a united and regimented front.
In contrast, the two groups in Israel that are less likely to serve in the IDF, the Haredim and the Arabs, were also the two groups hesitant in their response to government restrictions. As a result, the virus spread like wildfire through places like Bnei Brak and also in Jerusalem’s Haredi and Arab neighborhoods.
Another security reality that has ingrained in us a similar discipline has been the years of living under rocket fire. For many years, the only active bomb shelters were in Northern Israel and near the Gaza border, while the rest of Israel was felt to be out of range. Starting with the Gulf War and later from Lebanon and Gaza, all of Israel became a target. While the Iron Dome and other missile defense systems have limited the efficacy of these attacks, we the people were trained to not take chances. When the sirens sound, the people of Israel head for a safe room or find cover. When security and safety are at risk, our army discipline kicks in.
There are obviously many other factors and figures that account for our relative achievement. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has done a fantastic job in navigating the ministry’s many critical roles in this battle, but Bennett’s greatest impact was his initial public campaign, which eventually went global. When Bennett explained that loving our parents and grandparents meant staying away, Israeli children and grandchildren saluted and immediately followed this directive. Isolating the most vulnerable demographic from groups most likely to be asymptomatic has proven essential.
Israel’s demography is another important factor. Israel’s median age is roughly a full decade younger than the likes of Italy, France, the UK, the United States, and much of the Western world. This has a direct and clear impact on the number of sick and dead. Age is one of a handful of additional factors and explanations which have thankfully played out for us to this point.
The road to ultimate success remains a lengthy one, with many challenges and difficulties ahead. While the health component was initially the lone concern, today we face many daunting tasks. Staggering unemployment, widespread bankruptcy, and significantly increased poverty have left millions of Israelis vulnerable and fearful for what the future may bring. Now more than ever, we will need true leadership, perseverance, and a united front. Just as we were taught in the IDF, no brothers and sisters should be left behind.
Public debate in Israel is extremely dynamic on the various strategies to defeat coronavirus, how to navigate our economic recovery, and how to restore our education system. The age-old adage — two Jews and three opinions — is definitely applicable to our political and policy debates, and is partially what makes Israel the start-up nation. Facing this horrific pandemic, we can be grateful that in the implementation of safety rules and regulations, our military instincts kick in and we strictly adhere to decisive orders. In the words of a leading US thinker, discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.
Ari Harow is the former chief of staff to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and is currently a leading international political and business consultant.
A version of this article was published in The Jerusalem Post.