NAZARETH—So far, 58 Israelis have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus illness, but close to 400,000 out of this country’s 9 million citizens are being affected by the new quarantine imposed to fight it.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced new strictures on all arrivals, no matter from where, only a few hardy tourists remained here in this biblical city in the heart of the Galilee.
As of Monday, all Israeli citizens and residents returning to the country must enter 14 days of home quarantine. And as of Thursday, foreigners arriving in Israel will have to prove that they can quarantine themselves under the same conditions—not in hotels or in Airbnbs—or be sent back to their airport of origin.
The manager of Nazareth’s Fauzi Azar Inn joked that he was being compensated for lost tourist revenue by the tourists stuck in town with nowhere to go. Air France, Swiss International, and Lufthansa have all stopped flying in and out of Israel, at least until the end of March. Turkish Airlines is still flying, but U.S. carriers are expected to follow the European lead.
In Nazareth’s old city, three French speakers walked through the square in front of the vaulted Church of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel is said to have told Mary, locally known as Miriam, that she was pregnant with child.
“Corona! Corona! Corona!” a bunch of teens shouted at the foreigners.
An American spending the year in Nazareth, her husband’s hometown, said it was getting more and more common for her and her teenage daughter to hear the same taunts.
Elsewhere, God and politics meld the way they always have. Israel’s chief rabbi, David Lau, issued an edict urging the faithful not to kiss the mezuzah, the decorative box affixed to the doorposts of synagogues and Jewish homes, containing verses from the Torah.
It is Purim, the carnivalesque festival commemorating the rescue of the Jewish people from evil Haman, the Persian strongman who planned to kill them all, as told in the Book of Esther.
The event is celebrated with abundant booze, traditionally wine.
Monday night in Tel Aviv, grownups disguised as dragonflies, cowboys, or friendly tigers could be seen walking along the street, some with their costumed dogs.
But most of the elaborate, colorful Purim parades have been canceled. This year, children, who are out of school for the holiday, can be seen ambling about in twos or threes—a miniature princess, a small ambulatory emoji, and an astronaut—holding hands and occasionally glancing at a parent warily sipping coffee at a café.
The all-night Purim parties have been shut down in many places, and Jerusalem has banned public Purim festivities outright. Due to the fear of contagion, the alleyways of its central market, Mahane Yehuda, which usually thrum with costumed revelers until the bakeries offer them alcohol-absorbing buns early in the morning, will remain empty.
The last holdouts against edicts against partying declare their intentions with the air of defiant renegades holding firm against an overpowering force.
In this Holy Land dense with faiths, strange theories have started to take root.
In Jerusalem, Matan Saadia, who runs the Primitivo wine bar, said, “No cancellation. The party starts at 11 p.m. and sees you through the morning.” As if wine could prove a savior from COVID-19, he added, “We have to do whatever we can to end this thing!”
On the day the cancellations of all festivities were announced, Tal Pelter, who owns the Pelter Winery on the Golan Heights,and hosts a legendary annual Purim bacchanal, responded to a question about possible cancellation with, “Are you crazy? Of course not. To the contrary! Screw it.”
Anyway, he added, he was trying to prove his theory that the dreaded novel coronavirus could not survive at an altitude higher than 3,600 feet above sea level, the elevation of his winery.
Pelter loves busting conventions: He had just returned from the airport, where he picked up one of his assistant winemakers who had just returned from Australia and instead of going into quarantine, spent the weekend working in the bottling department.
On the day before Purim, a day of fasting for observant Jews, a group of pious men including cult rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yehiel Abuhatseira, and the grandchildren of the Righteous Baba Sali, according to a press release, boarded a helicopter armed only with shofars—horns carved from rams’ horns—and took to the skies “to protect Israel as the four wings of angels protect the earth.”
A video of the bright yellow chopper, black rotors whirring, looking suspiciously like a loud airborne bug, went viral.
The Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, decreed that the Eucharist could only be given to the hand, not the mouth, but urged priests to live-stream Mass and his flock to stay in.
Public Masses, he said, could be celebrated only for groups of less than 15 people, if there is at least one meter between them.
“We encourage everyone to pray at home, read the Bible, and continue to fast, asking God for mercy and forgiveness,” Pizzaballa, said, in a letter entitled “Guidelines for COVID-19.”
“I know that not everyone will agree to these guidelines, but I call on everyone to a sense of responsibility and unity,” he said. “The strength which comes to us from Communion with Christ Jesus does not take away our human responsibility to protect, care for, and heal our environment.”
For Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, including many who got pre-Easter deals on package tours, the guidelines seemed esoteric, if not nonexistent.
On Monday, as worried priests stood by, South Asian Catholics prostrated themselves on the slab of rock that covered Jesus’ grave at the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, some masked with flimsy aqua-colored mouth-and-nose shields, others not. They kissed the sacred block and pressed their hands to it as if drawing life from its veined surface.
A few hundred feet away from the church, Jews visiting Jerusalem ahead of Passover pressed their hands to the stones of the Western Wall with similar fervor. The rabbinic authorities that decreed a halt on mezuzah-kissing had no comments on the sanitary aspects of wall-revering, or of thousands gathering in what is called the Holy Basin.
On Tuesday, the Israeli health ministry announced that a group of German tourists who were infected by the coronavirus while in Israel had toured the Western Wall tunnels, a warren of humid, subterranean passageways, shafts, and rock-lined spaces that constituted ancient Jerusalem more than 2,000 years ago… microbe heaven.
Above, on the Temple Mount, or the Holy Sanctuary, Muslim authorities have refused to order any limitations to the number of faithful who may come to Friday prayers at al-Aqsa, the third of the major pilgrimages of Islam.
A statement published by the Waqf, the Islamic religious council responsible for the site, said that “Islam offers a unique model for beautification and cleanliness, safeguarding private and public health, and building the body to a strong pillar and its healthiest and most beautiful expression, preserving society from the spread of disease, epidemics, and pollutants.”
Explaining why it had refused Israeli entreaties to limit the size of large groups, the Waqf said that “it has been clinically proven that the most successful preventive treatment for epidemic diseases and others is hygiene—and God Almighty praises the purified ones, so Glory be to Him.”
In Judeo-Christian terms, that is: Cleanliness is next to godliness, so we’re good.
The Muslim faithful, however, are largely staying away. Responding to their own fears, or the warnings issued on more earthly terms, only a sparse crowd attended al-Aqsa midday prayers on Friday.
The Palestinian Authority, in which 25 people, mostly foreigners, have thus far been diagnosed with the coronavirus, has declared a state of emergency like Italy’s lockdown and has sealed off Bethlehem, where the first seven cases were detected among the employees of a hotel that had hosted a group of infected pilgrims from Greece. All hotels, restaurants, event venues, and coffee shops in Palestine are closed.
The holy city of Bethlehem has become the Palestinian viral hotspot, and Israeli authorities working closely with the Palestinians enforced the closure on their side with two exceptions: Bethlehemites working in Israel may still cross through, without the imposition of a quarantine, and any Israeli, without restrictions, is allowed to pray at Rachel’s Tomb, a popular site of Jewish pilgrimage, which lies at the entrance to Bethlehem.
The first exception may keep Israel’s construction sector from collapse during the period of this plague.
The health ministry offered no explanation for the breach in national policy regarding Rachel’s Tomb, but the ultraorthodox Jewish religious parties who hold the cabinet portfolios for the health and interior ministries in Netanyahu’s teetering coalition government, after the country’s third inconclusive election in a year, are in no position to play around with their faithful.
Netanyahu himself seems to be out of luck. The financial daily Globes reported that nine Israeli judges were in quarantine, but none are from the Jerusalem District Court, which on Tuesday rejected his request for a delay and confirmed that his corruption trial will open on March 17.