Jerusalem — Like every other shopping mall in Israel just hours before the start of Rosh HaShanah, the Hadar mall in southern Jerusalem was the scene of frantic last-minute activity.
On the ground floor, the supermarket was crammed with people in search of parsley for the chicken soup or honey for the apples. On the main floor the Judaica kiosk did a brisk business in honey jars and kittels (the white robes many men don for the High Holy Days) and several vendors hawked aromatic take-out dishes. At the shoe store just opposite, children protested as their parents forced them to try on new shoes to wear with their new holiday outfits.
“It’s a real balagan here,” an Arab woman in an Islamic head scarf mused in Hebrew, using the term for chaos, as she surveyed the scene, coffee cup in hand, at the mall’s bakery-café. “It’s just like before Eid, at the end of Ramadan.”
While the pre-holiday scene at Hadar — which until last month served as the city’s gas mask distribution center — was as loud and frenetic as in previous years, some people couldn’t shake the feeling that the coming year could be an especially challenging one.
As the Yediot Achronot columnist Nahum Barnea noted last weekend, a lot of Israelis are hoping and praying for the best but not really expecting it.
Even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ongoing war talk is all bluff, it’s hard for Israelis — the vast majority of whom, polls say, do not want Israel to attack Iran unless the U.S. promises its support — to avoid the fact that dozens of underground parking lots have been designated as bomb shelters.
Nor is it easy to forget that Israel is surrounded by unstable regimes in Egypt and Syria, a Hamas government in Gaza and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.
But even if peace prevails, the local economic slowdown coupled with soaring food prices are causing major anxiety, Barnea said.
With his trademark gallows humor, Barnea related how, when he wishes friends a Happy New Year, “people refuse to believe me.”
Some “make due with a skeptical nod of the head, while others respond with some sort of wisecrack. They offer a variety of reasons for their skepticism, from the sharp rise in gas prices and the lack of security at the workplace to the talk of a war with Iran and teenage violence. It all leads to the same conclusion: For now the majority of people are OK, some say even great, but the future does not look bright.”
There is, Barnea wrote, “the sense … that we are standing on the edge of an abyss: The last thing we want to do is take a step forward.”
The pre-holiday editorial in the left-leaning Haaretz was, if anything, more blunt:
“The graph of Israelis’ hopes is constantly falling. Talk of a two-state solution has long since evaporated, the settlement drive continues, the world economic crisis has begun to nibble, the Arab Spring has evolved into an Islamic Winter, and the Iranian threat has only increased.”
In short, “a not so happy new year.”
Odelia Kobi, an 18-year-old from Ashkelon, told The Jewish Week that the Iranian threat “began to feel big and real” about two weeks ago, when she and her family picked up their gas masks in their southern coastal city, which is sometimes pummeled by rockets fired from Gaza.
“Reality really hit home,” Kobi, who had come to Jerusalem to sell her family’s homemade candy bouquets at the mall, said. “Add to this the fact that there are rockets already landing in Ashkelon and that we’re forced to flee to reinforced rooms every time there’s a siren, and you understand the stress we’re feeling.”
“I try to block out Iran; it’s a bit too much to think about,” said Lisa Richlen, a resident of Tel Aviv-Jaffa who spent Rosh HaShanah in Jerusalem. “I don’t trust our leaders,” she added, “and not only with regards to the geopolitical situation.”
Richlen, a human rights activist, said she’s “more concerned” about how Israel’s treatment of the country’s tens of thousands of refugees, the vast majority of them from East Africa. Virtually all are in the country illegally.
Unnerved by the huge influx, and responding to Israeli demonstrators who have demanded the refugees’ ouster, the Israeli government just built a fence to stop infiltrators from entering via the Egyptian border as well as a prison to house them.
“The government has said it will begin to round them up on Oct. 15 and it’s determined to fill up the new prison,” Richlen said ominously.
The activist also expressed fear that massive numbers of refugees will lose their jobs because those who employ them will no longer be exempt from fines related to employing workers lacking a work permit.
Perhaps it was due to the timing, just hours before the start of Rosh HaShanah prayers, or good old Israeli resilience, but many of those interviewed, both religious and seemingly secular, expressed faith that God will protect them and the Jewish people.
Smiling broadly and dressed in a brilliantly white T-shirt and shorts, Idan Shemesh, a 22-year-old part-time soldier who plays for Hapoel Katamon, a fan-owned soccer team in Jerusalem, acknowledged that “there’s always something to worry about and sometimes I get nervous about the unknowns, but it’s a new year, I’m playing for a new team, I have a new apartment, and the future looks bright.”
Judith Amselem, a mother of four who emigrated from Montreal to Jerusalem five years ago, agreed.
“It was like this [situation] years ago, when I made aliyah, and although people panicked about war, nothing happened.”
Though she would be welcomed back in Canada should war break out in Israel, Amselem said she has “no plans” to flee.
“There are always periods when people feel unsafe, and that’s natural, but I trust in Hashem to protect us,” she said.