The writer in front of the USS Arizona memorial..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Of course I already knew the basics. On a quiet Sunday morning, December
7, 1941, the Imperial Army of Japan attacked the United States of America.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan, and the US entered World
I wasn’t familiar with the details, and have been mulling over
the lessons of a recent visit to Pearl Harbor in the somber nine days before
I was invited to Honolulu to speak about Israel. There was a
variety of audiences, including public radio. Yes, there are Jews in Hawaii – an
estimated 10,000. The 50th state’s former governor Linda Lingle was Jewish, as
is the current deputy governor, Brian Schatz. And yes, the Jews of Hawaii
are concerned about Israel. I’m always moved by how attached our brethren in
far-flung Jewish communities are to Israel, and you don’t get much farther flung
than Hawaii. Indeed, one of the synagogues in Honolulu is called Sof Maarav,
from the famous Yehuda Halevy poem, “My heart is in the east, but I am in sof
ma’arav” – the uttermost west – 12 time zones from Jerusalem, and because
there’s no daylight saving time, 13 hours’ time difference.
reputation for hospitality is well-deserved: From the moment I arrive I am
draped in flowers. Each lei is fashioned from 80 orchids. My hosts take me to
watch the sunset at Waikiki Beach, to see President Barack Obama’s birth
hospital and apartment block, and to the Pearl Harbor National Historical
Over a million and a half adults and schoolchildren visit Pearl
Harbor and the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument every year, including
many Japanese tourists. Displays of authentic WWII aircraft, ships and a
submarine are interspersed with audiovisual material illustrating the period.
The highlight of the visit is a short sail to the Memorial to the Fallen, near
the USS Arizona, which still lies sunken in the harbor.
On the day of
infamy, as FDR called it, 353 Japanese aircraft succeeded in reaching Pearl
Harbor. They dropped specially fitted bombs that could pierce the decks of
supposedly impenetrable battleships, and launched torpedoes from the air. Two
thousand four hundred soldiers and civilians were killed, and Battleship Row of
the American fleet was decimated; 1,177 servicemen were killed on the Arizona,
to which 37 sets of brothers had been assigned. Most of the bodies are still on
the ship, joined by those of survivors who until today choose the Arizona as
their final resting place.
The operative question throughout the somber
visit is, of course, how the US could have been caught unprepared.
fleet had been positioned in Hawaii to demonstrate American muscle as a
deterrent to Japanese expansionism. But the museum narrative suggests that from
the Japanese point of view, the oil embargo America had placed on Japan was the
equivalent of a declaration of war. An astute intelligence report submitted to
both the US Army and Navy prior to December 7 anticipated a drastic action on
the part of the Japanese. It even outlined the possibility of an airborne
attack, detailing the probable choice of a Sunday or holiday and the approach
from the north. It wasn’t taken seriously. The US relied instead on a
newly installed aerial warning system – radar – and didn’t conduct rigorous sky
For the past seven decades, the mistakes made at Pearl Harbor
have been endlessly reviewed. Japan’s Zero bombers were poorly thought of. The
160,000 Japanese Hawaiians were considered a greater threat than the Japanese in
Japan. When the first wave of Japanese planes approached, the radar did indeed
pick them up, but no attention was paid because a delivery of American planes
was expected. A Japanese submarine caught entering Pearl Harbor wasn’t
recognized as part of an integrated attack.
simply couldn’t understand the thinking of the Japanese, nor appreciate their
ingenuity. Overconfidence colored the decision-making process. And as we all
know, once you’ve made up your mind, new evidence that contradicts your beliefs
is so uncomfortable that we usually reject it. The term is cognitive
Today, visitors to Pearl Harbor must surrender purses and
bags at the gate – a puzzling security regulation that dates from the second
surprise attack on the US, on September 11, 2001. My hosts pay $3 to store my
purse while I am allowed to carry my camera and phone.
The attack on the
Twin Towers, the 10th anniversary of which we are marking soon, is another
example of poor comprehension of the ideology, intent and ingenuity of an enemy.
Here, too, intelligence went against conventional thinking, and nearly 3,000 men
and women were murdered.
How well we in Israel know the dangers of
overconfidence, and the failure to gauge the enemy’s determination. The
inability to foresee the Yom Kippur War is the most blatant example, but there
have been many others, like boasting that Saddam Hussein’s missiles were so
inexact they would never hit Tel Aviv, or sending commandos onto the Mavi
armed with paint guns. To say nothing of our failure in public
On the way back from Pearl Harbor, my hosts drive me near a
hillside tea house from which a spy on the top floor, using simple binoculars,
was able to see the entire military base. While locals were drinking tea, daily
reports on how the planes were parked and the carriers were docked were
dispatched to the enemy.
The Japanese also miscalculated. They didn’t
realize that the attack would unify the American people in their readiness to go
These days of Av, in which we remember the destruction of our two
Temples in Jerusalem and the calamities of modern history, should be an antidote
to cocksureness. Our enemies always have their binoculars turned toward
us. Our domestic concerns, legitimate though they are, cannot distract us from
keeping watch at this unstable time in the Middle East.
The author is a
Jerusalem writer who focuses on the stories of modern Israel. She serves as the
Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist
Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.