Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

As World Prepares for Iraq War, American Jews Prepare to Help Israel

February 18, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Phillip Miller calls it his “hot war” list.

And in one week, he has enlisted seven American Jews to aid Israel at a time of need.

The 75-year old New Jerseyan is recruiting volunteers to jet to Israel if an American war with Iraq brings an attack on the Jewish state.

“If a hot war breaks out and Iraq starts messing with Israel in any way, shape or form, then I and the others will probably be on the first plane we can get to Israel,” Miller said. “The Israelis will probably need as much help as they can get, and we’ll do our part to help them.”

As an American war on Iraq appears imminent, some U.S. Jews anticipate a repeat performance of America’s 1991 Gulf War with Iraq, when Saddam Hussein lobbed Scud missiles into the thick of Tel Aviv.

At the time, Israel abided by America’s request not to strike back.

But Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has stated Israel might not take another round of attacks lying down.

In any case, many American Jews and American Jewish organizations are responding to the threat of a U.S. war on Iraq by trying to fortify Israel. The efforts include shoring up Israel’s blood supply, readying volunteer doctors and assembling gas masks.

In the past few weeks, American Red Magen David for Israel, the U.S. organization supporting Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross, has stepped up its activities.

Among its efforts, it has funded additional security at Israel’s blood banks, fearing they could be targeted; trained Israeli paramedics and bought them armored vests; and purchased packages for collecting blood and freezers for plasma storage along with 12 new machines to extract and separate blood parts to function for more than one patient and purpose like creating antibodies.

The group encourages solidarity missions in Israel to donate blood to Magen David Adom, in some cases shuttling bloodmobiles to groups’ hotels.

It has also brokered a deal with the American Red Cross to enable Americans to designate donated blood for Israel. The Red Cross will credit the amount for future use by Magen David Adom.

And this week, the American group was mailing 400,000 letters to its contributors, asking for funds in case of war: “As the imminent threat of war with Iraq looms just over the horizon,” the letter begins, “the people of Israel will be caught in the middle of the battle.”

At the American Physicians Fellowship for Medicine in Israel, each time the government or media broadcasts a message of war, “our phones don’t stop ringing,” said Barbara Samulevich, the group’s executive director.

The group, which runs a program for American doctors to cover for Israeli civilian doctors who are called for military duty, has a registry of 800 physicians. Several of them, Samulevich said, are constantly calling the group to ensure their documents have been received and approved.

While Israel’s Ministry of Health has not yet called for any doctors, the group is organizing its paperwork to be prepared for when they are needed.

In the last four months, it has directed more than 100 American doctors to Israel for weeklong trainings with the Ministry of Health.

Phone calls have increased from five per day over the course of the intifada to 10 to 15 per day in the last few months, Samulevich said. But she added that the group is “fueling that fire” by publicizing its Emergency Medical Volunteers program to other Jewish agencies and with articles in the Jewish Medical Journal.

During the last few months, the U.S.-based Volunteers for Israel has also seen an increased demand by Americans eager to assist Israel in crisis. Atop its regular two- or three-week stints for volunteers to aid army bases or hospitals, the group, known as Sar-El in Israel, has added a special one-week program to assemble gas masks.

“Just as during the Gulf War, the number of volunteers who went through us increased, so now we are getting a lot of volunteers who are anxious to go to Israel to help out because they know they’re needed now,” said Jeanne Schacter, the national president of Volunteers for Israel.

Not everyone, of course, feels comfortable going to Israel if war with Iraq occurs.

The threat of war “raises a level of concern, and it’s another consideration,” said Bernard Shapiro, 53, a disability attorney in Stamford, Conn.

Shapiro has hoped to return to volunteer for Israel since his first participation in Volunteers for Israel in June 2002.

He knows the likelihood of being hit by a Scud missile is slim. Still, Shapiro says he worries about his responsibility to his two children and wonders if “perhaps there is some more useful thing I can do on this side of the ocean.”

But for David Rendsburg, 20, volunteering in Israel with 24 other students from the University of Pennsylvania on his winter break was laden with meaning.

The group labored in a warehouse with stacks of thousands of gas masks to be assembled. They prepared an estimated more than a thousand a day, “so you can see the progress you’re making,” said Rendsburg, who helped coordinate the trip.

“We felt that our presence there was needed in order to prepare the country.”

Aviva Weinberg, 19, who also helped organize the trip, felt inspired by the “incredible fortitude and optimism” of the Israelis she met.

They’re “fighting for their country and we’re here studying in university. It’s a rather easy ivory tower existence,” said Weinberg, who said the trip motivated her to further her activism on campus and “help people find their own form of Zionism for themselves.”

For Miller, the prospect of war is a reductive equation.

“I feel that if a friend of mine got into trouble, I would certainly try to help him, and Israel is our friend and I’m trying to help,” he said, choked-up with emotion.

Furthermore, Miller said, the country is a cornerstone of Jewish identity. “If we don’t have an Israel,” he asked, “what sense does it make?”

Recommended from JTA