Tryghed & the corona as a case study: In Israel they tried to survive, in Denmark they tried to live
Opdateret: 8. mar. 2022
This article was published in Hebrew in the Israeli newspaper “Local conversation” (Sicha Mekomit) on 3.6.2020 shortly after the first Corona lockdown in Israel. The article was published by the title: “The corona as a case study: In Israel they tried to survive – in Denmark they tried to live”.
The article was one of the most read articles in 2020.
As in every crisis, the Corona pandemic has driven us to seek security and protection—from the virus and its effects, as well as from the uncertainty of a situation, which is new to both individuals and governments.
For us Israelis, the word security wakens associations from the military arena: men in uniform, weapons, security fences, armored vehicles, rockets, security guards (more men in uniforms), aircrafts, and so on. The pandemic has exposed how Israeli society turns blindly towards its usual security discourse, also when the security needed is not from war.
The media in Israel and the political discourse under the pandemic has exposed a collective, implicit, perception about what security is, who provides it, and even more interesting—who does not.
Since the Corona crisis is worldwide rather than Jewish or Israeli, we can compare how different countries and cultures manage crisis. Such a comparison can normally not be done and often provokes Israelis: We are so used to thinking of our daily middle-eastern crisis as one “which no one else can really understand”. However, fate has now brought us a pandemic that does not differentiate between peoples or nations. So let the comparison begin.
Language determines consciousness, and as Wittgenstein stated, the borders of our world are defined by the borders of our language. I argue that the current Israeli discourse about security limits our ability to imagine alternative ways of dealing with threatening situations, and alternative ways of understanding what security can also mean.
What the Danes mean when they say “security”
As a clinical psychologist and researcher who has lived and worked in Denmark for the last twenty years, I propose using the Danish model as an imaginary alternative. An alternative, which is possible due to language.
Like all Israelis living abroad, I live a parallel life: Reading the news from Israel and Denmark, hearing stories of family, friends and colleagues from both Denmark and Israel. Inevitably comparing the responses of both nations to the corona crisis. Like all other Israelis abroad, I am also trying to figure out what is actually going on in the world.
Since my clinical specialty is anxiety, and one of my research areas is “emotional security” (More specifically, I write about the Danish term, tryghed), the different discourse in Israel and Denmark concerning what constitutes security has sparked my interest, especially during the current crisis.
The term tryghed, which I write about, cannot be translated into any language outside of Scandinavia. It describes a bodily, emotional, physiological and subjective sense of security, which we are all familiar with. It is what a baby feels while asleep in her mother’s arms, or what we feel in our bodies when we arrive at a familiar place where we feel loved, wanted and protected. In psychological terms, tryghed can be described as the automatic sensation that occurs when our bodies and brains assess within seconds that we are in a safe environment (This process of sensing whether we are in a safe environment or not was coined by Stephen Porges as neuroception).
When we sense that our environment is safe, our defense mechanisms relax. This physiological state, in which we feel protected, enables us to engage with others, to be healthy, to develop, to play and to heal.
“It’s all about being tryg”
In everyday life, we do not normally perceive this physiological state on a conscious level. It is possible to train ourselves to notice it via various types of therapy or meditation. However, in Danish culture and in Scandinavia in general, children are taught to pay attention to this sense of tryghed/ safeness from infancy: Danes often refer to places, people or activities that elicit the experience of tryghed/ safeness. They note it to themselves and to others. Most Danes even take pride in being “addicted to tryghed.” Addicted to the feeling of safeness.
Long before cognitive neuroscience looked into it, it was a cultural wisdom in Denmark that tryghed is a necessary condition for learning, growth, functioning, creativity and the ability to contribute to society. One of the major insurance companies in the country is called TRYG, and its motto is, “It’s all about being tryg.”
According to the Danish concept, tryghed / safeness does not rise spontaneously, but is rather something that we should consciously act to foster. Unlike the security term in many other languages, The Danish discourse regarding tryghed suggests not only the absence of threat, but also the presence of something pleasant and good:
An environment that fosters tryghed is secure and pleasant. It is an environment, where rules are familiar and consistent. An environment in which future changes are expected, and in which you also know what is not expected. It is an environment in which changes take place gradually and are more or less predictable. Such an environment is associated with people you can trust, people who support you, who treat you with respect and in a consistent manner.
Striving to create this feeling of safeness/tryghed is the compass that guides the way the Danes manage their lives in each and every domain. From educational frameworks and daily life at home to the regulation of the job market. The welfare state, based on the principle of flexible security (flexsecurity), is a competitive market, which nevertheless provides economic security for the citizen. According to this model, the overarching goal of economic growth is not the accumulation of wealth, but rather the distribution of economical profit in a way that will contribute to the quality of life of all citizens in the country.
