A reader from Israel wrote to ask my opinion about America’s obsession with apocalypse – – that an external force (famine, natural disaster, disease etc) “will wipe out most of the population and only a few pockets of individuals will be left.” Why, she wanted to know, are Americans “so concerned? Do you suppose it’s from the time of the Cuban missile crisis, or did it start before?”
This question came at a funny time. Jerusalem is supposed to get 3″ – 9″ of snow and the city is in a total panic. This snowstorm is not going to last days or weeks, just a matter of hours, and then it will be done. But the mayor has ordered all roads leading into or out of the city closed as soon as the first flakes hit. The supermarket shelves have been wiped clean of all food (bottled water, disposable diapers, and meat were the first items to sell out). Because snow hits Israel’s capitol about 3x every 10 years, the city lacks the machinery for effective snow removal. Most people do not own snow boots, and you’d be hard pressed to even find snow shovels for sale in the stores – – most people use brooms and dustpans to clean off their cars and a bit of sidewalk.
I thought the whole apocalypse-prepper phenomena would make for an interesting essay, since we live in rural Maine. We are somewhat isolated – – and insulated – – from potential apocalypse-related disasters. We are not anticipating an apocalypse anytime soon but we are “preppers” out of necessity since the nearest supermarket is 45 minutes away and weather conditions and poor roads often make winter travel challenging. We are pretty self-sufficient here and live mostly off the grid. Our closest neighbor is 1/4 mile away and the next one is 3 miles down the road.
I find my Israeli reader’s question about the American obsession with apocalypse especially significant, since unlike America, modern Israel has been actively living with conflict, terrorism and war(s) since its declaration of Statehood in 1948 (and well before). Yet there is no concept of general apocalypse other than a prophetic, somewhat esoteric religious one that will lead to Israel’s Final Redemption, and even more significantly, there is no active “prepper” movement on an individual or community level – – yes, there are residential bomb shelters but typically they are not stockpiled with food or medicines and at best may contain a lone mattress and folding chair.
My observations and opinions are strictly anecdotal, and may be an over-simplification, but this is what I know:
I was in first grade in the 1960s when our teacher put us through the “duck ‘n cover” drills against what was then a grave concern of nuclear disaster (the US-Soviet “Cuban Missile Crisis”). We were told to lower the venetian blinds, shut the windows, and crawl under our desks in a kneeling-to-the-floor fetal bracing position, with our hands grasping our necks, and our elbows tightly tucked and held close to our bodies.
Somehow, even then, I knew this was utter bullshit, realizing at the tender age of 6 that it might protect us against shrapnel but we would in any case fry from the radiation. I remember laying awake at night in bed, completely unable to fall asleep. I was not worried about the monsters under my bed but rather, terrified and certain I was going to die from the upcoming Soviet invasion onto US soil and an atom bomb that would surely be aimed right over my head in Encino, California.
At the same time, in Hollywood, California where my future husband lived with his family, his father, a Holocaust survivor and partisan who lost his entire family during WWII, ran out and bought a gun as soon as he became a US citizen because he was never, ever going to be defenseless again, and invested thousands of dollars he couldn’t spare into the excavation of his backyard to accommodate a pre-fab fall-out shelter. (Sadly I never had the opportunity to know my father-in-law; he died of a sudden heart attack years before I met my husband.) This thing had all the bells and whistles, with only a flat door running parallel to the ground giving hint to its existence. It had thick metal sides to absorb radiation; the door had an internal latch and steep ladder leading several feet beneath the earth to the internal space, with an air filtration system, stockpiles of food and water, and a rifle.
This 1960s bomb shelter door is in Wisconsin, but is similar to the one at my husband’s childhood home in Hollywood.
But life in Southern California, at least until the 1971 earthquake, was idyllic and safe and once the Bay of Pigs crisis resolved, there were no more thoughts about impending doom. The ’71 and subsequent earthquakes did serve as a wake-up call to Angelenos that having several days’ supply of food and water, batteries, flashlight and first aid was a good idea, but it did not, in my opinion, breed the current fear of apocalypse.
I think the current American preoccupation with apocalypse is the result of five factors:
- The Y2K panic/hype
- Hurricane Katrina, and the resultant Superdome chaos
- The Internet
- Right-wing Christian religious belief regarding Apocalypse, End of Days, and Rapture
- Apocalypse as a genre in popular culture via books and movies
There was genuine fear bordering on panic starting a couple of years before Y2K, much of it promulgated by the media. The fear, which seems unbelievably silly now, was that by referring to year dates by the last two digits instead of all four, “00,” 1900 was indistinguishable from 2000. In embedded systems, this date mix-up would cause havoc with telecommunications and utilities infrastructures, resulting in chaos that would spread not only to the grid, but to food and fuel delivery systems, transportation, the pharmaceutical industry, and anything programmed and run by computer, et al. This might result in riots, martial law, etc. Weapons were stockpiled by many who thought this would be their only possibility for defense against marauders that would scavenge for a failing food supply in total blackout conditions. A new industry was created: living off the grid. Catalogs circulated that were full of products that enabled people to live comfortably and safely without electricity. (My husband and I were delighted, a year after the Y2K panic had passed, to buy a $200 unused kerosene space heater for $25 from one such suckered consumer.)
