Strategic Folly and Shame: Personal Reflections on a Visit to Beleaguered Sderot

By June 24, 2007

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 30

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Close to six months of Israeli “restraint” in the face of Hamas rocket attacks is both strategic folly of the highest order and a deep source of shame. Folly – because Israel has allowed a city of twenty-four thousand people to wither away and empty out under enemy fire. Shame – because Israel has left the forlorn people of Sderot, the most destitute, downtrodden, and drained citizens of Israel in normal times, to take the hit.

With the Hamas now fully in control of Gaza, freely running guns and missiles through the Egyptian border (negating the need for tunnels), the missile barrages on southern Israel can be expected to increase.

Close to six months of Israeli “restraint” in the face of these attacks is both strategic folly of the highest order and a deep source of shame. Folly – because Israel has allowed a city of twenty-four thousand people to wither away and empty out under enemy fire. Shame – because Israel has left the forlorn people of Sderot, the most destitute, downtrodden, and drained citizens of Israel  in normal times, to take the hit.

All the praise for Israeli “self-discipline” and “resilience” in the face of the missile attacks is dangerous and unfounded blather, predicated on a lie. The disadvantaged people of Sderot are not resilient. They’re just stuck. They have been forgotten by Israeli society; abandoned to the gangs of the so-called Palestinian “Authority.” That is an unforgivable social (as well as a political-military) sin that should shake Israelis to the very fiber of their souls.

I recently spent a day in Sderot, visiting families to evaluate and catalogue their needs for the “Lev Ehad” volunteer association. While ten Kassam missiles fell in and around Sderot last week, walking out on the streets was not scary. The bone-chilling part was inside Sderot homes. Here, I discovered shame and suffering that runs far deeper than the political-security challenge coming from Gaza.

Olga (not her real name) is destitute. Her mentally-ill ex-husband left her with enormous black-market debts, she has bouts of depression along with heart trouble, and her daughter has chronic and severe asthma that has led to lengthy hospitalizations. Loan sharks broke her front door two years ago – it still doesn’t close. The water and electricity have been cut off a few times. She lost a brother to Chechen rebels back in the Commonwealth of Independent States, where her kids would sleep under her bed during night-time mortar attacks.

A Kassam missile landed in her daughter’s Sderot schoolyard during class, and the eight-year-old is traumatized. She won’t leave her mother’s side, nor return to school. Once again, she sleeps under her mother’s bed. “Just like Chechnya,” says Olga. Both mother and daughter have been diagnosed with clinical post traumatic stress disorder and depression. Prior to the arrival of my friend Dr. Mordechai and I, no one from central Israel or from the Jewish Diaspora had spoken to them.

Similar stories repeated themselves in other homes. Rachamim has a disability that prevents him from working, but his understanding of the situation is keen. “We are imprisoned at home by fear of the missiles,” he says. “It’s like having a guy coming at you from behind with a knife,” he explains. “You’re constantly looking over your shoulder.” His wife will not let the kids walk to school, and Rachamim’s social worker won’t travel from Beersheba to Sderot in order to treat him.

And so, Sderot is tragedy upon tragedy. The rockets of Hamas are a layer of misery piled atop the misfortune and deprivation that already was the lot of many residents. They are truly the forgotten people of Israel – now more than ever.

Echoes of Amalek reverberate in me as I drive back to civilized, privileged, central Israel: “(He) smote the hindmost of you, all that were feeble in your rear, the faint and weary” (Deuteronomy 25:18). And I wonder: where is our shame?

The ugly truth is that Israel is not mobilized to really defend or significantly assist Sderot – because its residents are third-class Israelis at best.

Had it been the upwardly-mobile, well-connected people of Ramat Hasharon, Kochav Yair or Tel Aviv that had been targeted by Hamas for months of unremitting bombardment –would Israel be doing so little? IDF tanks would be rolling into Riyadh if necessary to halt the bombing; and every government ministry, corporation, postal clerk, human rights, gay rights, and animal rights organization would be marshaled to lend a helping hand to the distressed people of Herzliya or Caesarea.

Fortunately, Israel’s naked shame is being covered-up by the dozens of idealistic youth from across the country, now volunteering in Sderot. The day after receiving my visit report, they went to fix Olga’s front door and do schoolwork with her daughter. They also brought candies and chocolate, along with medication for Olga from a non-profit dispensary. The electricity bill was paid. They drove Rachamim’s frightened teenager to and from school. In the evening – in fact, every evening – they march through the city streets, singing and dancing; spreading cheer and dispelling fear.

Sderot is Israel’s frontline, socially as well as geo-politically. Its neglect is a metaphor for the ebbing away of a caring Jewish-Zionist society, and a symbol of the recklessness that passes for Israeli security policy. It’s time to take up arms, first and foremost, against our indifference to Sderot’s anguish. Then we can turn our attention to the battle against Sderot’s foreign foes.

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David M. Weinberg
David M. Weinberg

David M. Weinberg is the Israel office director of Canada’s Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom.