Every generation carries its unique touchstones and inflection points, moments individuals of a certain age carry with them forever. For those of us in the pro-Israel community who were too young to fully process the weight of the 1967 and 1973 wars, one of those moments arrived in 1991, during the Gulf War. Remembered as the first showdown between the United States and Iraq, the war had a massive impact on Israel and Israeli society. Take it from me, I was there.
Thirty years ago last February, as the recently appointed national chairman of Development Corporation for Israel/Israel Bonds, I participated in an emergency delegation to Israel along with a small group of committed bonds leaders and investors. The war was already raging, and we knew the conditions on the ground. As U.S. and coalition forces advanced through Kuwait, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was firing Scud missiles at Israel, with the dual purpose of destroying its infrastructure and provoking a response that, it was thought, might shatter a fragile coalition that included many Arab states hostile to Israel.
As Israel Bonds leaders, we decided, what better way to show support for and solidarity with Israel in its hour of need than to actually be there? To meet with the military and political leadership on the ground; to convene with and learn from the Israeli citizens under threat; to bear witness to the conditions ourselves – for the handful of us who went on the delegation, this felt like a solemn obligation. Steadfast backers of the Jewish state, we took it as a sacred duty and vital responsibility. So in January 1991, we boarded a plane for Ben-Gurion Airport.
To say it was a shocking and surreal experience would be an understatement. I had already been involved with Bonds for many years and had gone on my share of trips abroad with the organization, including, during the 1980s, a delegation to the Soviet Union to meet Russian Jews who were only then being allowed to make aliyah. But this was different. Before departing, I told my wife and young children what I was doing and where I was going, assuring them that it would be OK and I would be back soon. How much I actually believed this, as news of continuing missile attacks dominated the headlines, I could not be sure.
Touching down in Tel Aviv, our delegation was promptly handed a survival kit, complete with gas masks and syringes with vials of antidote for nerve agents. We were reminded of the recent and widespread use of poison gas attacks in the region, and trained on how to properly don our gas masks in case of emergency. On the highway, our delegation was frequently forced to suddenly change direction in response to news of an incoming attack, and all the while, Israel’s Army radio broadcast updates and developments on the situation.
From there, we spent days traveling from destination to destination, getting a sense of the situation on the ground. We met with generals in the Israel Defense Forces as well as Defense Ministry officials for briefings on the latest developments. We heard assessments on threats to Israel’s critical infrastructure – from communications towers to water processing facilities to military bases – and the defenses being mounted for each. We also received reports of casualty figures on the ground.
We met with ordinary Israelis, sharing in their pain and showing our support and solidarity the best way we knew how: by being there for them and comforting them. Unlike today, 1991 was an era when bomb shelters and safe rooms were not widespread, and citizens – as well as our delegation –
frequently found themselves rushing for cover in the streets or at the market, sirens blaring to signal an imminent missile attack. Bearing witness to the everyday struggles of Israelis living under these conditions imparted in us a lifetime’s worth of appreciation for their courage and sacrifice.
The rest of the journey was a blur. We traveled from military bases to government facilities, homes to businesses, hotels, shelters, bunkers, safe rooms and more. Before long, the delegation had drawn to a close, and our group headed for home, thankfully unscathed by our visit. But it was with mixed emotions and heavy hearts that we departed, saddened by the knowledge that Israelis would continue to endure the conditions we were leaving behind. Ultimately, the Gulf War would end the following month – February 1991 – but not before dozens of Israeli casualties were incurred.
Why did we do it? What draws a person 6,000 miles from home, to a war zone, at a time of maximal danger? Back home in my native Cleveland, I pondered these questions, but an answer wasn’t hard to come by: As a supporter of the Jewish state and longtime Israel Bonds lay leader, I saw it as my duty – not just a choice – to stand in solidarity with Israel at a time of acute and dire need. Now, 30 years after those harrowing events, I still carry the lessons and experiences with me. Today, as Israel faces a very different set of threats and challenges, this significant anniversary should serve as a reminder to all of us of the need to stand with, support, and invest in a safe and prosperous Jewish homeland.
Michael Siegal of Beachwood is a member of the Israel Bonds international board of directors. He also serves as the chairman of the board of trustees of The Jewish Agency for Israel.