While any immediate sense of urgency passed with the coming of January 2, 2000 and no apparent crisis at hand, only five years later Hurricane Katrina would create a different kind of havoc in New Orleans and the country at large. It was the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, with over 1800 people dead (135 people remain missing to this day), causing damage in 7 states in an area 90,000 sq miles (almost the size of the United Kingdom); severe flooding left hundreds of thousands of people homeless; over a million people were left without power; and environmental damage including oil spills and toxic waste. But the damage was not only physical and financial. With the total breakdown of available services from disaster relief organizations and government, mayhem ensued. The New Orleans Superdome, which sustained some hurricane damage, became a giant refugee center for the city’s poor, but roving gangs there inflicted robbery, rape and murder on those who sheltered there. Elsewhere in New Orleans, nursing home patients died of dehydration and starvation when assistance was unavailable for days, and even weeks, after the hurricane hit. The stores not hit by looters survived only because the store owners were heavily armed with personal weapons, standing guard on the roofs of their shops 24/7. National Guardsmen from all 50 states were called in to restore order, but they were spread thin and it was too little, too late.
Rather than being united in this time of crisis – and there were several “good Samaritan” stories of course – – the images the media captured of the New Orleans’ free-for-all greatly demoralized the country. For the first time, Americans felt vulnerable and distrustful of their fellow citizens, as things had deteriorated into a “it’s me or them” state of mind, instead of “we’re in this together.” In the social order of American culture, this paradigm shift was epic!
This is when the Internet came into play. Suddenly the Web was filled with “survivalist” forums and websites. And, reactive to Katrina’s massive failure, it was not only about being prepared with emergency supplies during disaster. The American public was being asked, for the first time on a national scale, to imagine frightening “what ifs” and contingency plans for the survival of immediate family with things like “bug-out locations,” the most effective firearms for self-defense of one’s home and supplies, how to lose one’s identity to avoid government surveillance or accountability, and how to live a self-sufficient lifestyle in terms of food, shelter, clothing, heat, etc. without the necessity to rely on others for subsistence.
In a time when the American public is increasingly suspicious of the toxins resulting in the industrialization of basic necessities, such highly processed food, a bad-tasting water supply, chemical pollutants, disease cluster populations, etc., the concept of a healthier lifestyle; of going “back to the land” and becoming more self-sufficient; and in recognizing a general wimpyness that has overtaken the American population – – the survivalist mentality of getting back to our roots and becoming more independent could not have been more timely. With political divisions becoming more extreme within the United States, increased religious fervor and both conservative and liberal political ideologies are often reactive and emotion-led rather the result of thoughtful intellectual reasoning. It’s a world that seems to make less and less sense, where once concrete notions of Good and Evil are now subjects for debate and moral relativism and political correctness aren’t just about semantics, but a sea change for how we evaluate everyday ethics. People want answers, and when those answers are less than satisfying, they will look to a Higher Power at one end of the spectrum, or disavow everything at the other end. And forgive my cynical American self, but in our land of opportunity, where there is money to be made, anything goes. Hence, not only do we have a media frenzy about the latest sexy whatever ad nauseam, we also have movies, books, and TV shows about zombies and Nights of the Living Dead, aliens of the extraterrestrial variety, and end-of-the-world scenarios. Which would be laughable, except the very realistic images on the screen have many Americans convinced that zombies are not the product of a screenwriter’s imagination; they are real.
My own evolution into the world of prepping has a lot to do with my decision to live, for now, in Maine, but it’s not the result of dogma. Among die-hard survivalists I’d be considered naive and misguided.
As long-time followers of my blog know, my original heave-ho to urban living was the result of a personal and emotional crisis, not a sense that the End of the World was near. Both my mother and mother-in-law lived with us near the end of their lives (at the same time!). One parent was battling Alzheimer’s and cancer; the other’s problems were emotional and financial, in addition to congestive heart failure. The stresses were enormous, and unlike the saintly people you read about in motivational books and magazines and newscasts, I was psychologically and spiritually ill-equipped to deal with it. As a caretaker of my loved ones, I constantly strove to make myself into a better person, but the trials and tribulations, and the harsh judgement and disowning of others close to me for my failures, perceived and real, brought me to the edge of a nervous breakdown. I started questioning everything: relationships, responsibility, love, faith, religion, sense of place, my city, my environment; but I was so confused and angry and sad that clarity was lacking. I needed a change, and it had to be a drastic one. I admit it – – I was running away – – but I was also running towards something. I wanted to see if by reducing life to its most basic form, I could somehow manage to exist in a way that was more than going through the motions of daily living. By living in a very isolated, rural environment, I would be challenging myself anew on many levels. And by sheer need of the circumstances – – I live 30+ miles from the usual conveniences – – I would need to be prepared for many types of emergencies in a practical, girl-scout sort of way. Over the years in Maine, my competence level for practical knowledge in day-to-day living has increased. I’m content here. My husband and I are alone, but not lonely.
