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Israel Giving Gas Masks to Babies

Ira Chernus: In tough political times, Israeli leaders know that they always hold one winning card, if they know how to play it right: the fear card. The same anxiety-driven “rally round the flag” effect that works in so many nations -- as we saw vividly in the U.S. after the 9/11 attack -- has a well-proven track record in Israel.

There’s good news for the children of Israel. Every one of them will soon be getting candy, for free, from their government. Are the Israelis returning to the socialist spirit of their founding fathers? Not quite.

Gas Mask

“Candy” is the name of a new kind of gas mask, designed especially for children. “We are the only country in the world that produces gas masks for children,” the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) website boasts. The masks even come with “a connecter to a pacifier and a bottle, especially appropriate for infants.”

I’ll sleep a lot better at night knowing that the newest member of my family -- my beautiful 4-month-old Israeli grandniece -- will have her very own “Candy.” The gas masks will be distributed to her and to every other Israeli (Arabs as well as Jews) by the Israeli postal service. If her parents don’t go to the post office to get it, it will be delivered to their home -- though they’ll have to pay an extra postage charge for the convenience.

But it won’t be just dumped on their doorstep. “It is not a package that is simply delivered,” says the proud head of Israel’s Gas Mask Administration. The postman “will try the gas masks on the family members, and make sure the gas mask fits properly. … We will put the resident at the center.”

It must have taken a whole team of geniuses in the PR department of the IDF to dream up such a sweet name and tender description for such a macabre experience. I hope they got a big bonus.

Why do the babies of Israel need “Candy”? Why does any Israeli need a personally fitted gas mask? The government gave no explanation at all, leaving others free to speculate.

Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer reports that's “Israel’s enemies would almost certainly bombard cities with medium-range missiles which are capable of carrying chemical warheads. Although defence experts say that Hamas and Hizbollah’s missiles will probably still only carry conventional warheads, the cabinet decided that it could not take the risk.” The gas masks distributed to the populace in the 1991 Gulf War are all worn out (and many never worked right to begin with), so it’s time for another round. It seems reasonable enough. What nation would put its people at risk, especially its children, when protection is at hand?

But Pfeffer hints at another possibility, too: “Any armed conflict between Israel and its enemies, including an airstrike on Iran’s nuclear installations, will include an intense bombardment of Israeli cities.” Rumors have been flying for years that the Israelis will indeed strike Iran’s nuclear installations, inviting some kind of swift retaliation.

Would the Iranians strike back with gas? “Iran's chemical and biological weapons capabilities are currently not known,” according to BioPrepWatch, a newswire that covers biological terror threats and policies around the world. But the group notes that “no country in the Middle East is believed to be likely to engage in chemical or biological warfare with Israel, either. The gas mask distribution has, however, raised questions as to Israel's potential plans to launch an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.”

“Rumors in the Middle East abound that Israel is preparing to rein in Hezbollah through another war on Lebanon,” the BioPrepWatch reports adds. “Hezbollah, however, is also not believed to hold any chemical or biological weapons. The only country in Israel's region currently believed to have access to a major chemical or biological weapons program is Israel itself.”

Before we speculate on Israel’s intentions, though, let’s remember that this whole gas-mask idea was cooked up by military planners and then bought by politicians. The plan is based on “extreme scenarios,” as Israeli journalist Amos Harel notes. And military planners always assume worst-case scenarios, for both defense and offense. That’s their job.

When the United States was creating its massive “civil defense” program against nuclear attack in the 1950s, President Eisenhower was also approving plans for a nuclear first strike against the Soviets. He did not want war. He did not intend to start it. But as a professional soldier, he wanted all his options open and plans in place for every contingency. When the Reagan administration so publicly revived “civil defense” planning in the early 1980s, the Pentagon also publicly flirted with first-strike strategies as contingency plans. Reagan eventually repudiated the idea, but the planning surely went on.

Though we don’t hear much about them, the U.S. still has thousands of first-strike nukes at the ready, and at least in my town those air-raid sirens still sound once a month as a “readiness test.”

So it’s not hard to understand why the IDF would peddle this idea to the Israeli politicians. To the military mind, preparing for every eventuality makes perfect sense.

The bigger question is why the politicians would buy it -- with a price tag of anywhere from half-a-billion to three-quarters of a billion dollars, according to Harel, in a country increasingly plagued by economic woes. There’s no urgent need. The government expects to take three years to get all the gas masks delivered (though it says that in an emergency it would speed up the process).

