Saturday, August 19, 2006

Israel's Katrina? Government AWOL in Shelled Northern Towns; Volunteers to the Rescue

Now that the fighting in Lebanon has ceased, practically no time elapsed before the public turned its anger on its own government. Much had to do with the the decision-making process by the government and the army. That will be left for others to argue.

What is very much in contention here is why were tens of thousands of Israelis left to fend for themselves, staying in bomb shelters along the northern border, short of provisions, scared and traumatized, as nearly 4000 missiles from Hizbollah were fired into Israeli territory.

Why weren't people evacuated until the last few days of the war? Why wasn't the government better prepared to meet the challenge of the "home front"? How could so many people - elderly, sick and poor - been left to fend for themselves.

Some critics in Israel have called this "Israel's Katrina." Here, in one of the world's most developed countries - with state-of-the-art communication and technology - one-third of Israel's population was left unattended by its own government. Those who could afford to , or who had families in other parts of the country, were able to leave the northern front towns and cities. But many others could not. Just 100 miles north of Tel Aviv, where life went on much as normal, countless Israeli citizens were stuck in cramped and hot bomb shelters, or trying to keep their sanity and safety amid the air raids and missile attacks.

The common perception - underscored by media reports from the northern zone - is that the government was AWOL for much of its populace.

Local muncipalities, better known for their inefficiency and bureaucratic bloat, took up much of the slack.

If there is anything take comfort in during this crisis, it is the efforts of thousands of Israelis, who volunteered - either at home or in the northern front - to help improve the lives of so many from of their embattled countrymen. Here are a few examples, based on personal experience:

*Friends in Herzliya were among the many Israelis who took in "refugees" from the North, people they didn't know, and found room for them in their homes.

*The Jewish Agency, which brought youngsters from the North to camps in the center and southern regions. It also brought air conditioners and provisions to bomb shelters. These activities, thanks to funds raised overseas in emergency drives.

*The daughter of another friend, a sometime actress, who donned a clown suit and spent 10 days in Safed, entertaining the children in the bomb shelters.

*The Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, and other cultural organizations, which offered free entry to all residents of the north, who had taken refuge in the region.

*Two hairdressers who went to Kiryat Shmona, the city along the Lebanese border which was the most damaged by missiles. There, they went from bomb shelter to bomb shelter where they provided free service - and comfort - to many local residents.

*Hundreds of Israelis who packed their cars with food and other provisions, drove to the northern towns almost daily, to make personal deliveries to those who couldn't leave.

*Well-known singers and entertainers who travelled to the front, performing in bomb shelters.


These are only a few of the countless selfless acts and deeds that were taken by Israelis in response to the crisis. Yes, there were fund-raisers, concerts, radio and telethons on behalf of the embattled residents of the northern region. But it is these direct acts of good will that stand out as well worth remembering.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

BAR MITZVAH AND A CEASE-FIRE

The Bar Mitzvah of our son, Nadav, took place yesterday, same day as the UN resolution for a cease fire, bringing a halt - at least temporarily - to the war in Lebanon. What good timing!

The Bar Mitzvah was at Beit Daniel, the Reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. (Because Reform services in Israel are conducted in Hebrew, they may seem more traditional than what Americans are used to in their Reform congregations; other than that, services are similiar, with women taking part in the program)Beit Daniel, as well as other Reform synagogues in the country, is the preferred choice for many Israelis to have their Bar Mitvah ceremonies. Since they have a distant relationship with organized religion, the Reform synagogue provides a comfortable milieu for the secularists for their milestone events.

Our choice of Beit Daniel was easy. It is the same center where our children attended pre-school when we lived in Tel Aviv. The nursery and pre-school provided not only a warm and enjoyable environment for the children, but it also brought them into direct contact with the synagogue functions during the holidays.

Preparing for the Bar Mitzvah in the midst of the warwas a challenge. We had decided to scale it down, keeping it to good friends and family, no more than about 40 people. And to do a simple reception in the synagogue after the ceremony, leaving a larger and more festive event for a more appropriate time.