The Danish prime minister asked for solidarity - not war
In Denmark, as in Israel and the rest of the world, Covid-19 is viewed as a threat. Like in Israel and the rest of the world, the government and the citizens have tried to figure out how to create the feeling of security in the face of this new threat.
The Danish government reacted to the pandemic three weeks later than the government of Israel. During these three weeks, it seemed as if little was accomplished, and that the Danes hadn’t internalized the seriousness of the threat. But the moment the Danish government acted, the steps taken were immediate, decisive and comprehensive. Even though it had seemed as if not much was done during these 3 weeks, it was apparent that there had been preparations and planning behind the scenes.
Denmark was one of the first countries that closed down the economy immediately, and many countries followed suit. The way the Danish government strove to create a sense of security in tackling the virus reflected the deep meaning of security in the Danish culture and discourse.
In her speech on the eve of the lockdown, Mette Fredriksen, the Danish Prime Minister, did not mention the word security or the military arena. The virus was not defined as an enemy nor as a war that had to be won. Nevertheless, the speech was considered historic, and the severity of the situation was very clear.
So what did she talk about? The Prime Minister related to a dire situation in which the Danes must make a common effort to protect one another and to protect, not defend, the weaker members of society—the elderly, cancer patients, health workers—to prevent their collapse. In short, the mission she defined was solidarity.
Although the Danish word tryghed was not mentioned in the speech, the focus was clear: not necessarily saving lives, but salvaging the social fabric.
First consult, and only later decide
Fredriksen explained that the decision to close down the economy was preceded by numerous discussions with government ministries, labor unions and business associations. In addition, talks were held with the various factions in parliament, who were involved in the decision making process.
It was decided that civil servants who were sent home would receive their full salaries; the state would compensate employers that continued paying their workers even if they worked from home; whoever was fired, would be entitled to income security.
Though schools were closed, essential workers were allowed to enroll their children in special educational facilities, as well as parents who felt that it was too difficult to be closed at home with their children for whatever reason. This reflected the understanding that a lockdown would have severe effects on the wellbeing of families and children, and not only on the economy.
From her speech, it was clear that the government tried to enable the Danes to lead as normal a life as possible. The public was allowed to go outside to green areas throughout the entire time. This was based on the understanding that being locked at home has a high emotional, psychological and physiological toll. In Copenhagen, for example, paths around the lakes were designated for one direction only, including distancing from other pedestrians. Fines were handed out to people who sat on benches.
Despite the danger of infection, at no stage were people banned from visiting terminally ill family members in hospital, to ensure they were surrounded by loved ones during their final moments.
Moreover, the manner in which information was conveyed to the public reflected the desire to create a feeling of security. In her initial speech, the Prime Minister announced that the new regulations would be in force for two weeks, and that in another two weeks, an additional announcement would be made about how to proceed, after a reassessment of the situation. Thus, throughout the entire Corona crisis, from the moment the new guidelines were announced, there were practically no changes for two weeks. This way certainty and predictability were established for 2 weeks at a time for almost the whole period of the crisis.
The Prime Minister gave similar speeches and interviews on the children’s television channels, where she answered questions that children had posed, in order to create a sense of safety among children and their parents.
The return to normal starts with day care
The return to normality was also characterized by attentiveness to the public’s sense of security. Like the rest of the world, Denmark announced the gradual opening of the economy the moment the ‘curve flattened’. Also in the phase of reopening, notifications were orderly and transmitted to the public in advance, so that the various branches of the economy, employees and parents, could get organized and know what to expectin the upcoming period.
The opening of the Danish economy began with daycare centers, pre-schools, and children up to fifth grade. The decision-makers understood that without a framework for small children, parents couldn’t return to work, making it impossible to restart the rest of the economy.
Schools and kindergartens were given time to prepare for the opening of the education system in keeping with the new health guidelines. The Prime Minister announced that schools were allowed to open later, if necessary, in case they had organizational problems. As a result, a relative sense of security was maintained among school principals, teachers, parents and children.
During the Corona crisis, the general atmosphere in Denmark was a relatively calm one. Statistics from the Employment Bureau indicate that unemployment rose by 5%-9%. Though most Danes had to adjust to a new routine, new work habits and a different way of managing their lives, the general feeling was of caution, but it seemed as if life went on. The feeling was that despite the uncertainty, things were more or less under control.
At no stage was it explicitly stated that the government had tried “to create a sense of safeness,” but nonetheless, the tryghed mindset characterized every stage of decision-making.
Since the Prime Minister’s first speech, the government attempted to provide the public with as much information and certainty as possible in the long term, even if it was for two weeks at a time. In the Danish discourse and culture, one of the most important elements in creating a feeling of security is knowing what to expect. Knowing what comes next, whether positive or negative, increases the sense of safeness.
