Letters From Tel Aviv

Margaret Priest, Doodlebug (V-1 Flying Bomb) (detail), 2011. Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto.

Smells Like War

Israel and Iran are swaying on the brink, if you listen to the international media. A peek inside the Israeli capital finds people acting blasé, but not making summer vacation plans just yet.

Israel’s history is dotted with wars, conflicts, terrorism, and every other kind of strife, but I sure picked the right time to live here. Ever since I arrived last May, things have been downright boring, with terror attacks and civil disturbances so few that I can count the incidents on one hand. Last summer, the biggest item on the national agenda was—no kidding—the price of cottage cheese.

Since 2005, Israel has seen a lull in conflict that has suckered me into a sense of security that would make any Tourism Board glad. Tel Aviv is like New York or London. Sure, things could blow up in a dramatic fashion (they have before) but not today—it’s too damn nice out, and I’m meeting friends.

All of which makes the current talk of war with Iran rather disconcerting. If Israel has been at peace approximately 100% of the time I’ve lived here, what happens when it’s not?

I can’t pinpoint the date when the idea of war with Iran went from an intellectual exercise to a near-certainty. It must have been sometime in the past nine months. I do know that I’m not pulling this out of thin air, however. The newspapers—American, Israeli, Iranian—are all over the story, but my colleague, who I overheard talking with a cleaner said it best: “Smells like war, doesn’t it?”


The narrative is as simple or as complex as you want it. Iran has been developing nuclear weapons since acid-wash jeans were first in style. Every few years this becomes a Big Deal, the world decides Iran is just 12 months away from getting the bomb, and war hysteria rises until something else (war with Iraq, Snooki’s pregnancy) comes up to distract our attention and all our fears are put on hold until the next election cycle. In this latest round, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu—Bibi for short—is gunning for an attack while Obama is trying to hold him back.

When I was growing up in the U.S., war had a very different meaning for us than it did in most other countries. Whether it’s due to our plus size, friendly neighbors, giant oceans, or stockpile of enough nuclear weapons to cause the Earth to join Pluto in losing planet status, we don’t fight wars on our own territory. Rather, war is CNN coverage of blurry nighttime bombing raids in a) the Balkans or b) the Middle East, almost as far from hearth and home as it’s possible to get.

At work, my boss makes a passing reference to “what the summer will bring” and half-jokingly advises us not to book vacation plane tickets just yet.

In Israel, though, war becomes much more visceral, much more real. Were there to be a war, it wouldn’t be fought halfway around the world by nice young boys who volunteered for the job. It would be fought by my friends and neighbors, at best 100 miles from my front door and, at worst, in the lobby of my apartment building.

With the stakes so much higher, you’d expect a commensurately high level of anxiety, tension, and general freaked-outedness. What I have noticed over the past few months is the opposite: a general lack of reaction on the ground. Israelis are unconcerned, even blasé, about the prospect of, what is, for them, just another war.

At work, my boss makes a passing reference to “what the summer will bring” and half-jokingly advises us not to book vacation plane tickets just yet. Colleagues will occasionally reminisce about wars gone by—hiding in a shelter as Iraqi Scud missiles came down in ‘91, serving in Lebanon in 2006—but they do it in the same way we talk about breaking an arm in fourth grade or spending a junior year abroad in China. A friend gets a voice-mail message telling him to report for reserve duty on Monday, but when he calls back, it’s just a test of the phone system. It’s possible I’m not hanging out with the right people to get the full effect, but nobody seems to really much care. Other than an occasional announcement in the paper of civil defense exercises or reminders of bomb-shelter locations, the government is silent, as well.


From afar, the situation looks quite simple; up close, it makes me wish I had paid more attention in my undergraduate “Introduction to International Relations” class when the professor introduced phrases like path dependence, the ratchet effect, and second-strike capability.

