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Israelis and their masks

A viewer’s guide

Bavly, Ofer headshot image

When the global COVID-19 crisis began in early 2020, the homeland of the chosen people was not spared. Israelis learned that our facial expressions, such an integral part of an Israeli's vocabulary (along with hand gestures), would now be severely curtailed once we were instructed to use face masks. But trust the Israelis to always do things a little bit differently. Otherwise, we wouldn't be-well, Israeli.  

Starting with the masks themselves, we made sure to be different. To be unique. Why wear the mundane medical turquoise mask if one can use a cloth mask and print one's political statement or affinity message and let everyone know what you think even when they can't see your smile?  

Demonstrators against Prime Minister Netanyahu wear masks subtly proclaiming "Crime Minister." Their political opponents wear masks with the catchy slogan "Bibi is the King."  

Peacemakers traveling to Abu Dhabi to negotiate an accord with the United Arab Emirates protected themselves with masks bearing the flags of Israel, the USA, and the UAE, and the word "Peace" in three languages.  

I wear a mask with the logo of "SAHI," one of the JUF-supported Israeli non-profits. And the list goes on. If you have a message or a position, there is a mask for you.  

Then there is our unique ways of wearing the mask.  

First, there is the "invincible paratrooper" Israeli. His mask is in his pocket, to be brandished in case of an approaching police officer or if encountering a meddlesome neighbor at the grocery store admonishing him for not wearing it. The pocket-mask Israeli believes that "if my army sergeant didn't shoot me when I was 18, and the terrorists didn't blow me up, what can a tiny little virus do to me?" 

Then there is the "halfway" Israeli. He wears a mask but only on his mouth. The nose enjoys free and unfettered access to holy land air. He says, "I obey instructions but I am a bit of a rebel." He is the Hell's Angels bike rider who fears nothing, but nevertheless wears a helmet because you never know. With the mask on his mouth, he will probably not infect you, but he will be happy to take a whiff of your virus if you sneeze nearby.  

This Israeli is on a constant competition with the "chin protector," the Israeli who fervently protects his chin from the virus. His mask will not go any higher and will never cover his mouth or nose, but if COVID ever attacks chins- he will emerge victorious.  

Then there is the "Van Gogh"-the Israeli who hangs the mask over one ear, ready to cover himself if he hears anyone within a mile sneeze. In the meantime, he is happy to use the mask as a rather large ear ornament. This Israeli believes in being safe but also wants you to know that he is brave. For now.  

And finally, there is the "Elbow Mask" Israeli, the trademark of the fitness nut. He is saying-"I am jogging, I can't put on a mask without passing out from asphyxiation, but I do own one. See? It's right there, protecting my elbow from a nasty fall."  

Israelis are notorious for not following instructions and for finding our own, unique way of complying with orders. Indeed, the book The Start-Up Nation cited this national trait as one of the origins of our ability to innovate. For better or for worse, Israelis do not take "no" or "it can't be done" as a given, nor will we take "wear it and be quiet" as an order, and we will always find a work-around, whether it is a technological solution or a way to cope with the need to wear a mask for a year (or two).  

After all, if we all wear the same mask in the same, mandatory manner, then how will you tell us apart from one another? And if we don't use our branded mask as a fashion statement or a political statement, aren't we missing an opportunity to tell the world about us, our favorite charities, products, and politicians? 

So, even behind the mask, there is no hiding the fact that we remain fully Israeli-with all the schtick that comes with that identity. 

Ofer Bavly is the Director General of the JUF Israel Office. 

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