By Shmuel Katz
It has definitely been a busy few weeks. With the opening of our yeshiva for the first time and the quick transition from arrival of students to Rosh Hashanah, it feels as if I have barely had time to breathe for a month or more. It has been a terrific couple of weeks, with one of my favorite tiyulim (Ir David), getting things flowing well in yeshiva, and (our) kids getting back to school. Yet that will all have to wait, as it seems that the never-ending saga to our north continues to dominate everyone’s attention.
You know the story and the politics. And you have probably also heard about the mass “panic” in Israel, especially in regard to the scramble for everyone to get their gas masks here. I got several e-mails from folks in the U.S. asking me what was going on here and (from a couple of yeshiva parents) what plans there were for tourists to get gas masks.
The escalation of tensions and imminent attack by the U.S. on Syria is sure to generate an attack on Israel, according to many of the reports. And thus, reasoned the articles I had been forwarded, Israel is in full panic mode, issuing gas masks to citizens and preparing for an immediate crisis.
I do not wish to minimize the serious nature of the international tensions and the very real possibility for war to erupt at any moment. Surrounded by countries populated by many people who hate us, this is a continual fact of life for us and a primary reason why military service is such a hot-button issue here.
We have seen peaks and valleys in the level of alert in our seven years here. We’ve lived through a couple of wars already and I must say that, despite what you may have been reading, I have not recently felt anything near the major level of concern that I have felt at other times. War may or may not break out. We may be attacked by Syria in a bid for support from our other neighbors. Yet I think that the media has way overblown the sentiment here in Israel.
You see, the distribution of gas masks is not a new thing here. Our family got our first set (one per person, sized by age) in 2008. That’s right, five years ago, around the time of the Gaza War. We ordered them by phone and the post office delivered them. And I do not remember there being any concern at that time about a risk of chemical warfare.
Wait a second, you ask, if what you are saying is true and the concerns have not yet heightened to alarm levels, why then were masks suddenly being distributed the last couple of weeks and what is the story with the big lines and mass crush to get the masks? I’ll tell you.
A couple of years ago, the government announced a three-year program to get gas masks to the Israeli public. The plan existed because it would have been extremely difficult to effectively distribute these masks to all of Israel’s millions of citizens if they’d waited to do so only once tensions reached a certain level. In order to make sure we would all be protected if and when the need arose, they needed to get most of us supplied with equipment well in advance.
Two years into the program, 60% of Israelis reportedly already had their gas masks in hand (like us) prior to the Syrian chemical warfare news breaking. Distribution centers have been open throughout the summer as part of the program—this distribution is nothing new at all.
We participated in the distribution this year because a couple of our kids had grown out of their existing masks and needed larger sizes. The government sent out postcards advising people like to us to head to a distribution center for a mask exchange—this was not a sudden rush (on the government’s part) to get masks to the public. It was part of a preexisting program.
There is always public concern. Some of those without gas masks swarmed into the distribution centers because they suddenly realized that they could be caught unprepared. Many were parents of babies who were getting their equipment for their baby for the first time. Others were people who were concerned about the Syria situation. Yet it is not a government alert and while I do not trust the government per se, I do trust them when it comes to the major governmental priority of protecting Israeli citizenry (as well as tourists).
The government has not raised an alert. How do I know? Well, firstly, because they say so. But also, while there are plans in place for getting masks to foreign students, these plans can only be put into effect by order of the government, and they have not made any such order. They might at some point, but haven’t done so yet.
What you’ve been reading is media hype and only a partial telling of the story. They show long lines and talk about a sudden need to get gas masks without mentioning that the centers have been operating for weeks already. This is how reporters earn their money; filing boring stories is not good business.
As we approach Yom Kippur, let us all pray that the ongoing process of distributing gas masks is precautionary only and that we be granted the geulah sheleimah speedily so that we can enjoy the avodah in the Bet HaMikdash and that Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael continue to have divine protection. Gmar chatimah tovah. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.