We had also asked our friends to contribute to the special summer camp and program that Beit Daniel had organized for children and families who were brought to Tel Aviv from Safed. Their well-being, and that of Israelis in the North, soldiers on the battlefront, were what was foremost in our concerns.

Here is one example of how the pre-Bar Mitvah preparations went. It concerns purchasing wine for the kiddush and reception. We ordered wine directly from the winery, Dalton, which is in the Galilee. This was one small gesture for the economy of northern Israel, which had been virtually shut down for a month. Conversations about the type of wine and shipment took place with the owner of the winery, who was speaking from a bomb shelter on his vineyard. The order was taken, processed and delivered as if there was nothing out of ordinary.

Bar Mitzvahs in Israel are always special. When it is your own son, even more. With an Israeli wife, two Israel-born children, and my own background of having lived in Israel for many years, our connection to the country runs particularly deep. And even though it wasn't the ideal time for a festive occasion, our many friends in Israel seemed particularly pleased that we had decided to go ahead with Nadav's Bar Mtizvah. And so were we.

Nadav rose beautifully to the occasion. His name means "generous" in Hebrew, and that is the type of boy he is. His chanted his Torah portion, Re'e, beautifully, without a hint of nervousness. Then, he decided to abandon his prepared English text and and speak off-the-cuff in Hebrew in the traditional Bar Mitzvah speech.

Nadav spoke about being in Israel during a war, a new experience for him (he and Alexandra, his sister, visit almost every summer, together with Sarit, my wife). He said that, even though it was a very different and difficult time, he was glad to be here. He mentioned that his Torah parasha referred to heritage of laws and norms of civilized behavior, which was what distinguished Israel from its neighbors. And tzedakah, giving to those who are in need. And that is just what he saw Israel doing., coming together and helping one another in this time of crisis. And, finally, he made a wish that Israel should be able to live in peace.

We couldn't have been more proud. His feelings about Israel had only been strengthened during this time of crisis. His decision to speak to an audience in Hebrew was more than expressing himself in the language of the country. It was as if it were a stronger statement, one that was at least as much of a milestone as the Bar Mitzvah itself.

The Bar Mitzvah ceremony is also a time to involve family and friends in aliyot, the honor of being called to the Torah and reading a prayer, and brechot, giving blessings. These also had special significance. One aliya went to a close friend who is battling cancer, along with a mother of a child in the army. The blessing for the country we gave to a good friend whose son is a helicopter pilot, serving daily in combat.

In my own remarks, I spoke not only about Nadav, and the meaning of having his Bar Mitvah in Israel at this particular time. But also of our dream that all the children of Israel should grow up to live in peace. On a day like this, when seven more soldiers were buried in Israel, that wish had an immediacy and greater urgency than anything I have ever said in synagogue - or anywhere else for that matter.

At the reception in the synagogue, the mood was more upbeat. It appeared that the cease-fire, which took effect in the morning, was holding up. No one knew if it would last. But it offered a ray of hope, and perhaps Nadav's Bar Mitzvah will be remembered as much for that as for his own personal milestone.

Friday, August 11, 2006

ISRAEL AT WAR: VIEW FROM THE NORTH


Even in Israel, where there is saturation coverage by the media of the "home front" - the border cities and towns that have been under direct attack - there is still a disconnect between life in the northern region and the rest of the country. So, I left early yesterday to visit Haifa and Akko, two cities where the war is very much a day-to-day reality.

The Train

Israel's rennovated train system has made commuting quite comfortable. But this morning, almost all those heading north were soldiers, mobilized to fight in Lebanon. Israel's public transportation is always the preferred means for soldiers to get from their bases to home. Even more so during a war. The soldiers are young, mostly in their 20s or 30s, now in reserve duty. The same youths who, just a few days ago, were playing volleyball on the beach, holding summer jobs while in university, or just beginning their careers. I know it is a cliche about how diversified the army is, but it's true. They were religious and secular, Russians and Ethiopians, men and women. Some were sleeping. Others, chatting quietly to each other. A few, just staring out the window quietly. Not the noisy chatter you usually hear when so many Israelis are in one place. They didn't seem fearful of what lay in store for them. But their faces were somber and their quiet manner transmitted the gravity of the situation.

