When my parents’ generation talks of The War they mean the Second World War. For my brother and me, “The War” usually refers to the First Lebanon War, in which he saw active combat and we both lost friends. My 14-year-old son, on the other hand, has taken a whole string of wars in his stride, and together we sometimes have trouble figuring out during which of the three mini-wars in Gaza within the last seven years a specific incident occurred.
Add to that ongoing sporadic rockets launched on Israel from the north and the south; the Second Lebanon War; the first and second intifadas; the Oslo terror war; and the current still-nameless round of Palestinian terrorism, and no wonder the 25th anniversary this month of what Israelis call “the First Gulf War” has gone almost unmarked.
(Israelis, including my then-toddler son, compulsorily carried gas masks for a brief period in the Second Gulf War, too. Somehow, until writing this column I had managed to push to the back of my mind the image of a kid not yet two years old struggling to carry a huge gas-warfare protection kit into his daycare center.) The First Gulf War (and how it saddens me that we have so many series of hostilities that they are given numbers) was a strange war, even by Israeli standards.
As then-editor of In Jerusalem, The Jerusalem Post’s local supplement, its outbreak presented me with an unforgettable challenge: The paper went to press just after the January 15, 1991, deadline for Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait expired, and I had to take into account that by the time readers picked up a copy on the Friday, the country could be at war, and not just any war: war in which Saddam Hussein might throw nonconventional weapons at us, instead of restricting them to the Kurds and his own people.
I didn’t take the chemical threat as seriously as perhaps I should have. (I was also 25 years younger.) I didn’t initially follow Home Front Command instructions to seal homes with plastic sheeting and masking tape. I attended an “end of the world” party mainly with other journalists, well-known for being a cynical breed.
The actual outbreak of the war didn’t take me by surprise, but the sudden fear I felt donning a gas mask for the first time as sirens wailed was shocking. My parents, survivors of the Blitz on London, were better prepared than I. Previously I’d only had to cope with Katyushas fired on northern Israel by Palestinians in Lebanon. That was a light version of Russian roulette, child’s play compared to the danger of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare.
Trying to think of a cover story for the paper under the circumstances was demanding.
Ultimately I had the inspired idea of sending a reporter to interview a psychologist on how to cope with stress.
The main tip, “Don’t worry about things that are beyond your control,” remains with me.
The first night that the rockets fell, Israelis were exposed to the incoming missile alert code-phrase “Nahash tzefa” (viper) and then- IDF spokesman Nachman Shai started earning the nickname “Mr. Valium” for his calm advice to drink water. After struggling into a gas mask, and helping seal, unseal and reseal my parents’ living room after the cat accidentally got locked out on the balcony (even in war, like most cats, she had the knack of always being the wrong side of a door), I had a chance to reflect.
I didn’t see my life pass in front of my eyes.
I saw my newspaper and career. How flippant had I been in my column? Apart from the psychological advice, how much of the paper would be relevant? (The paper was printed and distributed after a delay of a few hours.) As the war dragged on, Israelis did what Israelis do best: Adapt and carry on. Two people died in direct hits, four from suffocation in gas masks, and dozens from heart attacks, but overall we survived.
While Palestinians celebrated each of the 39 Scuds that landed in Israel in the month and a half of war, Israelis continued to celebrate life.
Decorated bags for gas-mask kits soon became the must-have accessory. The Post created its own design with a patchwork of news headlines. On my way to interview singer Yehuda Poliker, who refused to leave Tel Aviv despite the rockets, strangers begged to buy it from me, the only time I have ever felt fashionable in the White City.
Sexologist Dr. Ruth (Ruth Westheimer) became a legend for her suggestions on what to do behind sealed doors (and there was indeed a baby boom nine months later as there has been following all of Israel’s wars); the Zehu Zeh! team on Educational TV created the character of Baba Buba, who has a special place in local cultural history, along with the image of maestro Zubin Mehta conducting the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra while the audience donned gas masks during a missile attack.
