February 20, 2003
Preparing for War
"Hi, uh, I need to prepare for the war," I awkwardly told the clerk at the Tel Aviv branch of Home Center. Somewhere in my tree-lined Northern Califonia brain, I expected him to have no idea what I was talking about. Instead, he efficiently led me to a section replete with full body chemical protection gear, fire extinguishers, battery-operated radios and lights, a miniature Port-o-Potty for the sealed-off room of choice in one's apartment and what seemed like miles and miles of plastic and tape for covering windows, doors and every other conceivable means of ventilation. Forget chemical weapons. I could just imagine myself suffocating from no oxygen.
But my shopping experience was nowhere as creepy or surreal as trying to get my hands on a gas mask. While those trying to help me were focused on where and how I could pick up a freebie without yet having Israeli citizenship, I could not get over the subject matter at hand: I was looking for a gas mask!Â
When I moved to Israel four months ago, I was fully aware of Iraq's threat to attack Israel if America attacks Iraq. Given Bush's penchant for combat and control, I was convinced war with Iraq was inevitable. But abstract knowledge and visceral reality are two different matters. This past week, I have woken up screaming three times. Clearly, fear has imbedded itself deep in my subconscious.
My sense of fear here, however, pales in comparison to the frustration, hurt and anger I felt in the Bay Area, where I had to deal with incessant Israel hatred in progressive movements. I was reminded of these feelings when, after spending a full afternoon chasing down a gas mask, I received an e-mail informing me that due to his "pro-Israel" views, Rabbi Michael Lerner has been banned from speaking at the anti-war rally in San Francisco this coming weekend. The ban came at the behest of a group called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) and was supported by rally co-organizers, United for Peace & Justice and Not in Our Name.
During the Gulf War of 1991, Iraq attacked Israel about 40 times, in some warped notion of retaliation against America. Americans did not suffer, but Israelis did. More specifically, Iraqi-Israelis did. Scuds aimed at Tel Aviv often landed in Ramat Gan, a suburb comprised predominantly of Jewish refugees from Iraq -- including all my relatives. For their neighbors whose homes were destroyed, Iraq took everything they had, twice in a lifetime.Â
Yet according to ANSWER and its cohorts, one cannot be pro-Israel and against this looming war. Apparently they see Iraqi Jews as being less human than Iraqi Muslims and Christians. Since that's a form of racism, perhaps ANSWER should change their name to ANSW.
My family has lived in Iraq since 586 B.C.E., when the Babylonian Empire conquered and destroyed the Kingdom of Judah -- the Southern region of ancient Israel. After demolishing the kingdom and leaving it in ruins, the Babylonians took the people of Israel as captives, to the land that is today Iraq. My family remained on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers until 1950, when the modern Iraqi government forced the Jews to flee as refugees. Ironically, they were absorbed by the State of Israel.Â
Who is anyone to tell me, the daughter of a Jewish refugee from Iraq, that I cannot be pro-Israel and anti-war at the same time?
I did not move to Israel to escape the infuriating, self-righteous Middle East politics of America's progressive movements. However, I am tickled pink that I no longer have to deal with anti-Israel rhetoric spewed by people who do not know basic facts about the country's demographics or history -- people such as the organizers of the recent anti-war rally in San Francisco. In Israel, I can be a Middle East peace activist without participating in hatred of my people and negation of our history. And of course, that's the only way peace will happen: when everyone's lives and stories are respected.
So even as I hustle to the local supermarket to stock up on canned food, in preparation for the looming war, and even as I freak out about plastic covering, Port-o-Potties and, most of all, gas masks, I am still glad I'm in Israel. Â
Loolwa Khazzoom, an Iraqi-American now living in Israel, has published articles in numerous periodicals and anthologies, including the Washington Post and the San Francisco Examiner. She is editor of Behind the Veil of Silence: North African and Middle Eastern Jewish Women Speak Out (Seal Press, Fall 2003) and director of the Jewish MultiCultural Project (www.jmcponline.org) and can be found at www.loolwa.com.