The Bus

I boarded a bus in Haifa that took me through the commercial district, in between the seaport and Carmel Mountain Ridge. It was crammed and sweaty, mainly with soldiers and elderly people. The route is usually one of the busiest in the city, often with long traffic jams. Not today. One missile had already landed in Haifa before I got there. Few vehicles were on the streets other than buses and taxis. Most of the storefronts were closed, and very few pedestrians were on the sidewalks. And this is Haifa. Israel's third largest city!

Many of the residents had left Haifa, mostly for safer parts of the country. Others, staying at home until the attacks stop. A prosperous and beautiful city spead along the mountainside, it is often called the San Francisco of Israel. With petrochemical industres, high tech parks, and a large port, Haifa afforded its residents a good quality of life and standard of living. It is not like the border, or "development towns" which have never taken off as self-sustaining (see below, about Akko). This made the scene in Haifa so out of character.

I rode up to the top of The Carmel. Near the top, where the famed Bahai gardens are situated, a number of TV networks had their vans with satellite dishes. This is the preferred broadcast site for anchors and newspeople. Going down the hill, I passed a small apartment building which almost took a direct rocket hit, knocking out the windows and scorching the small lawn. There was a policeman standing in front. The street was almost deserted.

The Shopping Center

Back on the seaside, I went into a new shopping center for a light lunch. The complex, sizeable by Israeli standards and housing about 30 stores, was almost devoid of customers. I ordered a tuna salad at the only restaurant open. Two young waitresses seemed surprised to see me. What would I, a visitor from New York, be doing there when there were no shortage of shops in the US or in Tel Aviv? For my part, I wondered why they bothered to keep the restaurant open. Just as they served me the salad, a siren sounded, along with a voice on loudspeaker calling on people to go to the bomb shelter in the undergrouund parking garage. I went down, and found only about ten people in the reinforced room, a large space without any furnishings. Others decided to wait it out in the garage, which made sense since it was well beneath ground level. After about 10 minutes, I decided to leave (there is no second siren, indicating all clear). When I returned to the restaurant, I noticed that the two waitresses never left. Why not? "We have done it too many times, and it is getting boring", said one. I tried a lame response but felt like a parent lecturing to his kids . As I left the restaurant, a second siren went off. Again to the basement, this time the garage and not the shelter. I was getting a little complacent myself.

The Arab

I walked out of the shopping center and got into a taxi, a clunky Renault whose driver was an Israeli Arab, named Ibrahim. Now this is getting interesting. We started talking about "the situation", and within a few minutes decided to go to Akko, a town near the Lebanon border that had been heavily shelled during the past month.

About 20 percent of Haifa's population is Arab. The city has a reputation of peaceful coexistence. Much different than what is expressed by Arab leaders in the Knesset, and the growth of Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab towns. That morning, the media carried a story, "Hizbollah Leader warns Arabs to leave Haifa", so he could step up attacks without shedding Moslem blood. It made big headlines, in Haifa, despite the fact that the Katyusha rockets are unguided weapons and firing them is like shooting dice. No idea where they will land. In fact, several Arabs in the Galilee have already been killed or injured. Just this morning , a mother and 5-year old child in an Arab village in the Galilee were killed by a missle.

I asked Ibrahim for his response to Nasrullah, the Hizbollah leader. He cursed Nasrullah and his mother, and said that Israel should have killed him a long time ago. Ibrahim, 52, spoke perfect Hebrew, with a slight Arab accent. He is difficult to typecast in Israel's Arab community. He was born and lived here all his life, but complains bitterly that Arabs have always had to live with a ceiling on their opportunities, while for Jews the potential is wide open. He considers himself to be a moderate, but voted with the Communist party, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish slate in the Knesset and a radical agenda.