Newspapers, including the Post, carried spots in which readers could share their funny war stories. War isn’t fun but that doesn’t stop us trying to find the humor in the situation.
Like many others, I still have memories of springing into action, sealing the room, at the wrong time – mistaking the neighbors’ vacuum cleaner for the siren. To this day, many, many sirens later, the rising opening notes of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue give me a mini-adrenaline kick.
Throughout the war, the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union continued to arrive in Israel, most of them learning to cope with the strange reality before they learned Hebrew, just as today immigrants arrive from France and Ukraine.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir acquiesced to American calls for “restraint” – he later described it as one of the toughest decisions he had to make; the US provided Patriot anti-missile systems that quickly became a hit with local tourists despite their supposedly secret locations, just as the Iron Dome systems did in the summer of 2014.
The Gulf War ended just in time for the country to burst out of the sealed rooms and celebrate Purim, the holiday marking the frustration of the plans to destroy all the Jews in Persia in ancient times.
TWENTY-FIVE YEARS and some 15,000 rockets later, I faced an editorial dilemma of a different nature this week. Now editor of the weekly International Edition with a far broader readership than my fondly remembered In Jerusalem times, I looked at the calendar and realized I would have to include in this one issue features for Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year for Trees, which starts at sundown on January 24, and material suitable for International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.
The balancing act is peculiarly Israeli: One of those ups-and-downs we know so well.
Ultimately, I opted to make Tu Bishvat the cover story. If you can’t celebrate the Jewish New Year for Trees in Israel then where can you? Also tipping the balance in Tu Bishvat’s favor is the fact that the Jewish holiday comes but once a year, while Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked twice in Israel. The main commemoration takes place, fittingly, according to the Hebrew calendar, a week after Passover and a week ahead of Independence Day; the ceremonies on January 27, marking the date of the liberation of Auschwitz, play a smaller role.
Indeed, while I’m pleased the world sees fit to commemorate the six million Jews who died in the Shoah, it is lip service as long as for the rest of the year Israel, the Jewish homeland, is under diplomatic assault, not just attacks from terrorists. Spare me the tears over our dead in a month when the world powers sign an agreement giving the Islamic Republic of Iran billions of dollars that can continue to fund its terrorist proxies and enable it to remain on the threshold of nuclear capability.
I don’t need the heartfelt speeches from leaders who, even in the current wave of terrorism, can’t stop blaming Israel for the violence being inflicted on it. In some cases, they still blame Israel for the Islamist terrorism taking place all around the world from Burkina Faso to Pakistan; Europe to Australia.
Twenty-five years is not a long time from a historical point of view, but it’s long enough to realize that while Shamir’s restraint earned him passing praise, it was the decision by Menachem Begin in 1981 to bomb the Iraqi nascent nuclear reactor that kept us safer during the later Gulf War.
And there’s another good reason to celebrate Tu Bishvat. It marks the birthday of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, a year after the modern state was born. This year the Knesset celebrated 50 years since the dedication of its beautiful building in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram area. For although foreign embassies avoid it and the US is not willing to write “Jerusalem, Israel” as the birthplace on the passports of its citizens lucky enough to have been born here, Jerusalem is Israel’s capital. Tel Aviv might be the trendsetter and economic center, but Jerusalem was and remains the heart of the Jewish nation.
Every Holocaust Remembrance Day, I feel compelled to repeat the message that 1948-generation fighter-writer Haim Gouri once shared with me: Israel wasn’t born because of the Holocaust; it was born in spite of the Holocaust.
The parliament is named for the ancient Knesset Hagdola, the Great Assembly, of the fifth century BCE. Sharing its birthday with Tu Bishvat is just another of those rootsand- branches things. Although it is fashionable to bash the Knesset, as the citizens of all free countries fault their parliaments, 25 years after the First Gulf War, and despite all we’ve been through, the country continues to bloom.