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First Person Without Guilt, Israelis Ask: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

February 25, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Stand your ground. Don’t give an inch. Above all: Don’t abandon ship. So go the axioms ingrained in Israeli children from preschool onwards.

As a newcomer, this was the strongest unifying emotion I found permeating the Israeli mythos. In the new Israeli society, whose very existence depended upon proof of physical presence, the cardinal sin was running away. Because even if fleeing might save the individual, it would jeopardize the collective. Every person who left when the going got tough constituted an existential threat to the very continuation of the community.

The duty of digging in one’s heels was not limited to soldiers, men, grown-ups, the elderly or even children. When kibbutzim in the north were shelled from Syria or Lebanon they didn’t flee to relatives in Tel Aviv. Instead, they went down the stairs to the bomb shelters with their babies and their grandmothers in tow.

That’s why the current attitude in Israel is such a sea change. With the threat of war looming, it’s a whole new ballgame. Not that everybody, or even most, are thinking of decamping if the Gulf War Scud scenario is replayed. It’s just that the people who are making plans to go are doing it in the open without dirty looks from their neighbors or guilty voices from their consciences.

During the Gulf War, the mayor of Tel Aviv slapped the term “deserter” on residents who chose to leave the city. In practice, many frightened residents did go to Jerusalem or Eilat in 1991, but I recall the bravado with which car owners stuck on the bumper stickers which became the hit of 1991: “I stayed in Tel Aviv.”

But this time around most agree that the caution of leaving the center of the country may be the better part of valor. In fact, the mayor of Ramat Gan, which absorbed most of the Scud missiles in the last war, has gone on public record suggesting evacuation of his entire town should missile attacks begin. A cartoon in Ha’aretz on Feb. 17 pictured a group of Iraqi generals standing around a map of Israel, fingers on the strategic pins, asking one another: “And where have they moved Ramat Gan?”

Partially it is the newness and potential lethality of the danger. No one knows the extent of the destruction that chemicals or biological agents could wreck — and how long they may contaminate the environment. The authorities have prepared 150,000 beds around the country in the event of forced evacuation. An information booklet on emergency procedures distributed this month to every household in Israel has a special section on orderly evacuation procedures.

But individuals are making contingency plans before hostilities break out.

Many are planning temporary relocation to “safer” locations inside the country. Jerusalem, beleaguered by Intifada violence, suddenly appears a haven. Because of its large Muslim population and Islamic holy sites, an Iraqi attack upon Jerusalem is deemed unlikely.

Those lucky enough to have hospitable relatives plan to take advantage of them. For others, hotel reservations are pouring into out of the way places, like the Galilee and the Red Sea tourist resort of Eilat, which is literally a stone’s throw from the Jordanian town of Aqaba.

My friend is finalizing plans for short-term rental of a house in Ashkelon, an hour south of Tel Aviv. She and her family won’t feel alone there, as other empty apartments fill with reservations from Tel Avivians who otherwise might never deign do more than drive through.

For those of means going abroad is an appealing option. But plans to spend the war seeing theater in London or New York are tempered by the experience of 9/11 and Al-Qaida’s warnings of resumed terror hits. Reservations for economical “war package charters” to nearby Cyprus are snowballing. Travel agents are flooded with tentative reservations — but few callers are buying the kind of ticket that has to be issued two weeks in advance: everybody wants the option to cancel at the last minute.

Ironically, as locals look to leave Tel Aviv, others are anxious to take their place. The foreign media, expected to descend in droves, will be an economic bonanza for the recession-swept city. Virtually empty for the last two years, Tel Aviv hotel rooms are suddenly in high demand. During the Gulf War, TV crews filmed missile attacks from the seaside roof of the Hilton Hotel, but any come-lately news agency would have no luck by now at the Hilton: its roof has long been parceled out and all areas reserved for the last three months. A newer hotel with an even higher roof and better views is scrambling for the spill off: The Sheraton City Tower boasts of its fully equipped broadcasting room conveniently right on the roof.

Our family recently installed steel doors, hermetic sealing and an expensive air filter system in our makeshift storage room cum bomb shelter. The filter company is symbolically named “Noah’s Ark,” perhaps hoping to implant the soothing message that its product will protect from rising waters of danger.

For the meantime, my family and I mean to stay put. After all the efforts we’ve put into our protection, we want to see if our investment pays off. Besides, we will be putting into practice the paramount Israeli motto: Don’t abandon ship.

Helen Schary Motro, an American attorney and writer living in Israel, teaches at the Tel Aviv University Law School. E-Mail:

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