When I ask Ibrahim if he could live anywhere else, he scoffed at the idea, saying he prefers life with its limits for Arabs in democratic Israel to that of any Arab dictatorship. I asked him what he thinks of the prospects of the survival of the Jewish state in this region. His answer was quick and blunt: it depends on how this war ends. And then says, unless Israel destroys Hizbollah, it would send a signal of weakness to the Arab world. And this from a Communist-voting Arab.

Akko

This coastal city of some 50,000 people is a dreary place even in the best of times. It is one of Israel's poorest- 25 percent Arabs, 25 percent new immigrants. Neighborhoods of the standard Israeli shikun, four-story apartment blocks built on stilts. The white concrete is faded and cracked, few trees to shade the intense summer heat, and hardly any greenery to be found.


Akko, about 30 miles south of the Lebanese border, has absorbed over 65 missile attacks. Five people were killed in one salvo early in the war. Around 8000 people have left. Most, however, have nowhere to go, and remain in their homes, leaving to buy groceries and other staples or going into the bomb shelters when the sirens go off, which can be several times a day.

The streets of this city were deserted. No traffic, no pedestrians, few shops open. The few merchants who do open their stores, close them by the first siren, or early afternoon - whichever comes first.

I went to the municipality buiding, where a truck was off-loading food and necessities sent by volunteer organizations. I introduced myself, and asked to see the mayor. He was away, but I was received by the deputy mayor. He gave me an overview of the situation. When I asked what could be done to improve the lives of the locals, he said many more would like to leave. Or, at least, to support the outings for children to daycamps and nature reserves well south of the danger zone. These trips are being funded by the Jewish Agency, with help of American contributions. The outings had to be reduced to one or two per week, because of insufficient funds for buses (about $400 per day per bus)

Here, it is timely to note that the government has almost been completely non-existent in the face of massive dislocation of its northern residents. Only two days ago did it decide to evacuate the residents of Kiryat Shmona, which has been pulverized by missiles. It is reminiscent of the collapse of the US government in the face of Hurricane Katrina, only this has extended for one month. The municipal governments, never known for much more than inefficiency and bloated payrolls, have responded better than expected. The real heroes, beside the soldiers, are the tens of thousands of volunteers and their organizations which have sprouted and taken remarkable initiatives since the war began. But it is never enough.

Those left behind in Akko are the poor, aged and the unconnected. I later visited with a family that had moved here from Azerbijan in 1993. They were three generations of women, sitting under a balcony of their building, the only shade and cooling available. I went down to their bomb shelter. It smelled badly (there are no bathrooms), was oppressively hot, and had just a few chairs, a table with a water pitcher, and two cots. I went upstairs to speak to the residents.

It was not clear how this family was able to hang on. There is no work, and with grocery stores closed, food and other provisions not readily available. The mother works as a cleaning woman, but the offices she cleans are closed. The daughter, 15, is a bright, if not outstanding student and musician. When I asked if she had gone on a day trip, she said no, that she registered but no one invited her. I called the mayor's office, gave the girl's name and phone number, and asked that she be listed for the next day trip. Now she, too, falls under the system of protectsia, the Israeli term for clout or influence.

The Missile Attack

On the way back to Haifa with Ibrahim, he told me that the situation is even worse in the Arab towns and villages. There are few bomb shelters, and locals are left to fend for themselves. The Arab population, which has long been trapped in a politcal netherland, is now also in the firing line. It does not have the Jews in America to support them, nor are Israelis rushing to open their homes in the Tel Aviv area to them.

We were driving through the Kiryat Motzkin, about halfway to Haifa, when a siren blasted, sounding an impending missle attack. We were in an industrial area, stuck behind a truck. We looked around for someplace to take cover. Nothing in sight. We just sat in the car. It was a totally defenseless feeling. We neither heard nor saw a missile. But about 10 minutes later, the radio reported that one had dropped in a field, not far from where we were stuck., with no casualties. Good luck for us, and everyone else in the town at that moment.

