“Ninety Miles v. Ninety Seconds:” Life in the Age of Missiles

Below are some reflections written on the way back from Israel 10 days ago, just as the cease fire with Hamas went into effect.  For those who only see images Israel through the lens of CNN, I wanted to share some of the experience and, hopefully, help readers appreciate one element of the human side of the conflict. 

Leonard Saxe
Director of CMJS and SSRI

Ninety miles, the distance from Cuba to Florida, is emblazoned in my childhood memory of the nuclear brinkmanship of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. A few days before Thanksgiving, I arrived in Israel to visit communities being pummeled by actual missiles from Gaza.  I came as an American Jew to show solidarity with Israeli brethren. I returned feeling an even stronger bond, but also fearing that we have become inured to violence.

At a briefing when I arrived, the memory came to the fore as the communities we would visit were described in the metric of time: How many seconds we would have from a “red alert” to reach safety in a shelter or by prostrating ourselves on the ground. Only 15 seconds is available in Sderot, 30 seconds for Ashkelon and 60 seconds for BeerSheva. Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem, where one had 90 seconds to find shelter, seemed very safe.

As I traveled the next day, vigilant for the sound of alerts and contrails in the winter clouds overhead, I didn’t experience fear. Whatever I felt dissipated as I met person after person, each of whom had an ordinary exterior, but seemed to possess extraordinary dignity and resilience. They were clearly struggling to make life as normal and safe as possible for themselves and their children, and perhaps their lack of fear was contagious.

All of my encounters — in a day of traveling through a zone of red alerts — were extraordinary, but one stands out. We visited an absorption center for new immigrants just outside of Sderot, a frequent target of Hamas rockets. The center is home to dozens of families who have immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia. Our welcome to the village was a red alert. We were in a protected building in less than 15 seconds.

We were joined in the safe space by Natan Sharansky, the refusnik jailed for nine years in the Soviet Union now head of the Jewish Agency for Israel.  Sharansky is a hero, but that day, the heroes were the Ethiopian immigrants who had come to live in the midst of a surreal 21st century conflict. One was a father of five who had come three weeks ago.  When asked if he was “afraid,” he said, “No … in Israel, my children are ‘happy’. They have a future.”

Indeed, outside was a group of happy-looking children playing soccer.  I imagined, although perhaps it was a hope, that they were tethered with an invisible line to their parents’ homes and shelters. As we left, it was poignant when the children said, in unison, “shalom” (peace), and in the distant sky, a small cloud marked the spot where an Israeli anti-missile had destroyed a rocket headed to the city of Ashkelon.

Later, I was at a village for the elderly nearby Kiryat Malachi, where days before a missile had killed three people. Although some are being pressured to leave, the residents made clear that this was their home, their community, and that they weren’t leaving. As one told me, “this is where my friends are, why would I want to be elsewhere?” Her concern was for her children and grandchildren.

The comments of another grandmother remain with me. As I ate home-baked cookies she had prepared, we talked about what she does when there is an alert. She said that her house did not have a shelter and that she was supposed to go to one a few doors away. But, she said, “I’m old and don’t walk very well. So, during an alert, I sit in my favorite chair and look at the garden.”

In the fog of war and a depressing moment for humanity, much of what I heard – from young and not-so-young individuals — was awe-inspiring.  There was a lack of rancor toward the enemy, an acceptance of whatever life throws one’s way, and gratitude for being part of a community.  Psychologists talk of resiliency and the role of social support in coping.  What I saw, however, demands a new vocabulary to describe the strength that people derive from their bonds with others.

I return to the U.S. with a heavy heart. Anxious to spend Thanksgiving with family, but also troubled by the state of a world in need of repair. The existential threat of a nuclear missile 90 miles from our shores that I have had since childhood has been replaced by my first-hand knowledge of danger that is seconds, not miles, away. I was inspired by those I met, but I am angry at a world in which innocents are targeted for violence and in which to save a life requires even more violence.

President Kennedy, who drew a “line in the sand” when the Soviet Union started to move missiles toward Cuba, once said, “Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, the pursuit must go on.” A cease fire has been achieved between Hamas and Israel, but it’s only a small step. It should be reminder of the urgency of the task to create a more peaceful world.