I know its August, but it feels like May.
In May 1967, there was a palpable sense that Israel was about to be attacked by its neighbors in an all out war for its’ survival. Arab rhetoric and saber rattling was intense, and was coupled by tangible threats and acts of war that made the mood in Israel tense. The sense was that war was imminent. Egypt massed troops in Sinai and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. Jordan and Egypt signed a defense pact. The Iraqi army deployed troops and armored units in Jordan.
In Israel, public parks were consecrated as cemeteries in fear that there were going to be mass casualties.
There are many differences in the world and throughout the Mid East four decades later, but in many ways it feels like May 1967 all over. With Egypt massing weapons again in Sinai, endless threats, religion of hate, unrestrained nuclear drive, and terrorism in all its forms emanating from Iran, Hezbollah armed to the teeth in Lebanon, instability in Syria, the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza always a wild card, a steady flow of arms criss-crossing the Arab world as one former despot’s weapons are smuggled to another, the sense indeed is that something not good is imminent.
Israelis realize that one small event unrelated to us could trigger something much larger and worse. An offensive attack on Israel, or Israel’s preemptive attack on Iranian nuclear or Syrian chemical weapons, could unleash an all out war. We don’t want war, but we also know that allowing our sworn enemies to launch a deadly attack on us first could be dramatically worse than if we did nothing at all. Hoping for the best is not a strategy.
Israel’s military is preparing for all scenarios, emergency services are rehearsing, and gas masks are being distributed throughout the population. Yet life goes on. One challenge is for the Israeli army and emergency services to prepare for war without letting on that war could be any day. This means that the public is not likely to know exactly when something might happen. We are testing a regional emergency SMS service to let us know if a rocket is headed our way. Hopefully, it will only be used in testing. We have to keep living and going about our lives as usual, but feel the need to look over our shoulder to try to read the signs, just in case.
In May 1967, newspapers reported that life in Tel Aviv was going on almost as usual. While the number of men around was smaller than usual because many had been called up to their military units, cafes and places of entertainment were not empty. Although the assessment was that chances were small that Tel Aviv would be hit, bomb shelters were prepared, and volunteers were trained for any emergency. Ten thousand high school students dug trenches filled with sandbags, distributed informational material, helped deliver mail, and helped out in hospitals.
While not a scientific poll by any means, nobody I know with whom I have spoken doesn’t think that something bad is going to happen. Whether planned, or as a consequence of something else that might be comparatively spontaneous, the sense is that Israel being attacked is around the corner.
We don’t let our fears handicap us, or at least we try not to. Some parents engage their children in the process of being ready so things won’t be so scary. As schools opened this week, kids will also need to learn evacuation routes, and where the bomb shelters are. For those outside Israel, it may seem absurd that our schools, homes, and places of work all have bomb shelters, but it’s real, and how we live.
We also get by with humor. But, as they say, behind every joke is an element of truth. To that end, when my daughter was preparing to go overseas and jokingly asked, “what happens if you all get nuked and I have nobody to come home to?” I really had no answer.
There are many differences between May 1967 and August 2012. The players have more or less remained the same, but the weapons and their capabilities are different. So is our ability to defend ourselves. And, if it comes to it, that’s what will be done.
If only one thing has been learned from the past 3000 years of Jewish history, and only several decades since return from our exile, is that Jews can only truly rely on one another to survive and thrive.
What Golda Meir said in 1969 is still true. In any war with the Arabs, “we have a secret weapon – no alternative.”
Let us pray that nothing will happen. But if Israel needs to act to defend itself and our eight million citizens, we will do what’s right, what’s necessary, and do so successfully, whether anyone supports us or not.