Michael Weiner, Federation's Chairman of the Board, and I arrived in Israel early yesterday evening. It was as if we had landed in Portland with dark and rainy skies. But, like every time, it is a wonderful feeling to be in Israel -- especially at this important moment. As I mentioned in my Marc's Remarks last week, it is my intent to share what we see and experience each day while here.
Let me start by saying there is a quiet, almost "hold your breath" type atmosphere. The ceasefire is holding, but no one is sure for how long. And with Israeli elections coming soon, the political jockeying is fast and furious.
Our morning began with a presentation from Itamar Marcus, founder of Palestinian Media Watch. His organization reviews and makes note of how the Palestine Authority on their own state-run television (called PA TV) station portrays news and events. Interestingly, the focus was on how messaging, especially towards children, is handled. The main clips from TV shows (some not even a month old) had very clear anti-Zionist messaging, never any recognition of the State of Israel, and in too many cases, support for and a glorification of terror. To say the least, it was shocking and more than disturbing that these types of messages were geared towards children. One result of this was demonstrated in a recent poll where 50% of Palestinians over age 50 believe in Israel's right to exist, yet only 6% of those under age 18 currently do. How this may impact the future is something for us all to think about.
But the main reason we came to Israel was to learn more about the recent conflict and plans for the future. I previously mentioned the incredible work of the Jewish Federations of North America (including our own Jewish Federation), along with our partners the Jewish Agency for Israel, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, World ORT, and the Israel Trauma Coalition. Together with the Israeli government and local municipalities, efforts have been focused on: enhanced preparedness, capacity and resilience of systems, defining what is an emergency, and how to return to a daily routine (even while tensions remain high). The coordination between all the parties is certainly something to be applauded.
We traveled to the Ibim Absorption Center in the south of Israel, less than four miles from the Gaza border. This center was used for youth aliyah from around the world up until October 18, 2012. With a final push to bring all the Ethiopian Jews to Israel by October 2013, the center was transitioned for Ethiopian families. In a period of just 7 short weeks, some 600 olim (new immigrants) were brought to the center. The main challenge, many of these families arrived during the hostilities. Imagine your first experiences in a new country (coming from an agrarian society where you know little about modern conveniences) is learning what each siren sound means, how to get to the closest bomb shelter, and what to do while there. In fact, many olim spent their first 8 days in a bomb shelter. Talk about an unfortunate welcome to Israel. We met with several of these individuals to better understand their experiences (awful stories of fear and trauma -- not just the olim but the professional staff, as well). Our time there concluded with the pleasure and joy of singing Chanukah songs with many of the children (to get their minds back to normal routine and their new life in Israel).
World ORT built a brand new school (Grades 7-12) for 1200 students in the Shaar HaNegev region (less than 3 miles from the Gaza border). The concept was to build the best school in all of Israel with a focus on science and technology, as well as subjects like mechanics, fashion, and the arts. The purpose is not only to provide a top notch education, but to also retain families and perhaps encourage new families to move to the area, despite its proximity and recent missile attacks. The school is on a magnificent campus where every building is already made of reinforced concrete so the classrooms act as appropriate shelters. I must add that throughout the grounds and ball fields there are outdoor bomb shelters just in case. It is necessary. Because when rockets are fired, these students do not have to interrupt their classes due to the building construction. Yet, the post-trauma effects of worrying about your family outside and teachers' efforts to keep students calm are enormous. Despite this, the principal emphasized the school's philosophy to teach about being a proud Zionist, educated Jew, and to work for peace. In fact, the school makes special efforts to bring Arab and Jewish children together to learn.
Later in the day, we had lunch in the town of Netivot (6 miles from Gaza). Unlike in the past, when a minimal number of rockets would fly towards this town, the barrage was constant. People could not live a normal life. Plus, for the first time, the town experienced several direct hits on homes. We saw one house where an elderly man was living. He did not have a "safe room" in his home, so when he heard the code red sirens he locked himself in the bathroom. Sadly, his house was destroyed -- all except for the bathroom which was still standing and the man was never injured. But, he has the difficult challenge at his age to rebuild his home with many lost family memories.
As we heard over and over again, families in these "close in" areas have 15 seconds to get to safety. How do you get multiple children to the safe room? What do you do if you need to use the bathroom or want to take a shower? People were in constant fear of when the next siren would be heard. Can you imagine? Can you imagine living through that for 9 days and nights? Can you imagine the worrying you do as a parent or a child? And what about the after effects? That is the challenge of today? Plus, what if it starts up again?
Our day ended at sundown standing on a hilltop in Sderot (the closest town to the border) only 1/2 mile away from Gaza. Currently, one-third of the town's residents (27,000 people live there) are currently seeking psychological help and trauma support.
Although the conflict is over, the effects are just now showing. I look forward to sharing what more I learn and see tomorrow and Friday.