The Return Trip

The train going south to Tel Aviv was full, this time with residents of Haifa and other northern cities who could get away for the week-end. I am glad they could get away. I just felt badly for those, like the Akko family, who hadn't left since the war began. And there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands like them. They live with the missiles, the heat, the fear, the fetid bomb shelters, the trauma, and the hope that this will end soon, and that they will have some peace in their lives. Who could ask for less?


Saturday, August 05, 2006

The surrealistic scene

"You are doing what?!!", said a friend in New York, when I told him I am going to Israel on holiday in August. And, when I told him that my family has already been here for a few weeks, and we have a Bar Mitzvah planned for my son this month, he looked at me like I needed some therapy.
Maybe I do, but we have been coming back to Israel every summer for the last 7 years. And while this turns out to be the summer of missiles, we decided to keep the plans as they were. Just scaled back to accomodate the realities of life in a country at war.

We are in Herziliya, about 30 miles south of the longest shot fired by Hizbollah - a rocket which landed in Hadera over the weekend. We are well aware that over 1 million Israelis have had their lives dislocated by the war in Lebanon. Those who can, have left for the central and southern regions. Many others, particularly the elderly, poor and the stubborn, are staying in their homes along and well south of the Lebanese border, moving in and out of bomb shelters at the first sounding of the sirens, announcing the launching of rockets toward Israel.

The bomb shelters are cramped, dirty and hot, yet were it not for them, many more Israelis would have been killed or injured by the warheads fired into the northern towns and cities. As it is, they are not the answer, as witnessed by the horrendous attacks yesterday in Haifa and Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, killing at least 15 people.

Israelis are known for trying to maintain normalcy during abnormal times. The major broadcast media - TV and radio- are all Lebanon, all Galilee, all commentary all the time. Yet there is no shortage of entertainment on the air, Hebrew hip-hop, cooking lessons, late-night advice for the lovelorn. Lots of interesting tours on the travel channel to far-flung places. Scholarly programs about literature and the bible. And the 120- episode series, "Our Song", an Israeli soap opera very popular with the teenagers.

Theatre and concerts take place in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, in the spirit that the show must go on . (Unless, that is, you had tickets for the Depeche Mode concert,which was cancelled). Yet the war hangs over everything, and the summer events - those that have not been cancelled - play to restive audiences. Restaurants may be operating, but the decibel level seems a lot lower than usually the case in Tel Aviv.

On Shabbath, we went to visit friends nearby for lunch. They had moved back from Palo Alto, the magnet for many Israeli high-tech professionals. They had no sooner finished rennovating their basement, when the war broke out. They now have two families from Nahariya living downstairs. "How could we not," they shrugged, taking this voluntary gesture in stride.

We went to the Herziliya beach on Friday, usually crammed with sunbathers, volleyball matches, and "madkot", the Israeli version of paddle ball where the point is to keep the little hardball going while making a lot of noise smacking it. The scene was active, but far from the crowds normal at this time of year.

The paradox of Israeli life was never so glaring as viewed from the beaches. On the sands, Israelis and the few tourists who came, trying to enjoy themselves. In the air, the continous sight of helicopters heading north to Lebanon, carrying young soldiers into the warzone.

I said to Nadav, my son, "this is surrealistic". He asked what that meant. By now, he knew, even if he didn't have the definition.

Nadav's Bar Mitzvah is next week at Beit Daniel, the reform synagogue in Tel Aviv. We are keeping the date, but have cancelled the small party we planned. As it turns out, Beit Daniel will organize a summer camp for about 100 children from Safed. They arrive tomorrow. We look at each other and the rabbi and, without discussion, quickly agreed to ask that any Bar Mitzvah gifts be directed to Beit Daniel to organize and pay for the camp. (Checks should be made to Friends of Beit Daniel, 5630 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 1601, Chevy Chase, Md. 20815. Tax deductible in U.S. Earmark for "Keren K'vod - Summer Camp). Or directly to Beit Daniel, 62 B'nai Dan St., Tel Aviv. office@beit-daniel.org.il).