Home inFocus COVID-19: The More Things Change... Resilience: Israel’s Reaction to the COVID-19 Epidemic

Resilience: Israel’s Reaction to the COVID-19 Epidemic

Lenny Ben-David Summer 2020
A Turkish military hospital in Magdabah Sinai, 1916. (Library of Congress)

The Mayo Clinic has a definition of “psychological resilience” that is appropriate for Israel. “The ability to adapt to difficult situations. When stress, adversity, or trauma strikes, you still experience anger, grief, and pain, but you’re able to keep functioning — both physically and psychologically.”

While the Mayo Clinic adds to its definition that resilience also requires the ability to seek help, Israel has added a new feature: the ability to offer help, take the offensive, improvise, muster human and financial resources, and defeat the adversity. 

Yes, those actions sound like they apply to battlefield emergencies. Indeed, they have been applied to such military purposes as developing the Arrow and Iron Dome missile defense systems, investing in cyber defenses and offenses, designing the Merkava tank and its reactive and active defenses, and more. But the threat of and response to the invading coronavirus required the same resilient and early responses in closing borders, quarantining likely carriers, establishing field hospitals, training staff, and employing the Mossad [Israel’s external security service] to secure vital medical supplies. The government deployed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to close infected neighborhoods, create hostels for Covid-19 patients who did not require hospitalization, deliver supplies to elderly shut-ins, and even babysit for the children of essential healthcare workers. Immediately, IDF and government-sponsored laboratories were redirected to design and build emergency respirators and hospital robots for patient care. Laboratories were reassigned to research possible vaccines. 

Obviously, “resiliency” is the most important word to describe the Jewish people immediately after the Holocaust. Defiance, vengefulness, heroism are also apt descriptions, but not one of those words by itself can explain the formation of a Jewish state only three years after World War II better than the Jewish people’s “resiliency.”

Complacency and Resiliency in Palestine

The contradictory traits of resiliency and complacency were exhibited during the near eradication of the Jews of Palestine in the early 20th century. They were ravaged by a locust plague, starvation, malaria, cholera, typhus, expulsion, and the Ottoman Empire’s forced conscription, cruelty, and persecution that bordered on a repeat of the Armenian genocide. Epidemics were spread by the deployment of disease-carrying Turkish troops throughout the Middle East, and the diseases struck the Jewish populations hard. In Jerusalem, the situation was so desperate that hundreds of Jewish women, desperate for food and care for their children, and not knowing the fate of their husbands, turned to prostitution and, as one historian has written, “went to the wrong with German and Turkish troops.” 

It can reasonably be argued that the epidemics of 100 years ago were spread by the movement of Turkish armies across the region. “Widespread epidemics consumed Ottoman soldiers and civilians alike during the Great War,” contended Prof. Melanie Schulze-Tanielian of the University of Michigan. “The fact that soldiers often had to march to and from the front made it difficult for Ottoman sanitary officials to maintain adequate hygiene. It was during these marches that soldiers would at random mingle with civilians, picking up or leaving behind germs and microbes…”

German General Otto Liman von Sanders, who would command the Turkish-German forces in Palestine during World War I, reported on the medical state of “poor or even non-existing hygiene, vermin infestations, and rampant sicknesses among the troops. There were no bathing facilities in the barracks; military hospitals were in an appalling state. A permeating stench and overwhelming dirt met him as he entered overcrowded hospital rooms. There was no separation between patients with physical injuries and those infected with diseases; men slept in the same beds or crowded on the floor.”

Von Sanders was faced with the complacency and carelessness of the Ottoman Army. His suggestions to the Ottoman military command to improve the health crisis were “ignored, evaded, or met with outright resistance from higher officers of the military,” according to Prof. Schulze-Tanielian.

Hemdah Ben-Yehudah, the wife of the pioneering Hebrew scholar Eliezer Ben-Yehudah, provided further details on the situation in Jerusalem, in her article,Jerusalem: Its Redemption and Future,” a 1918 volume of eyewitness essays: 

Ten-thousand Jews left Jerusalem in one week. The streets were filled with the exiles who had no carriages and conveyed their baggage on their own backs. Most of the houses were closed because the inhabitants were dead, or deported, exiled, or in prison. Deserted were the streets. The women kept house underground; but there was little food to prepare. They had forgotten the appearance of a loaf of bread. The babies died for lack of milk.

Some 3,000 orphans were wandering the streets of Jerusalem out of a community of 26,000 people, according to a writer, Chen Malul, of the National Library of Israel.

Almost miraculously, according to Mrs. Ben-Yehuda, the British Army arrived in Jerusalem on Chanukah Eve, 1917. She related the resiliency that she witnessed in Jerusalem’s remaining population: 

…an impulse of life after the reign of death. The first to obey this overwhelming impulse were Jewish youths, the remnant that had been concealed hidden like the seed in the earth and had thus escaped the general persecution. These young men demanded the privilege of fighting side by side with the English, in the conquest of their own country. Their desire was granted. A battalion of native Jews was immediately enlisted, and the [numbers of] recruits increased.

Other Jewish units arrived from overseas, including volunteer units to the Jewish Brigades in the British Army as well as volunteer medical teams from groups such as Hadassah and the American Joint Distribution Committee.

But the resilience of the Jewish community was not found in other communities in Palestine recovering from disease and war. 

According to researcher Ella Ayalon of Tel Aviv University, who wrote on the crisis of Jewish orphans after World War I, “The [Jewish] Palestine Orphan Committee followed a progressive agenda and aspired to place the children under its care with families, and not in an orphanage.”


How did the Jews of Eretz Yisrael recover and move forward after World War I, the Holocaust, the War of Independence, the Yom Kippur War, and all the other crises such as the coronavirus pandemic? I suggest a trait of resilience in their DNA or psyche. 

I once had a discussion on religion with I. L. (Si) Kenen, the founder of AIPAC and my mentor. Si was notoriously non-religious.“I don’t believe in God,” he told me. 

“What do you believe in?” I asked.

Si responded, “I believe in the eternity of Israel.”

“Si, You’re no less religious than I,” I answered. “We just call it different things.”

Today, I call it resiliency. 

Lenny Ben-David served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. He is the author of American Interests in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs. He is currently writing Secrets of World War I in the Holy Land Revealed in Early Photographs.