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The Israeli Post service and the two Israeli gas-mask manufacturers who won big contracts will obviously profit. But the government will be forced to cut back on other costs to pay for the gas masks, and it’s a safe bet the cut-backs won’t come on the military side.

Harel (who writes for Israel’s most respected newspaper, Ha’aretz) suggests that Israeli leaders, like U.S. leaders, want to keep their options open. He expects that “every future clash will entail a massive assault on the home front, in a war that will be hard to win, or in which it will be difficult to achieve a decisive ‘image of victory.’ This will necessitate precise planning in regard to the Israeli public's stamina and to the logical distribution of resources.”

Image may well be the key issue here. In wartime, when the public’s stamina is always in question, political leaders everywhere worry about images. What kept FDR awake at night during World War II was not so much fear of the enemy as fear that his own people would lose their stomach for war. He made a number of strategic decisions (like invading North Africa and Italy) largely in hopes of creating images of victory.

Israeli politicians certainly have a big image problem when it comes to war. Israel suffered badly in Lebanon in 2006 and came away with little image of victory in the late ’08 attack on Gaza. That leaves the Israeli public with decidedly mixed feelings about another fight. And that can limit the politicians’ options severely. Perhaps they think a populace wearing well-fitted gas masks, from the infants on up, will let them go on fighting as long as they like, whenever they like.

But the image problem haunts Israeli politicians in what passes for peacetime, too. A politician’s first job is to create images popular enough to win the next election. That’s especially true in Israel, where (as Henry Kissinger famously said) there is no foreign policy, only domestic policy.

Israeli politics are usually tenuous at best, with one party or another always threatening to leave the ruling coalition and bring down the government. The current Netanyahu government is no more secure -- and arguably less secure -- than most of its predecessors. The nation has nothing close to consensus, not only on issues of war and peace, but on a host of economic, social, and religious issues too. The Prime Minister’s latest move to hold together his coalition was to promise “to renew negotiations [with the Palestinians] without negotiations."

In tough political times, Israeli leaders know that they always hold one winning card, if they know how to play it right: the fear card. The same anxiety-driven “rally round the flag” effect that works in so many nations -- as we saw vividly in the U.S. after the 9/11 attack -- has a well-proven track record in Israel.

Now, says the former director of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, while the Israeli defense establishment “is sending out false alarms” about Iran’s nuclear program “in order to grab a bigger budget,” some Israeli politicians use the supposed Iranian threat to divert attention away from problems at home. The imagined threat of biochemical attack surely serves the same purpose.

In our rush to accuse politicians of fear-mongering, though, we too often stop to ask the obvious question: Why does it work? Before a leader can win the next election on a message of fear, there has to be an electorate ready and willing to believe the message. That is certainly true in Israel. Not all Israeli voters are lured by images of impending attack, by any means. But enough are to keep the current fragile coalition in power.

As Henry Siegman, former executive director of the American Jewish Congress, wrote in the New York Times, Netanyahu’s message that “the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust … is unfortunately still a more comforting message for too many Israelis.” Although the Israeli sense of victimization is now "nothing less than pathological," Siegman lamented, it is still strong enough to frighten the nation away from the path to reasonable peace negotiations.

Israel’s military-industrial complex, its political leaders, and too many of its voters all mistakenly see advantages in preparing for the next war, even though most can say sincerely that they don’t want a war. That tragic bond, stretching back decades, still locks the Jewish nation into its continuing cycle of insecurity. Gas masks are sure to tie the bond tighter.

Among it’s child-friendly features, the “Candy” version includes an “extremely wide lens,” the IDF website informs us. Long before anyone dons the first one, though, just the news of “Candy” will narrow the vision of Jewish-Israeli political culture even further, blinding millions to the possibilities for peace that are at hand (like the largely-ignored moderating trend within Hamas).


“Gas masks for everyone” is just the latest in a long line of images that have kept Israelis trapped in self-defeating fear. The only hope for real security for Israel is real security -- which means real independence in a viable state -- for Palestine. Eventually, my little grandniece will live to see most of her fellow Israelis realize that truth and make the compromises needed to turn it into reality. But that’s a lot less likely to happen as long as the mailman is bringing gas masks.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and American Jews at his blog.

Republished with the author's permission from Common, where it first appeared.