Calm Before The Storm?


Jerusalem — As Israelis lined up at hardware stores this week to buy plastic sheeting and rolls of adhesive tape to seal rooms against possible chemical or biological agents, Liora Abramson was taking things in stride — for now.

“We’re feeling really, really calm. If it weren’t for the news reports on TV, I wouldn’t know that a war might be looming,” said Abramson, 21, whose family moved from Borough Park, Brooklyn, to Tel Aviv eight years ago.

Abramson, a student at Bar-Ilan University, said that her parents haven’t taken any special precautions, even though they reside in downtown Tel Aviv.

“I asked my parents last night if they’d bought tape, and they said no. The building’s [communal] bomb shelter has been prepared for an attack, and if worse comes to worse, we can go there,” she said.

Abramson’s no-need-to-panic-yet attitude seemed commonplace among American immigrants and visitors as they kept one eye on Saddam Hussein and Israel’s civil defense establishment, the other on their daily lives.

On Monday, Defense Minister Yitzchak Mordechai announced stepped-up precautions against conventional and nonconventional weapons, instructing the public to purchase the sheeting and adhesive tape, should an attack become imminent.

Mordechai also announced that gas masks would be made available “within a few days” to all visitors: tourists, students and foreign workers.

According to the Home Command, the government agency responsible for civilian safety, hotels will distribute masks to their patrons; all other visitors will be able to receive masks from local distribution centers. Foreign workers and tourists will be charged a security deposit of 200 shekels (approximately $60), refundable to tourists when they return their masks. Only half the fee will be refunded to foreign workers.

Mordechai reiterated on Monday the government’s view that “the chances of any Iraqi attack on Israel are very low. He added, however, “We in the defense establishment are increasing the rate of distribution [of gas masks] and want to reach a situation in which the home front will be in a high state of preparedness.”

Mordechai’s directive to purchase supplies prompted many Israelis to visit their local hardware store, where thick plastic sheets were being sold by the meter. Supermarkets reported a significant increase in the number of customers purchasing bottled water and canned goods.

Like everyone else in Israel, American immigrants and visitors have had to deal with the situation. Most appear to be coping well.

Those responsible for the more than 10,000 young Americans currently enrolled in Israel-based universities, yeshivas and “Israel experience” programs say they are doing everything possible to calm fears.

“Generally, our students don’t seem afraid,” said Rabbi Yossi Goldman, director of the Hillel Center at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “If anything it’s the parents who are concerned. Parents call us all the time asking whether it’s safe here. Some ask whether they should send their children home.

“I can’t tell the kids whether to stay or go; I can only share our experiences from the last war, and we were safe then.”

Cindy Friedman, 23, a Hillel coordinator from Miami, said that her charges’ concerns revolve around gas masks. “They want to know how to get one, why Israelis have masks and they don’t. I’ve told them, truthfully, that the school will be allotted masks and that we’ll distribute them if needed.”

The Tel Aviv University School for Overseas Students decided not to wait for the government to distribute masks. A spokeswoman explained that “the media keeps talking about the possible threat to Tel Aviv. We wanted to allay our students’ fears, so we bought them in the private sector. We haven’t distributed them yet, but we have them in hand.”

North American immigrants are also feeling uneasy, according to the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel, an advocacy group for North American immigrants.

“We’re getting lots of [war-related] calls because people are anxious,” said David Hersh, the association’s deputy executive director. “The calls started coming about a month ago, about 10 to 15 a week to each of our five regional offices. Now the offices, at least in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are getting at least that number every day.”

Josie Arbel, director of AACI’s absorption services, noted that many of the about 100,000 North Americans who have made aliyah are not fluent in Hebrew. “We’re in touch with the authorities and are providing the latest information available, in English, to everyone who calls. We also have a web site, with links to the IDF site, that’s constantly being updated.”

In the event of an emergency, Hersh said, the AACI will mobilize volunteers to telephone and visit the elderly and single parents, “anyone we consider vulnerable. We’re ready to put the plan into practice if necessary. In the meantime, why cause panic when there isn’t any?”

Jerusalem travel agent Mark Feldman, whose clientele is 30 to 40 percent North American, reports “a substantial increase” in the number of people making reservations in the event of a war, but only a few actual ticket sales.

“The majority of reservations are being made by North Americans, probably because they can stay with relatives overseas. They have options most native Israelis don’t have,” he said. “Whether people will actually leave remains to be seen.”

Feldman, who hails from Los Angeles, said that he and his staff aren’t overly concerned by the Iraqi threat. “We feel that the chances of an attack on Israel are very, very low, especially in Jerusalem, and we’re trying to convey this to our customers.”

Asked whether he had taken any precautions to protect himself or his family, Feldman shrugs. “Our gas masks are up to date, but that’s about it. I haven’t gone out to buy any tape, at least not yet.”

Feldman’s fairly laid-back attitude appears to be shared by most longtime American immigrants.

Elyse Gelfand, who moved to Israel 12 years ago from Teaneck, N.J., hasn’t bought any provisions, either. “When I watch footage from the Gulf War, I feel the fear all over again, but I haven’t bought any tape or plastic.
“I don’t think we’ll be attacked,” she said, “but if we are, my concerns are with my two oldest children. My son, who finished his army service, would be called to reserve duty, and my daughter, a nursing student, would definitely be affected.”

Gelfand, an Orthodox Jew who lives in Jerusalem, said that religion gives her solace. Recalling how only one Israeli died during the Gulf War in 1991 from wounds suffered during a missile attack (although several others died from stress-related heart attacks), she said, “You don’t have to be very religious to see that a miracle happened seven years ago. It wasn’t just chance.”

Shira Shein, a native of Flatbush, Brooklyn, who made aliyah in 1972, is taking a philosophical approach. “I think there’s a small possibility that this crazy man [Saddam Hussein] will fire something at us, but why would he when he can send someone with a suitcase full of anthrax into the country?”

Stressing that she’s “not a worry wart,” Shein acknowledged that some of her neighbors are expressing more concern. “I went to the supermarket on Monday night and it was full. That’s not typical. People do seem to be getting a little panicky.

“I’m wondering,” she said, “if I should be more worried.”