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The War Next Door

By Tova A. Serkin

Before I left to spend a year in Israel, I bought some art supplies, expecting to use them with children in my capacity as a volunteer. Seven months later, however, my crayons and glow-in-the-dark stickers found their way onto the cardboard box containing my gas mask. It was that same day that I was ordered to stay in Jerusalem, preferably near places with public shelters, and to carry my gas mask with me at all times. Now, three weeks later, as the American troops have attacked much of Western Iraq, the only area from which a missile attack on Israel is possible, we can all breathe a sigh of relief and leave those pesky boxes at home.

When I talk to my friends and family back in the States, however, they cannot understand the matter-of-factness with which I talk about the war and Israel’s possible involvement. When I try to look at my situation objectively, I too have found the whole experience to be surreal. Never before have I made my weekend plans conditional on a possible missile attack. Yet in spite of the increased security concerns here, I and the others in my group have never doubted our decision to come to Israel, nor to stay here through the war with Iraq.

Life has gone on as normal in Israel, with few exceptions. A country used to dealing with difficult security situations, Israel cannot let the possibility of a few SCUD missiles get in the way of a good time. America began military action against Iraq in the midst of Purim, a holiday that commemorates the Jewish people’s unlikely survival against an evil Persian ruler’s plans of genocide. The holiday is celebrated by dressing up in costumes, gift-giving and parties. As bombs began to rock Baghdad, the celebrations continued on as planned, the streets were filled with costumed families and the night clubs were packed.

This is not to say that people were oblivious to the situation with Iraq. Every possible precaution has been taken here. In fact, the only reason such a carefree attitude has been possible is because of the constantly careful forethought Israel is used to when it comes to security threats. Truthfully, I feel much safer in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Jerusalem than I would in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles because I trust the soldiers and security officers who stand at the entrance to every supermarket, cafe, bank and bus station.

But a war with Iraq threatened to create a much different reality here than the daily threat of terror Israel’s residents have learned to deal with in the past few years. Those who remember the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago recall hours spent in sealed rooms wearing gas masks waiting for the inevitable. In fact, 39 missiles did land in Tel Aviv and the surrounding suburban areas. Luckily, only one person was killed—no thanks to the American military support. The Patriot missiles supplied in 1991 had a 100 percent failure rate.

This time around, we were assured once again that all possible precautions were being taken by American forces and the Israeli Air Force. But given the last Gulf War’s skin-of-our-teeth results here, many Israelis clearly had good reason to feel insecure about Saddam’s missiles. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the advent of war raised the possibility that there would be an increased number of terror attacks. Without having experienced the effects of biological and chemical weaponry, most Israelis fear increased terror attacks more than any missile from Iraq.

In the face of these very real risks facing Israel in this American war against Iraq, many of us here nevertheless watched the protesters around the world with some amazement. Millions of people in Australia, Europe and America gathered to support peace instead of war. If only it were that easy. Most Israelis support a war against Iraq, at least in theory, not because we are warmongers, or even because we harbor resentment from the Persian Gulf War. Almost paradoxically, it is because we consciously feel our proximity to Iraq—because we are aware of the risks to safety inherent in having Saddam Hussein as a neighbor, war or no war.

Protesters who say that they favor peace over war, and that is the reason Iraq should be left alone, are simply living in a fantasy—a fantasy which is made possible by their physical distance from the threat. In San Francisco or Cambridge, it is easy for protesters to pretend that Saddam’s weapons can never reach them; Israelis don’t have the luxury of that illusion. I challenge those protesting the war from thousands of miles away to come here, within shooting distance of Iraq, and to make the same claims about peace. Israel has learned the hard way that inaction does not equal safety or security.

Tova A. Serkin ’02 was an executive editor of The Crimson in 2001. She is currently living in Kiryat Tivon, Israel as a participant in a ten-month volunteer program for college graduates.

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