It’s 3:20 a.m. in Jerusalem, and I can’t sleep. It’s not just the jet lag that hammers me every time I visit Israel. This time I am worried (something I do well), and the disquiet has followed me right to my chamber door.
I’m here co-leading the first cohort of BlueStar Fellows, a program that trains Bay Area college students in pro-Israel advocacy, then brings them to Israel as budding reporters. This is no frat party tour. Over 10 days, the seven students in the group will explore in-depth the thorny security and strategic challenges Israel faces.
We’ve been meeting with opinion-makers, journalists and leaders in the military, security and political spheres. The fellows’ mission: convert what they see and hear into pro-Israel op-eds, features and blogs. In other words, push back against the mudslide of anti-Israel misinformation that dominates the media. It’s my students against the world. And, God help us, it’s not a pretty one.
Did you know there’s a terror museum in Israel?
The other day we visited the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya. Its exhibit consists of captured documents, propaganda and, most chillingly, weapons used by Palestinian terrorists to kill Israelis. They range from Kassam rockets from Gaza and seized Iranian-made Grad missiles, to crude IEDs: soccer balls and teddy bears hollowed out for bombs. The posters and videos displayed reveal the delight (there’s no better word for it) that at least some in Palestinian society take in murdering Jews. “The truth hurts,” said professor Yoram Kahati, an expert on Islam who works for the institute.
Many of those Kassams fell on the southern Israeli city of Sderot. For years residents there found themselves “waking up with a collective alarm clock,” according to Noam Beidein. He works in Sderot, located a mile from the Gaza Strip. The recipient of more than 13,000 rockets fired since Israel left Gaza in 2005, Sderot is the bomb shelter capital of the world. We saw one in a park, a hardened concrete cylinder painted to look like a cute, cuddly caterpillar.
Beidein runs the Sderot Media Center, a nonprofit that gives diplomats, journalists and politicians tours of the city, showing them the trauma the terror has inflicted. “It’s psychological warfare,” he told us of the ever-present threat. “With 35 killed, thousands injured, an entire generation grew up with the rocket reality.”
More than a million Israelis live in range of Hamas rockets. Though Sderot has undergone a recent upgrade, with the government spending hundreds of millions of shekels on building more and stronger shelters, residents told us they never feel safe.
Hamas has upgraded, too, with its rockets now able to strike deeper into Israel. As we were reminded, more than 200,000 missiles are aimed at Israel today. And if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon, as it seems bent on doing, one expert we met felt certain it would be used. If Israel ignores the threat, hellfire will rain down. If Israel strikes first, hellfire will still rain down. And so, I worry.
This trip hasn’t been entirely depressing. We spent a glorious hour in the Reuven Rubin Museum, which houses dozens of canvases by Israel’s greatest painter. He landed in Tel Aviv nearly a century ago, when the area was little more than huts on sand dunes, a place about which he said “Even the shade is illuminated.”
His masterful canvases — so sun-drenched and lively — cheered me, and reminded me why Jews came here, why we stay here, why we fight.
The sun is coming up. Outside my window, seven stories down I see the beit knesset across the street, the men draped in tallits, davening. It looks like it will be a beautiful day in Jerusalem.
But my head aches from yet another sleepless night. At one point in my predawn fitfulness, I remembered the last shot in the 1959 film “On the Beach,” after a few submarine-trapped survivors of a devastating world war realize there is no one else left on Earth. In a lifeless city, flapping uselessly in the wind, is a downed banner that reads, “There is still time, Brother.”
Dan Pine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.