My Word: Sounding out the summer

Amid summer vacation planning, Home Front warfare drills stand as reminder of ever-present threat of impending possible attacks.

May 30, 2013 20:51
Ashkelon man takes cover during code red siren

Ashkelon man takes cover during code red siren 370. (photo credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen)

The Siren’s Song is the name of a book by Irit Linur. It’s a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the First Gulf War when young Israelis struggled to maintain a social life at a time when the threat of nonconventional weapons from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was so great they turned their gas-mask kits into fashion accessories and were always on the alert for the nearest sealed room in the event of a missile attack.

The novel was turned into a movie by director Eytan Fox, who gave the lead male role to Yair Lapid, in the days when the thought of him one day serving as the country’s finance minister seemed ridiculous. OK, it still seems ridiculous, but it’s no longer funny.

The book and film’s title came to mind this month when the IDF Home Front Command mounted a particularly bizarre campaign.

As I so publicly confessed on these pages last week, I often sing out loud as I work, but I don’t think you should turn everything into a song and dance – and this includes the oh-so-Israeli experience of determining where the nearest shelter is.

During those Gulf War days in January 1991, I suspected that part of the reason civilians were told to seal a room was to give them something to do. I doubted that the plastic sheeting taped to the windows would really stop a Scud carrying chemical or biological weapons, although, law abiding citizen that I am, I complied with the instructions.

I hazard a guess that part of the latest Home Front campaign is simply an effort to make a potential disaster more user-friendly.

It reminds me of the animated air safety instructions favored by most airlines – the slightly comic characters deflect attention from the underlying message that there is a slight possibility that you’re not going to make it to your destination (but enjoy your flight, for as long as it lasts).

The Home Front is asking people to submit jingles with a reminder of how much time they have in their particular hometown to get to a shelter in the event of a missile warning. The siren’s song hits the age of YouTube.

The TV slots show the IDF Entertainment Corps singing in places ranging from a barber shop to a barbecue.

Since I have grown older, wiser and more skeptical since the Gulf War, I feel the campaign misses the target. Several questions battle the irritating ditties in my mind.

For a start: Instead of calming fears, talk of war tends to have the opposite effect. Secondly, I can’t see who really needs it. Nearly all residents of the South have experienced missile alerts at some point (or a great many points) over the last decade or so; most residents of the North still remember the 2006 Second Lebanon War (wars are not the sort of thing you forget even if Israelis excel in moving on); and pretty much everyone else was on alert less than a year ago during Operation Pillar of Defense.

Our problem isn’t remembering how long we’ve got to find shelter, it’s trying to put it out of our minds.

As we make summer vacation plans, are we seriously expected to check the time it takes to get to a bombproof area along with details about access to the beach, where to dine out, and local nighttime attractions? Similarly, and I don’t want to add to the tensions, I can’t help thinking that the time factor depends on where the missiles are being launched from. Jerusalemites, for example, officially have more than a minute between the sound of the siren and missile impact. I’m no rocket scientist, but I can figure out that a projectile launched from Lebanon/Syria in the North or Egypt/Gaza in the South is going to take longer than a missile from the West Bank. And one of those Middle Eastern absurdities is that the more intense the peace talks, the greater the chances of attack from that area.

A 60-second-plus warning, by the way, is considered luxurious by friends in Sderot and the surrounding area. They have only 15 seconds to grab their children, elderly parents and pets and get to safety – a fact I’m sure they haven’t forgotten in the few weeks since the last siren sounded.

This week, the IDF held a comprehensive drill – including scenarios of nonconventional warfare that no rational person wants to turn into a jingle and videoclip starring their nearest and dearest.

The response was underwhelming.

Schools had to comply, so children were forced to go through the drill in the morning. Sadly, I don’t think I know a single Israeli child whose stomach doesn’t turn at the sound of the siren, which – while I’m feeling pedantic – wails, rather than sings.

Adults, too, have that natural fight-or-flight instinct; we no longer need it drilled into us.

My own experience this week was not reassuring.

It didn’t so much remind me of Lapid’s acting career as the Fawlty Towers episode in which John Cleese holds a mandatory fire drill in his hysterically inhospitable hotel.

In downtown Jerusalem, with perhaps two minutes to go to drill time, I wandered into a major department store where security personnel were telling staff the procedure for the alarm.

As a result, half the staff and customers were herded too early into the safe areas and were then told to come out and go back in again; the other half missed the exercise completely.

For some reason, I couldn’t hear the siren (maybe it was whispering rather than wailing) so instead of timing my sprint to the shelter I found myself looking at my watch to determine when I could make my escape. A guard blocked the doors throughout the 10-minute drill, despite the crowd of potential customers – or maybe asylum- seekers – gathered outside.

When the siren sounded in the evening, my son and I both confessed to hating the noise, but were not moved enough to go along with it. We got the message: Be prepared. Now let us get on with our lives, please.

AND THERE is so much more to life than preparing for a possible war. I didn’t miss the irony in the countrywide drill taking place at the same time that Jerusalem – the City of Peace – was hosting a major tourism conference.

As The Jerusalem Post’s Daniel K. Eisenbud reported, travel industry leaders at the two-day second annual Jerusalem Innovative Tourism Summit stressed the need to “rebrand” Israel.

“[Potential tourists] need to realize that they are not going from Ben-Gurion Airport to a battlefield,” in the words of Oren Drori, deputy director-general and head of marketing for the Tourism Ministry.

On the bus on my way to work, I passed the Liberty Bell Park, where there seemed to be a lot of preparations for something obviously unrelated to war.

It is a sign of our good fortune that I couldn’t work out whether the stage was being set for an Israel Festival event or Hebrew Book Week, the countrywide outdoors literary fair.

My “things to do” list in the coming weeks also includes the annual Light Show; a visit to the old railway station which has been reincarnated as a cultural row; a new exhibition at the Israel Museum; and the Threads exhibition at the Tower of David Museum, where 10 leading Israeli fashion designers have created outfits inspired by women who had an impact on Jerusalem’s history (what do you think the Queen of Sheba would wear today?).

May our songs be strong; the siren silent; and may all our summertime dilemmas concern how to fit so many attractions into our free time and find shelter from the Mediterranean sun.

The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.

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