‘Nothing is really clear or certain or safe’: Israelis grapple with powerlessness in face of Iran threat
Josh Wander, who coaches others in how to prepare for disasters, has one piece of advice he gives everyone: Buy a gun. 
(Photo: Susan Greene)

Compulsive mopping, gum chewing and disaster prep help ease the stress as a nation anticipates retaliatory attack

By Susan Greene
April 12, 2024

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s military urged the public not to panic as the country went on high alert amid growing fears of an attack by Iran.

There is no need to “buy generators, stock up on food and withdraw money from ATMs,” the Israel Defense Forces’s top spokesman wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Within days of Iran’s first threats of retaliation for the strike, several banks and markets throughout the country told me they’d experienced surges, albeit manageable ones, in cash withdrawals and grocery sales. Clerks at 16 stores that carry home generators said they’ve sold out.

Israelis are used to living on high alert. Yet most of the two dozen I’ve interviewed over the last week said this latest threat, in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 killing of a top Iranian commander in Syria, feels especially alarming. Amid reports that such a strike could come as early as Friday, I’ve been most struck by what several people have had the hardest time saying, at least on the record: That they feel powerless and afraid — for their country and themselves — in a way they’ve never felt before.

Iran is a suspected nuclear power with arms capability that dwarfs Hezbollah’s – which could flatten whole cities here – and makes Hamas’s look like matchsticks. Given that most Israelis are well aware of the danger, there are only so many “Tehran Retaliatory Strike Imminent” headlines they can read without some level of angst.

Plus, Israelis are still reeling from Oct. 7. In a country as small as this, most Jews here have a connection to someone who was wounded, kidnapped or murdered that day. Grief is fresh, and distrust — fed by the failures that led to the military’s marked lack of preparedness for the Hamas attack — is palpable. 

“We always saw ourselves as the strongest and smartest and most powerful. But now there’s a big dent in that,” said Danny Brom, a Jerusalem-based clinical psychologist and founding director of the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma. He specializes in the trauma of terrorism and existential threats to individuals and communities.

“We’re at a point where we’ve lost our trust in the government, in the army, in the general idea that we can take care of ourselves and feel safe. There are a lot of very hard associations right now with the Holocaust, with the question of will we be refugees or victims again. And not everyone is capable of handling those associations, let alone articulating them.”

Several times over the last week, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has assured the public that the Israel Defense Forces are prepared to respond to any possible scenario.

The army canceled leave for combat troops, and recalled some reservists to air defense duty shortly after many were released from months-long stints in the Gaza war. Busses and trains throughout the country were full of soldiers carrying extra-large duffles as they headed back to their bases for what may be a month or more — without permission to go home.

The IDF has been sporadically jamming GPS-based navigation apps to disrupt drone attacks or cruise missiles potentially fired by Iran or its proxies. Some people have reported maps of Cairo popping up when seeking directions in Jerusalem, and others have said maps of Beirut have appeared when trying to navigate Tel Aviv.

“It’s messing with our heads,” a food delivery worker in Jaffa told me Wednesday.

Psychologists say high alert can trigger anxiety — tooth grinding, nail biting, racing thoughts and panic. It can amp up addictive habits such as chain smoking, heavy drinking, or compulsive doom-scrolling. And it can cause depression and manic behavior.

A nurse told me she has been mopping the floor of her apartment’s safe room three or four times daily. A social worker said he has been mistaking the sounds of jetliners flying over Tel Aviv, and skateboards rolling on his sidewalk, for incoming missiles. 

He told me he has started chewing gum “violently” and playing Sudoku “like a madman.”

“We’re all trying to live, but in a kind of daze. Nothing is really clear or certain or safe, so we reach for the things that are in our control,” said Nathalie Bizawi, a meditation coach in Tel Aviv who encourages clients to “sit with” their anxiety during security threats rather than fight it.

Josh Wander of Jerusalem urges his clients to leverage their fear to ensure their survival. The lifelong disaster prepper and instructor, who served as an IDF commander in Lebanon, told me nothing motivates readiness like an existential threat. Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, and the military’s slow response to it, did more for the prepper movement in Israel than any other single event has, he said.

“The newer generation of Israelis are waking up to the fact that their government isn’t always going to be there in a timely fashion.”

Because the prepper movement — which focuses on preparedness to survive theoretical catastrophic events — is so nascent in Israel, Wander said most people he advises invest in just one aspect of readiness, like first aid kits or water containers. Since Oct. 7, some have been buying special locks for their safe rooms, which were built for rocket attacks, not for infiltration by terrorists.

Surviving a direct attack by Iran would require far bigger investments in gas masks, air filters, water purifiers, generators, satellite phones and ham radios, for example, plus the skills to use them. “This stuff takes years to really learn and prepare for,” he said.

And if nothing else, Wonder advises clients to buy guns.

Since October, about 300,000 people have applied for gun licenses in Israel, which have become far easier to snag since right-wing conservative Itamar Ben-Gvir took over as national security minister and the coalition government loosened requirements. Civil rights advocates have slammed the ministry for hiring untrained personnel as licensing officials, and not conducting thorough enough background checks. Gun licenses here allow concealed and open carry.

“Growing up in Israel, we’re used to seeing soldiers carrying guns. But at this point, it’s a totally different story. They’re everywhere,” said Karen Saar, outreach director for the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. “We’re seeing time and time again people getting hurt.”

Wander, the prepper, acknowledged guns do nothing to protect against, say, a building collapse or radiological poisoning, but asserted they “make people feel safer” in times of high alert.

“People want to feel like they’re doing something, like they’re taking some kind of action,” he said.

Brom, the 69-year-old trauma specialist, acknowledged he has joined the ranks of preppers in his country by recently buying large containers to store water, and a generator for his home. He hoped those efforts would make him feel safer during periods of high alert, but has found they’ve made him worry more about doomsday scenarios and all the ways he’s powerless to protect his children and grandchildren.

“You start to have to look more closely at the situation, and that’s hard,” he said. “Denial is more comfortable.”

Susan Greene is the Forward’s Israel-based correspondent. She has spent the last quarter century reporting news in Colorado, most recently as an investigative reporter and coach for journalists throughout the state. She tweets at @greeneindenver.

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