Monday, March 24, 2003

War as Peace of Mind

I don’t mean to be flippant, but to Israelis, the war against Iraq - so far at least - has been somewhat of a bore.

This is not in any way to minimize the drama in the Gulf. Certainly there have been fierce battles already, with more casualties on both sides than initially expected. The non-stop news coverage attests to the fact that this is important, that it's the story.

But here in Israel, it’s like we got all dressed up and now we’ve got nowhere to go.

Over the past weeks, we went out and bought our duct tape. We sealed our rooms, tried on our gas masks and now we are instructed to carry them wherever we go. Every politician who can speak passable English (and a few who can't) made a public pronouncement on how he or she thought the war would go.

But so far we’ve seen no action in Israel. No missiles flying overhead. The Patriots and the Arrow anti-missile batteries stand at the ready but are for the moment idle. Even the airlines that originally cancelled flights to the region are coming back drip by drop.

This is a good thing of course. None of us want chemical weapons rained down on us. But after such a build up, the quiet is almost anti-climatic.

And now look what’s happened. Haaretz reports that “despite the Israel Defense Forces' explicit directive for the public to carry gas masks at all times and the repeated warnings from defense officials that the possibility of an Iraqi missile strike still exists,” virtually no gas masks were to be seen in downtown Jerusalem. Just as bare in the HaShalom train station in Tel Aviv. Not even Dimona, adjacent to Israel’s officially still secret nuclear reactor, is heeding the IDF’s instructions, according to Haaretz.

And why should they? At dinner the other night, Amir asked why we should be so frightened over the slight possibility of a missile attack from Iraq when it is a near certainty there will be another suicide bomb in the near future?

Is carrying a gas mask on a public bus an oxymoron?

Well, I’m still toting mine around. And so are the kids. Although under protest.

“What if none of the other kids bring theirs to school?” demanded Merav. “I just can’t be the only one.”

The ultimate punishment: to be the different from one’s peers at the tender age of nine.

Aviv had no such problem. In kindergarten, one of the arts and crafts activities conducted across the country last week was the uniquely Israeli ritual of “decorating the gas mask box.” Aviv and his friends cheerfully affixed color stickers, drew pretty pictures, and added liberal dabs of paint and sparkles.

Amir dutifully carried his box with him to karate, and Jody and I stashed ours under the bed at night (leading me to wonder: in the Gulf War, did anyone try to make love while wearing a gas mask? And more important: if so, were they initiating or completing the act?)

But in my office, almost no one is carrying one. And, mind you, I work in Tel Aviv, only a couple of kilometers from where the majority of the scuds fell in 1991, and within exploding distance of the Pi Glilot fuel plant that was shut down following attempts by Palestinian terrorists to blow up a truck inside it last year.

Speaking of which: what’s up with local terrorism anyway? It’s almost forgotten. Despite our indifference, the news with Iraq is dominating our heads (if not our hearts). And Saddam Hussein, who seems to grow less and less dead every day, is blaming it more and more on the Jews.

Here’s an ironic thought: the war in Iraq may actually be serving to increase peace of mind among Israelis. How so? It’s done a fine job of taking our minds off immediate terror concerns. The newspapers are dominated by news from Baghdad. But a shooting near Ramallah? Page Six.

Which gives me a thought. Maybe what we need to do to survive the rigors of life in Israel is to find a conflict somewhere else in the world, and give in a Jewish spin. One which world leaders fallaciously claim involves us, but doesn’t really threaten us.

Serbs and Albanians in Macedonia? It all started when the Elders of Zion decided to sit for a nice glass of tea in some quaint Kosovan cafe.

Hutus and Tutsis in Africa? Really just a fight over who’s the real 12th lost tribe. And the fact that Israel continues to deny them their right of return.

Protestants and Catholics slugging in out in Belfast? Well, there once was this Rabbi from Nazareth…

And if none of the above work, we can always blame it on the French.

And here’s the best news of all. Last time I checked, the Hutus and the Tutsis didn’t have stockpiles of chemical weapons.

I’m feeling more relaxed already.

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