On passports and gas masks

In times of crisis, the question that arises for every oleh is: Which do I grab? Passport or gas mask?

IDF soldier fits child with gas mask 370 (photo credit:  	 REUTERS/David Silverman)
IDF soldier fits child with gas mask 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/David Silverman)
New immigrants to Israel often laugh at the ostensible ignorance of their friends and family members at home, whose perspective on life in Israel is largely tempered, if not completely dominated, by what they see and hear in the sensationalist news media.  It is endlessly incumbent upon them to explain to their friends abroad that life here is lived with an almost lackadaisical sort of normalcy. Even those security precautions that do penetrate everyday routine, such as the occasional emergency drill, or metal detectors at the movie theater, become familiar niceties almost immediately.
There are, however, several sobering moments that inevitably give pause, no matter how flippantly one responds towards the melodrama of worried relatives or shocked former coworkers. As the specter of war and chaos looms and it becomes clear just how alone Israel is in the world, headlines and talking heads alike begin to seem a little bit less farfetched.
It is a tender hysteria that dare not speak its own name, as it creeps slowly into the collective unconscious of strangers passing one another in the street. Expatriates know it well and speak of it in foreboding tones to young, wide-tailed and bushy-eyed prospective immigrants, by way of warning them what lies ahead when they move to Israel. Danger is something that Israelis are simultaneously acutely aware of, much more so than their North American counterparts, and loathe to speak about to one another. New immigrants learn to panic silently and attempt to adopt the granite appearance of conviction that Israelis seem to be born with, but occasionally, over a coffee or something stronger, they’ll confide their discomfort to one another. It starts with an offhanded comment and turns into a hushed confession.
I recently had several such conversations with fellow newcomers, and I suspect as the chaotic events that surround us continue to relentlessly collude on our borders, I’ll have many more.  One such conversation began as a normal chat with a close friend in Haifa. “We opened our gas mask yesterday,” she offered benignly, as if it was an everyday occurrence, sandwiched somewhere between watching Glee and checking out prices on gym memberships. “It looks pretty scary,” she admitted, in that increasingly familiar, confessional tone. I agreed, with my own guilty self-admonishment, as if to say, “Forgive me, for I too have allowed myself to become scared.”
Israel is a remarkably diverse society, and no two homes are completely alike, but every single one, with very few exceptions, has one commonalty. Each and every citizen of Israel is entitled to a government-issued gas mask. During the Gulf War, teenagers could be seen stringing them along as they loitered at the local mall. Some people keep them tucked away in closets, or under beds. Some display them in plain sight, readily accessible.
Tomes could be inferred about what the placement of one’s gas mask might reveal about them, but our conversation turned quickly to the placement of another staple in every new immigrant’s home.
Whether they live in an absorption center, or apartment, or relative’s house, or on a kibbutz, somewhere, in some cupboard, or drawer, or lockbox, or haphazardly thrown on a table under an old sock, every new immigrant still holds on to their passport from their country of origin. Occasionally their eyes gloss over the passports and their mind wanders to the hypothetical dilemma that seems to be inching ever closer to inevitable decision point. 
The question is eventually asked out loud, one newcomer to another, in an empathic tone completely devoid of judgment: “If and when war comes, will you reach for the gas mask, or the passport?”
On the one hand, excepting those with the means and ability to take arms in defense of the country, who will be called up to assist the war effort, there is very little practical reason keeping someone in the country when they have the means to leave. They are one more person who must be periodically evacuated from here to there, one more body in the bomb shelter, and one more hysteric mouth to feed.  Is suffering in solidarity really a good enough reason to make everyone’s lives more difficult.
Conversely, one could argue that there is a moral imperative to stay beside one’s neighbors in times of crisis. That they have no ability to leave is not, in and of itself, a reason to stay; however, it is crucial to national morale that they not be perceived as fleeing a sinking ship. In the lead up to the Six Day War, Israelis could be heard joking to one another that “the last one to leave the country mustn’t forget to turn off the lights.”
There exists an immense pressure on new Israelis to fit in to Israeli society; they do everything they can to rid themselves of any “foreign”identity, meticulously eliminating their accents and cultural particularities. The gas masks represent a shared worry that ties them to the collective burden; the passport is their silent lifeboat, one whose very mention unavoidably creates a barrier between the new immigrant and the native Israeli. Should the escape route ever actually be employed, there can be no return to normalcy: no adoption of the granite stoicism, no rejoining of the collective unconscious.
That said, the danger is not a joke, and one’s willingness to put themselves in harm’s way for potential membership in a club with no membership criteria in the first place can be construed as both immature and selfish. Real lives are at stake, and not just those of the Israelis themselves; their relatives and friends outside the country pass sleepless nights, and suffer deep trauma with the knowledge that their loved ones are in danger. If, God forbid, something should happen, lives are shattered in the blink of an eye, and who can really argue that it was worth the sacrifice in order to stand on romantic notions and play identity politics?
Finally, there is an ideological argument to be made that as long as Israel is surrounded by forces that hope to terrorize her and cow her citizens into a paralyzed state of fear, there is a strategic imperative to continue life undeterred. One cannot effectively terrorize a population that refuses to be broken, but a mass exodus of a significant part of the population and workforce would certainly shake the foundation of the nation, effectively contributing to the strength of the enemy’s offensive. 
Not to mention the guilt of leaving friends and countrymen behind with the knowledge that they are stuck in a situation so precarious an exodus of the able. How much more heavy the burden of keeping up routine under the weight of that knowledge; how much more demoralizing the taking up of arms.
Former prime minister Golda Meir famously remarked, “We have always said that in our war with the Arabs we had a secret weapon — no alternative. The Egyptians could run to Egypt, the Syrians into Syria. The only place we could run was into the sea, and before we did that we might as well fight.” What of the Canadians who could run to Canada? What of the French who could run to France? What of any number of dual citizens who have where to run? 
It is a question that can’t properly be answered until the danger becomes a tangible reality, and the stakes are made apparent to each new Israeli.  Only then, in the moment of truth, will each one know whether they will reach for their passport or their gas mask.