At first sight, this approach seems reasonable and intuitive. But way didn’t all of the governments in the world act in the same way? Why didn’t the Israeli government act in the same way?
“We won over the Nazis, we will win over Corona” (an Israeli WWII veteran)
As I mentioned earlier, consciousness creates reality. The dominant discourse dictates where we direct our attention and which behaviors we prioritize. This, in turn, dictates our actions and our reality.
The Israeli discourse and the way Israelis understand what danger and security are, dictated the strategies used by the Israeli government in managing the Corona threat. A discourse and strategy, which are very different from the Danish notion of what security is all about.
The history of the Jewish people is filled with trauma and survival. Almost every family in Israel has suffered trauma of some sort—wars, pogroms, the Holocaust, terror attacks, immigration. The instinctive reaction to trauma is the desire for protection, for security. “Never again.”
The reaction to trauma tends to create extreme views of black and white, of death versus survival. When viewing the world in this way it can be impossible to detect shades of gray. Such is the psychology of trauma. Not surprisingly, this is the message that the Israeli leadership has been transmitting for years: either we survive, or we will die. Every challenge or danger is immediately interpreted as an existential threat.
In this context, it was not surprising, that the danger posed by Covid-19 was immediately identified as an existential threat that must be “defeated.” This plugged directly into the Israeli traumatic security discourse. Whereas in Denmark and other countries, the crisis was viewed as an extreme health/social/economic one that must be dealt with, in Israel, phrases such as “battle,” “holding action,” “We defeated the Nazis, we will conquer the Corona as well,” were used.
In line with this militaristic mind-set, resources towards “the war against Corona” were immediately diverted to the military, despite the fact that the pandemic is a civilian crisis. A quick look at the site of The (Israeli) National Research Institute shows the extent to which the understanding of what security is was infused with military terms. A short example from the website is:
“Operating the Army—it is essential to integrate the I.D.F. with the national effort”. (i.e. to defeat corona)
Indeed? Did all countries affected by Covid-19 see the necessity of involving the military in their national effort? Hardly. If the crisis is viewed as a civilian one, and the aim is to minimize damage and create a “sense of security,” as was the case in Denmark, why is it necessary that the army be involved?
23 men, who can get the job done
So instead of channeling budgets to the health system, social services and education, as in Denmark and other countries, money in Israel have flowed into the defense establishment. Astoundingly, and in the face of criticism, a “national war room” was established to combat corona, headed by the director of the Mossad. Officially in charge of the crisis is the Headquarters for National Security (the Mallal), headed by the former Assistant Director of the The General Security Services (Shabak). According to the Mallal “Corona War” site, twenty-three (Jewish) men—unsurprisingly—were chosen to be the experts who know how to get the job done. Security and men in uniform? Well, if it is was, let it be war.
What’s more, the Israeli secret service was recruited to track citizens’ cell phones in order to prevent the spread of infection. I doubt, whether there is another democracy that uses its security services to cope with a health, social and economic crisis such as Covid-19. My Danish friends find it difficult to understand why this is necessary. They are unable to imagine such crude interference in civil rights, especially reinforced by the general security services. Only those who view the virus as just another kind of war is capable of thinking along such innovative lines. An innovation nation indeed.
As in time of war, every citizen is expected to help “carry the stretcher” (as they say in the army) sacrificing himself/herself for the general good while the generals and the army do their thing. While the defense budget has ballooned to massive proportions, civil servants were sent home on a leave without pay in order to “carry the stretcher” for the general good. Essential workers were expected to work while there are no arrangements for childcare.
Various groups in the population were sent to “mini-hotels”, run by the army, rather than sending them to isolation at home. In these hotels, according to reports in the media, basic civil rights were denied them. They too were expected “to carry the stretcher.” This is, after all, what is expected during wartime—to put your personal comforts aside. Once again, the need of the citizens for a sense of security was pushed aside in favor of “winning the campaign.”
In Israel they expected the citizens to “carry the stretcher”
Another issue that arose around “carrying the stretcher” occurred when the Head of the Teachers’ Labor Union, suggested that kindergarten teachers work during a holiday on a volunteer basis. The kindergarten teachers who protested against this demand were perceived by the public as citizens who didn’t grasp the seriousness of the situation, as if it were a real war. When military discourse is dominant, the citizen is expected to fall on the sword for the general good. The myth of Massada, Jewish martyrdom and comradeship is enshrined in the Israeli collective memory. In this context, the request that kindergarten teachers teach without pay seems reasonable - both to parents and the political leadership.