The basic scenario isn’t what I thought. My layman’s understanding was that Israel doesn’t want Iran to get the bomb because, if it does, it will use it to blow up the Israelis into little hummus-colored bits, taking out another six million Jews. If only it were so simple. Most likely, Iran would use the bomb to provide a “nuclear umbrella” for terror groups such as Hezbollah. Right now, Hezbollah can’t try anything too dicey in Israel, because Israel will retaliate by invading Lebanon, a la ‘78, ‘82, and ‘06. However, if Iran had the bomb and declared its interest in using it to protect Lebanon and Hezbollah, Israel wouldn’t have many options in the way of retaliation if Hezbollah decided to wreak havoc. Most likely, the Israelis would just have to sit there and take whatever a terror group under Iran’s protection wants to throw at them.

When I first came to Israel, I saw everything through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. With time, though, I’ve learned that while it is always a Big Deal, it’s not the Only Deal, and sometimes it’s not even the Most Important Deal.

I can’t say whether an attack would be right. My real homeland—America—says, “Not yet,” and my adopted homeland—Israel—says, “Now! Now!” There’s no general consensus among politicians and academics and People That Matter about what to do.

The dove voices argue that Iran, despite its rhetoric, is still a rational country and one that will respond to sanctions and negotiations. Saving face is such a strong part of Iranian culture that, of course, they’re not going to just give up their nuclear program publicly, but we can probably needle and cajole them into doing 80 percent of what we want. The hawk voices argue, “Fuck that.” If you’re going to threaten regional stability and act all shady and crazy and ignore everything that we—we, who are pretty much right, and also have much bigger guns—have said for the past twenty years, then you’ve got this coming, they say. And, p.s., if sanctions haven’t worked before, what makes you think they’re going to work now?

The “correct” answer about an attack depends on unknowns, like Iran’s true intentions, and at this point in the discussion, my eyes glaze over, my attention wanes, and I suddenly get real interested in the state of my manicure.


Following the news most likely won’t help you reach any clarity. Israeli newspapers—at least English-language ones like the Jerusalem Post—are poor sources of news with reporting so biased it can be hard to see straight. I end up relying on the New York Times, but when internet browsing a few days ago led me to re-read their mea culpa about Iraq War reporting, my confidence was shaken anew.

There is a sad footnote to this whole affair: the Palestinians. Despite their brief moment in the sun at last year’s U.N. General Assembly, they are yesterday’s news. When I first came to Israel, I saw everything through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I didn’t see how you could separate anything in this country—politics, music, food, trash pick-up—from it. With time, though, I’ve learned that while it is always a Big Deal, it’s not the Only Deal, and sometimes it’s not even the Most Important Deal.

I do not know what the future will bring. That’s a trite statement but it has real meaning here. In Chicago, in America, we do know what the future will bring: more of the same. The chance of armed conflict, conventional warfare, or chemical weapons reaching the shores of Lake Michigan is up there with the chance of a Michael Jackson comeback in 2013. In Israel, existential questions along the lines of, “Will we exist in ten years?” are the country’s meat and potatoes. But the enormousness of the threat and the murkiness of the waters have something of a perverse effect: the bigger the stakes, the more blasé Israelis become. So while Hyde Park residents don’t worry about incoming missiles, neither do Tel Avivians, or even those living in the towns closest to where the bombs do and may fall.

At least once a day, I see military aircraft flying along the Tel Aviv coast. My first thought always has to do with “the war,” as I call it in my head. Never mind that a secret military strike most likely would not start with a transport plane flying along a heavily-populated coast at mid-afternoon. No, most likely, it will come with no warning, a headline one morning about a mysterious aerial assault on Iranian nuclear reactors. Until then, I’ll be with my friends, acting cool, bitching about the price of cottage cheese, and keeping an eye peeled toward the sky.

Annalise Koltun may be functionally illiterate in Hebrew, but she shines in French, merci. She currently lives in Tel Aviv, but was born in Chicago, and roots for Cubs, Hawks, Bears, and Bulls. More by Annalise Koltun