Prof. Dr. Alice Pinheiro-Walla, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Bayreuth, is currently spending a research stay in Israel at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Shortly after her arrival, a quarantine was imposed on persons entering Israel from Germany and other countries. She writes to us how she is doing and what unpredicted aspects such an exceptional situation can have.
Jerusalem, 18th March 2020.
I arrived in Jerusalem a few days before the travel restrictions started. I came as a visiting professor at the political sciences department of the Hebrew University. I was charmed by the beautiful campus on Mount Scopus and found accommodation at the nearby Scopus Student Village, just 10 minutes walk from my office. I was warmly received by my host, Prof. Daniel Schwartz. The coffee was excellent, the food delicious, the sky bright blue. From my apartment balcony I could get a glimpse of the old city of Jerusalem.
On the 04. March, two days after the elections, all travellers from European countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland were required to enter quarantine upon entering Israel. Soon after the new regulation was announced, it became clear that this rule would apply retrospectively to those who had come from those countries in the previous two weeks. Together with thousands of Israelis I was required to enter a period of self-isolation.
Quarantine means work without distractions
My host was distressed and worried about me having to spend several days in self-confinement, but I reassured him that I had come to Israel to do research. Quarantine meant I could work without distractions! I was lucky to have an apartment to myself. Not everyone has such luxury. I heard of students spending quarantine in their tiny dormitories and of families with children having to share a small space together for such a long time. My host would bring me groceries and leave them in front of my door.
The quarantine should start from the date of entry in Israel, not from the day it was announced. In total, I spent 10 days in quarantine. This time on my own was a real gift. I had many deep and much longer conversations with my two teenage children. After all, I didn’t have to rush anywhere and had time for them while they could be reassured that if their mother started to get on their nerves, all they needed to do was to turn off Zoom or FaceTime. I also talked to friends, to my PhD students, research partners, and kept in touch with relatives and other academics over Facebook. I kept so busy during that time that I went to bed every night feeling quite tired and slept like a baby. I only had time to watch Netflix once since arriving in Israel. Time in quarantine can actually be quite enjoyable if you are an academic.
A vague feeling that things will not be the same again
The day my self-isolation ended coincided with rumours that the Israeli government would soon announce a complete shut-down. Anxious Israelis flocked to supermarkets on Shabbat to buy groceries. Thankfully, my neighbourhood supermarket closes on Shabbat. I knew it would open the following Sunday at 7 am, and that all the groceries would be there waiting for me, so there was no reason to freak out. On that Sunday, I went shopping for groceries at 7 am and got everything I needed, collected the books I had left at my office at the University before my quarantine started, and headed to the city center to celebrate my freedom, however short lived. After spending days inside, even the normal bus and tram ride through Jerusalem felt exciting.
The famous Machane Yehuda market was still open on “freedom Sunday,” but many shops were closed; the market was only half as colourful and lively than usual. I could hear the word “corona” everywhere, in the jokes the merchants shouted to each other across the street, in private conversations, in the prayers at the women’s section at the Kotel. A merchant told me he expected all shops to be closing within a few days. The people I met knew that this shutdown would have a terrible impact on their livelihoods. There was a sadness in the air, a vague feeling that things will not be the same again.
I mentioned to the man at the pharmacy that no disinfection hand gel could be had in the whole of Israel. So he taught me how to mix a hand gel with alcohol and aloe vera gel. I told him I had a cunning business idea for my stay in Israel. We laughed.
Fear brings out the worst out of human beings
My Lufthansa flights were cancelled three times. I remained calm. My plan was to fly back to Germany after passover. My travel agent in Bayreuth urged me to fly back sooner and seemed surprised at my sanguine reaction to the whole situation. I wish people would bear in mind that the measures we are adopting now are required in solidarity with those at greater risk (the elderly, the chronically ill) and as a collective effort not to overburden our health systems. Most of us are not under life threat, but we must avoid infecting others and spreading the virus. There is a duty to comply with all the public regulations, but no need to panic. Fear brings the worst out of human beings, and these are times in which we must show solidarity and humanity. Fear is also a dangerous breeding ground for authoritarianism and dictatorships. The impact of the current crisis on politics is what worries me most in the long run.
My eldest daughter who lives in Berlin uses an old subway line. The trains tend to shake, making her feel motion sick. Recently, she felt dizzy and thought for a minute that she was about to collapse. Then she had a vision. She imagined herself lying on the floor while the other passengers looked on. No one would dare help her lest she had the deadly corona virus. We discussed this over FaceTime. She rightly senses a breakdown in human solidarity in the current crisis. Everyone is egoistically fearing for their lives. And this is precisely the attitude we should avoid in our current situation.
Gratefulness for everything we take granted otherwise
I was quarantined here in Israel before self-confinement started being imposed elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, I experienced a strong sense of community; several persons in my university accommodation, complete strangers, got in touch and offered help and warm shabbat meals. I had Israeli friends regularly getting in touch and checking if I was okay, and large amounts of food regularly being left in front of my door by my host Prof. Schwartz, who simply refused to accept any payment from me afterwards. I spent ten days in self-isolation and didn’t feel sad or lonely. And I got a lot of research done.
May the times we are living through enable us to deepen and strengthen our relationships with others. May we use this time as an opportunity to reflect, to do things differently in our everyday lives and to be grateful for everything we tend to take for granted otherwise. I hope this crisis will help restore our faith in humanity, not undermine it. I am very grateful for my research stay in Israel, not “despite of everything”, but precisely because of everything I could experience and learn under these exceptional circumstances.