The kindergarten teachers who protested against this incredible demand were certainly viewed by wide parts of the public as people who didn’t grasp the gravity of the hour. At the outset of the protest, it seemed as if it was forgotten that this was not an actual war. It seemed also that it was forgotten that the teachers were asked to lie on the fence not in order to save lives, but so that parents could go to work and activate the economy. In other words, that someone else would earn money at their expense.
This expectation - that citizens would lie on the fence (for whose benefit?) was backed all the time by the use of language taken from the vocabulary of wars of survival. Information concerning “entering the campaign” as well as the directions about “the strategy of retreat” were given to the public at the last minute.
The teachers were sent on leave without pay and were expected to work anyway. Then, not. The directives regarding whether to apply distant learning or not changed every day and dragged large numbers of teachers, parents and children into a daily cycle of uncertainty and anxiety. A long period of uncertainty went by until small business-owners and self-employed understood what kind of government support, if any, they could expect. Orderly estimates were not given about what the citizens could expect in the near future, let alone the distant future.
Even when the opening of the economy was renewed, the directives were unclear. When the first lock down was lifted, parents were still unable to return to work because their children had no framework to return to, as the schools and daycare remained closed. As in war, the general feeling was that of personal emotional distress should be put aside for the sake of “victory in the campaign.”
Israel is good at surviving, less good at living
In general, Israel managed to cope with the Corona threat in a reasonable manner. Despite everything, the health system, the welfare system and the educational system succeeded in operating and in adapting to the new situation. The Finance Ministry managed to a certain extent to relate to the needs of professionals, small business-owners, mortgage “owers,” and directors of large companies. Municipalities did not collapse and succeeded in functioning with relative efficiency despite the crisis. There were impressive cases of mutual aid. All of these small successes took place despite the Israeli discourse about what security is and what is necessary to create it, not because of it.
If security were something not connected to uniforms, the military and survival, to a war-room filled with men who understand what security is—perhaps the huge budgets would reach the civil spheres that are supposed to cope with a real health/social/economic crisis and create a true sense of safeness among the country’s citizens. If budgets reached the civil arenas, perhaps they would even succeed in turning this crisis into growth of Israeli civil society and of the discourse about the responsibility of the state towards its citizens. Not only the stats responsibility for the citizens’ physical survival, like in wartime.
All of us are following the numbers of Corona patients. No doubt, the specific figures show that Israel has emerged successfully: At the end of the first lockdown in April 2020, Israel was one on the countries in the world with the lowest number of casualties per capita. Still, many professionals awaited with fear the numbers that will appear later on, and which will show the general coping of the entire society with the crisis: The numbers of other sick people and the dead which didn’t receive the necessary treatment in time, the numbers which indicate an increase in domestic violence, sexual abuse, divorce rates, femicide. The numbers indicating a rise in the number of psychiatric diagnoses in both children and adults, numbers about the use of anti-depressants, alcohol and drugs.
By the time of revising this article, at November 2020, after the second Israeli lockdown, the extremely high numbers of suicide rates, violence, domestic violence and psychological distress in Israel are beginning to emerge.
At the time this article was written (June 2020), Israel succeeded in saving more lives than Denmark, considering the number of dead per person in the country. But perhaps the Danes succeeded in saving more souls from emotional, economic and traumatic distress. A quick look at the numbers of unemployment in the two countries tells the whole story: At October 2020 there were around 20% unemployment rates in Israel, compared to only 4,8% in Denmark. The Israeli welfare system cannot keep up with distressed civilians; domestic violence is at historically high levels, as well as psychological problems.
We Israelis are experts in survival. But my sense is that we have a lot to learn about what a state can do to enable its citizens to live.
Throughout our history, Judaism succeeded in creating a secure framework that enables living within it, despite harsh external threats. Like other religions, it created a framework of support, social solidarity and a system of consistent and orderly laws. It succeeded in creating a sense of safeness. Secure frameworks, that enable safeness to their members were developed also in many places inside the state of Israel, such as kibbutzim, the army, the settler movement. These frameworks all have clear rules, borders and traditions. The fact is that many Israelis still seek and find safeness in those frameworks, and are drawn to them. Israeli society is also known for its cohesive family structure, from which many Israelis draw a sense of safeness.
Despite these islands creating emotional safety for their members, the civil leadership of Israel has not yet managed to create a discourse of security that describes what could enable all of the citizens of Israel to feel protected, safe, and free to live – not only to survive. Not everything has to be won. There are things that simply have to be lived through in relative security, like the Corona crisis.
When we feel secure enough in our framework and relationships, secure enough in our leadership, secure enough in the near future, even if it is only the next day—then we can feel a sufficient sense of safeness, which will enable us to begin to live. The time has come for a new discourse in Israel about what security really means.
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