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Empty streets, a curfew, Zoom seders: Israel’s Pesach like no other

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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Published: 10 April 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON: The government has imposed a new level of lockdown to make Israelis resist the urge to see family and friends for this year’s holiday

AT 8:30 PM on Wednesday night, throughout Israel, neighbours came out on their balconies and sang Ma Nishtana ("The Four Questions"), one of the most famous parts of the Passover seder.

Why is this night different from all other nights? They sang the traditional words, in unison and in different tunes (according to ethnic background), knowing, like Jews everywhere, that this Pesach was indeed, very different.

The Pesach seder meal is one of the oldest rituals in human history, yet this was, without a doubt, the first mass-observed “zeder” (seder conducted through Zoom). And the night was also different, officials warned Israelis, because, in terms of the COVID-19 virus, it was make-it-or-break-it night.

In Israel (as in most Jewish diaspora communities), the seder is the holiday that almost everyone observes. According to data from the Central Bureau of Statistic, 82 percent of Israeli Jews who self-identify as secular still attend a seder, mostly with extended family, often in very large gatherings. At this time in Israel, when spring is in full bloom, secular Israelis traditionally go out the next day into nature.

But this year will be different. Israelis have been quarantined in their homes for several weeks, and the curve of the infection and illness has been kept fairly steady. If they were to  break their quarantine to go out and visit each other and then, the next day, go on hikes and outings to the nature parks, then the curve might spike, and Israel's situation would look more like the dire situation of other countries.

Although most Israeli communities have been largely compliant with the self-quarantine measure, this time, the authorities were not leaving it up to anyone's sense of social responsibility, and a new level of lockdown measures, first of their kind, have been  put in place throughout the country.

As of Tuesday evening, all intercity travel was banned at least until Friday at 6am. Parts of Jerusalem, especially ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, were also cut off, and travel between different zones of the city was also banned.

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Everywhere, the curfew, already in effect, was more strictly enforced, with Israelis confined to their homes and allowed only to go 100 metres from their residence for any reason. Only two people who live in the same house are now allowed to go out together.

Until Tuesday, people were allowed to leave their homes to buy food, pharmaceuticals or other "essential needs," defined as medical or veterinary services, welfare and social services, blood donations, political demonstrations, appearances in court and appearances in the Knesset. But over the Passover holiday, even these regulations were tightened. In practice,  Israelis were hardly allowed to leave their homes. All food delivery and services have been closed until Friday.

Within cities and towns with a non-Jewish majority, residents are permitted a bit more movement, but the inter-city ban is in force between Arab localities, too, and the entrances and exits to most of these places were blocked by the police.

As of Friday, anyone leaving their homes must wear face masks.

Violation of any of these regulations is a criminal offence. Police have been out in full force, most dressed in hazmat suits, or at least in gloves and masks. However, a police official has told the media  they will not be able to enforce the regulation regarding the masks since, despite the fact that the regulations have been instituted based on Emergency Regulations, "there is no sanction or fine set on not enforcing the order [to wear a mask]. All a policeman can do is ask a person".

According to most reports, the regulations were, indeed, largely observed.  A few hundred tickets were handed out in large city parks and on the beaches, but mostly the press showed pictures of empty highways. And nature has quickly taken over – jackals have been seen roaming in neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and wild boars have made themselves new homes on main roads in Haifa.

Ministries squabble in public: Health officials said to seek to extend closure; Treasury says it’ll end on time (Times of Israel)

Even the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which became a COVID-19 hotspot and declared a restricted zone after its residents refused to comply with the stay-at-home regulations, remained largely indoors. This was enforced by soldiers from elite units who patrolled the city.

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Even the weather cooperated with these regulations. Unusually for this time of year, it will be cold and rainy over most of the country over the next few days, easing the temptation for anyone who was even thinking about it.

However, there are numerous reports on social media that Prime Minister Netanyahu and his wife Sarah violated the regulations, sharing a seder evening with their son, Avner, who does not live in the official residence.

The prime minister had also promised the Israeli public that if they behaved, the lockdown would be lifted after the holiday, although he did not say when. Israelis did largely behave, hoping to be let out soon; however, according to the Hebrew daily, Zman Yisrael, the health ministry has recommended continuing the holiday lockdown until at least the end of the seven-day holiday (Although in the Diaspora the Passover is celebrated for eight days, in Israel it is only celebrated for seven).

At the same time, government officials are saying that if the infection curve does continue to remain flat, after the holiday the country will gradually return to its economic activity.

On Thursday evening, according to the health ministry, 9,755 people have been infected with the virus and 79 of them have died. In the West Bank, which is usually completely cut off from Israel over major Jewish and Israeli holidays, 250 cases been diagnosed so far; one woman in her 60s died. In Gaza, 13 cases have been diagnosed.

And yet despite the differences last night, some things remained the same.  While the ubiquitous question, "where will you be for the seder?" was reworded to "how many will you be for the seder?", there were the usual traffic jams on the inter-city highways before the holiday.

This time they were not caused by the ritual of everybody going to visit everybody else, but rather because of the police checkpoints set up to make sure that nobody visited anybody.

Finally, the political stalemate between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, tasked with forming a "national unity government", persisted and does not show any sign of resolution.  Israel still does not have a government.

At least some things haven't changed.

Under Passover lockdown, thousands take to balconies to sing ‘Ma Nishtanah’ (Times of Israel)
With families confined at home, country belts out Four Questions, traditionally sung by youngest member of household, asking ‘Why is this night different from every other night?’

Older Israelis home alone for Passover: ‘I’ve lived through worse’ (Haaretz)
Residents of senior citizens’ homes and older people living on their own aren’t jumping for joy, but they’re muddling through

 'It's a world war, competition is mad': Israel fails in its hunt for ventilators abroad (Haaretz)
Suppliers of ventilators from the US, Germany and China backed out from providing equipment, leaving medical authorities with narrow options to avoid shortages in battle against the coronavirus

BGI, AID Genomics partner to build lab in Gaza to test 3,000 a day (Jerusalem Post)
In late March, Genetics giant BGI announced it would be working alongside Israeli company MyHeritage to build a lab capable of testing up to 10,000 people a day for coronavirus.

Photo: An Israeli man stands on his hands on an empty road during a lockdown, April 8 (AP/Oded Balilty)

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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