Shya Herman of Riverdale opened the newspaper last week to learn that Israelis were lining up for new gas masks. Upon learning that his son, a student at Bar-Ilan University, did not have one, he called the Israeli Consulate.
“All I’m asking is for my son to be safe,” Herman said. “Why doesn’t the university have [gas masks] on campus?
“I’m not asking that they be distributed, only that they be nearby. If we can’t be assured of the safety for our son, Aaron, we’re going to bring him home.”
Herman was not alone. Anxious American parents of students in Israel have been calling the consulate here and their children’s schools to find out what safety precautions will be taken in the event of an Iraqi chemical or biological attack.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel on Monday sent an urgent letter to Israeli officials asking that gas masks be distributed immediately to the 200,000 foreign residents living in Israel. It asked also that the government explain the dangers of a missile attack and what preventive measures should be taken.
“These people, who work in our factories, our building sites, our farms and schools, should not be abandoned,” wrote the group’s attorney, Dana Alexander.
Israel’s consul general in New York, Shmuel Sisso, said the government’s policy was not to distribute gas masks to non-residents until an emergency is declared.
“Distribution centers will be open and gas masks will be provided to students and tourists and foreigners,” he said. “We distributed gas masks during the Gulf War and our intelligence [service], army and government are taking everything under consideration. We’re watching the situation very closely … all measures will be taken before anything happens.”
On Jan. 17, 1991, two days before the first of 39 Iraqi Scud missiles were fired at Israel, the army declared a state of emergency, handed out gas masks to everyone in the country, ordered Israelis not to leave their homes and instructed them to open their protection kits, which included gas masks.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser on diaspora affairs, Bobby Brown, said that in 1991 the government “made sure that everyone — Arabs, Jews, tourists — everyone could get gas masks. The job of the civil defense is to supply everyone with gas masks in the event of an emergency.
“At this point,” he said, “there is a feeling of increased awareness but not a feeling of panic or danger.”
Sisso said that because of the call from Herman, a representative from the Israel Defense Forces would meet with all foreign students at Bar-Ilan University this week to explain what is happening.
“I hope that afterwards the parents will be assured that all measures have been taken,” said Sisso.
A student at the school, Jason Osher of Yonkers, said students were largely in the dark about what was going on.
“We don’t have a TV, and we have heard rumors about gas masks [being distributed to Israelis],” he told The Jewish Week in a phone interview. “We found out in class yesterday that the IDF would be coming. We just want to know what the situation is and how the school is prepared.”
Osher said there was “no anxiety, just curiosity” among the students. Although no students have left because of the situation, he said the parents of one student with dual American-Israeli citizenship said they would bring him home if war broke out.
The president of the Long Island chapter of Parents of North American Israelis, Seymour Shirvan of Old Bethpage, said that “if anything happens, I want my children — if not my grandchildren — back here.”
He said members of his group, which supports parents whose children have made aliyah, “are probably more concerned than anyone else because we read the papers and the first thing we do is look to see what is happening in Israel.”
Herman said he spoke with the parents of a dozen students at Bar-Ilan from Riverdale and the Bronx and that many had called the school for information.
The director of the overseas division of Tel Aviv University, Moshe Margolin, said the school has its “own supply of masks and if the need arises, the university is ready [to distribute them]. The official policy of the university is that they will be distributed to all 200 overseas students when there is a state of emergency.”
Margolin said on Monday that he had received a half-dozen calls from anxious parents. Based on his experience during the Gulf War, he said that parents are “most concerned that students are kept informed about what is going on in terms of the situation and safety measures.”
To satisfy that concern, he said, the university planned this week to call the students together for a “lecture from an academic about the situation, and at the same time the university will discuss all security measures that are in place. We’re doing it that way because we do not want to cause panic.
“The main thing is to make sure students know what is going on. They tend to feel isolated because the majority of the news and communication is in Hebrew. The main focus of the university at this stage is to inform.”
One or two parents, said Margolin, asked what the university’s policy was regarding evacuation from the country. He said he told them that was the responsibility of the U.S. government and that “historically Israeli universities do not shut down, no matter what. … Evacuation was not deemed necessary during the Gulf War.”
He added that he had just explained to one parent that “if this follows the pattern of the Gulf War, it will be an emotional roller-coaster more for the parents than the kids. In fact, a concerned mother is on the [other] phone.”
A spokeswoman for the American Friends of Hebrew University, Georgia Pollak, said “security of the students at the Rothberg School for Overseas Students is uppermost in the minds of the university. It is in constant contact with the military, the police, the administration of Israel and the security forces on the Mount Scopus campus.”
She said of the 4,000 overseas students at the school, 250 are from the U.S. Another 218 were scheduled to arrive for the spring semester.
There have been no reports of any students opting not to come, said Pollak. Officials of the Israel Tourist Office said there have been some calls but no reports of cancellations.
Arie Sommers, Israel’s commissioner of tourism for North America, blamed the Israeli newspapers for creating a hysteria that was quoted in American newspapers. Israeli papers have run banner headlines warning of a possible anthrax attack and “nuclear revenge” by Iraq.
“Everything is under control,” Sommers stressed. “It is very unlikely that gas masks will be needed and if they are, everyone will get one. There is no reason to be worried about it. There are thousands of tourists in Israel now and nobody is in a panic. There is no reason to be concerned.”
He said Israel was gearing up for a 50th anniversary tourist season beginning at the end of March that would rival the record 2.5 million tourists who flocked to Israel in 1995.
“There are large groups, conventions and missions coming, a lot of them,” he said.