Life goes on as Israel remains under threat of violence


Friday, Feb. 29. Winter is ending and it’s a beautiful, warm, Friday afternoon at the bustling Tel Aviv Port entertainment district. Families strolling, kids playing, old men debating, bicyclers of all ages whiz by. The restaurants and cafes are jammed. A young woman hands me a small strip of red ribbon, which I attach to the button hole of my jacket. Despite the most normal and relaxed of scenes, just miles south in Sderot, in the port city of Ashkelon and in the rural settlements adjacent to Gaza, people are tense, angry and scared by the constant barrage of Kassam missiles — 100 in the last three days.

The ribbon signifies “Code Red,” the announcement of an incoming missile that allows residents just 15 seconds to seek shelter. Some don’t make it and this week a 47-year-old father of four and student at Sapir College was killed. Others have been wounded. Many have left the region; the most vulnerable remain. We wear the ribbon in solidarity with the residents. Last weekend, thousands of Israelis drove down to Sderot — just 1.5 miles from Gaza — to do their shopping as a show of support.

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Intensified attacks are leading to the likelihood — some say inevitability — of a major Israeli military operation. The situation is fluid, but in recent days there have been numerous severe airstrikes against launch sites, terrorists and Hamas infrastructure. However, it is likely that significant ground operations will be required to seriously disrupt Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They are being rapidly reinforced by Iran and Syria through weaponry and jihadis smuggled in from Egypt. Several longer range, more accurate Katuysha type “Grad” missiles have been launched. Despite the enormous price in lives, and the fact that an attack will likely only postpone further missile strikes, the mood of the country demands action. Could we tolerate missiles being fired on St. Charles, while we go about our business in Clayton? This is the major issue of the day.

In the north and throughout the country, concerns are also rising. We know that Hizbollah has now heavily rearmed itself in Lebanon. Reliable reports show that there are now Kassams on the West Bank. From that location, they have the range to hit Jerusalem itself and many other cities and towns. Terror attacks on the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and Dimona in the south reminds us that daily terrorist attempts continue — though most are thwarted, in part, by the security barrier. Even our normal briefing at the security fence in Megiddo was relocated, due to reports of snipers.

Israeli options appear severely limited. Ongoing, but slow, work continues on the Annapolis process to derive a framework for final status agreement by the end of 2008. However, with politically weak leadership on both sides, any major flare-up of violence can stall or sidetrack the work. Efforts to open discussions on the status of Jerusalem could bring down the Olmert government. And Israel remains convinced that Iran continues in its quest to acquire nuclear weapon capability in a relatively short period. Israel’s efforts are focused on increased diplomatic and economic pressure on the Iranian regime to change course. Thus far, there is dim hope. So Israel is methodically going through the steps of preparation — training, deployments, new security systems, preparing shelters and response systems — for what a hopeful people describe as the “next war that won’t come.”

The security strains show in budgetary cuts to education and social services, a troubled small business sector in the North and South, and an increasing number of young Israelis seeking a way to avoid military service.

But overall the spirit of the country is intact. Traveling with a mission group from St. Louis, we met plenty of committed Zionists. People like former World Bank Vice Chair Stanley Fisher, who emigrated to head the Bank of Israel. The Livnat brothers who use art to honor their artist mother and grandfather as well as their father, who died as a pilot in the Six Day War. Legendary industrialist Stef Wertheimer (his ISCAR Corp was purchased by Warren Buffet) who has created five successful industrial parks to build the peripheral areas of the North and South. Small business people, who have benefitted from Federation-funded entrepreneurship training, who are building new futures. Giggling Ethiopian teenagers who study traditional dance four hours a day to provide shape and meaning to their lives. St. Louis natives Cheri Fox Goldgraber and Pamela Fox Claman, who are devoting themselves to addressing critical needs like food insecurity and support for Israeli soldiers. And even Alexa, the young woman who accompanied me through the airport this evening. Born in Lithuania, just released from the army as an officer and now studying economics, she literally bubbled with enthusiasm, love and hope for her country — even though her parents live on a moshav adjacent to the Gaza Strip and in range of the Kassams.

As we have in similar times, the national Federation system is providing direct assistance to the residents. This has included building shelters, providing trauma relief, short-term respite and assistance to small businesspeople and students. Recently $1.7 million was approved to give each of the 1,700 Sapir College students a $1,000 scholarship to assist them in remaining at the College — despite the threats and hardships Recent grants to the region from North American Federations total $21 million. And further funds are needed through a continuation of the Israel Emergency Campaign. There are other things Israel needs from America and the American Jewish community. Efforts to achieve progress with the Palestinians must continue; but must be accompanied by real assurances of security for the population. International pressure — diplomatic and economic sanctions — must intensify to press Iran to back off its nuclear aspirations. You can also show your support by traveling and buying Israeli products.

Two weeks ago, a team of 21 St. Louisans, representing four congregations, were in Israel learning and exploring ways to deepen the connection between Israeli and St. Louis Jews. At the heart of this Focus Israel effort is a conviction that we are a global Jewish people and that Judaism and Jewish security depend on our nurturing deep and powerful connections and unity with Israel and its people. So, just as those who wore a red ribbon were sending a message of solidarity, I hope that each of you will find a way to do the same.

Barry Rosenberg is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater St. Louis.