And then, in the summer of 2014, Operation Protective Edge – – the war in Gaza and Israel – – happened, preceded by some terrorist-caused tragedies that led to the declaration of that war. Via the Internet where I voraciously consumed news of Israel and following a personal visit there, I realized that “surviving” according to the American apocalyptic version, versus the Israeli version, are two very different concepts and are realized in nearly oppositional ways.
As a country and out of necessity, Israel is highly prepared for conflict. Even young children know not to pick up tempting objects from the ground, such as a doll or a grapefruit – – both have been used by terrorists to hide explosives. If someone leaves a backpack or lunch box or stray package behind on the bus and someone notices it – – and someone always does – – the bus is evacuated and a bomb squad is called in. Usually a robot is used to inspect and “disable” the object. This constant, heightened state of alert is imprinted in every single Israeli man, woman and child. And yes, it means the mind and body can never really relax.
Perhaps that is why Israelis are so brash. They have big hearts, but also big mouths. They are quick to forgive. They will lend their opinion about everything, unasked. And while this can be annoying as heck, one realizes that the reason a complete stranger isn’t afraid to tell you how to run your life, is because they don’t consider themselves strangers – – all Israelis consider themselves part of one (often dysfunctional) family. They really care because ultimately they realize that they are part of one cohesive family unit, despite individual differences. This bond goes even beyond statehood; it is a bond of nationhood, and is perhaps the key to understanding why, despite all odds against it, Israel continues to thrive. An Aramaic phrase from Talmudic times sums this up: “kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh” — all Israel is responsible for one another. This concept of communal responsibility is far-reaching. If one Jew sees another acting sinfully or irresponsibly, he has the imperative to intervene. It also obligates Jews to ensure that basic needs of his Jewish brethren, such as food, shelter and clothing, are taken care of.
Already you can see why, especially in times of conflict, the survivalist vision of a discreet, heavily armed and stockpiled compound in West Virginia that is completely self-sufficient and built to keep out others is in complete opposition to the Israeli model.
There are countless examples from Operation Protective Edge that turn classic American-style “survivalism” on its edge. Here are but a few:
- I called some friends living in the Galilee to ask how they were doing. They couldn’t talk because they were in the process of welcoming a woman and her 5 children to their home – – people who were complete strangers to them. The woman’s husband was called up to fight, and meanwhile the family, who were from Israel’s south and were under constant bombardment – – were mentally and physically exhausted. Every time a siren indicated a possible attack, they had only 15 seconds to get to a shelter. Sleep, meals, bus rides, school, going to buy food – – all activities were constantly disrupted, and they were under tremendous stress. My friends would say they did nothing exceptional by welcoming these strangers into their home for a period of several weeks, completely without expectation of payment for their trouble. In fact, thousands of Israelis in the North welcomed families from the South – – just as families in the South had done to families from the Northern regions when villages and cities had come under hundreds of missile attacks from Syria and Lebanon in 2006.
- When it was difficult for businesses in the South to remain open due to the constant bombardment, competing businesses in the North gave up sales they might have had and invited their competitors in the South to set up merchandise fairs in the North in town halls and schools, as well as inviting them to send their stock to the North so these businesses could help sell things on their behalf. This included merchandise such as school supplies, giftware, clothing, books and jewelry.
- When it was known that a platoon would be passing through a town, residents rushed to make care packages for the soldiers consisting of socks, phone rechargers, toiletries, and home-cooked meals, sodas, baked goods, candy, and notes of encouragement. The response by residents was so overwhelming that the soldiers actually had to tell them to stop.
- Many towns didn’t wait for soldiers to pass through. Instead, they organized “care packages” and had truckloads driven by residents who personally delivered the items to the combat zone border.
- One civilian man rigged a solar shower contraption and drove from field base to field base so that soldiers could take hot showers. He also supplied toiletries and clean towels free of charge.
Israel, on a national scale, is prepared for war. Haifa’s Rambam Hospital recently opened the largest (2,000 bed) underground hospital in the world. It is designed to protect staff and patients safe in the event of chemical or biological warfare, as well as from missiles and rocket attacks. Newly constructed apartment buildings and private homes now have “sealed room” bomb shelters within the living space. And yet, the overwhelming majority of Israelis do not stockpile food or water or emergency supplies in their homes and residential shelters in times of war! How ironic, then, that when a snowstorm of a few inches threatens every few years, the entire country goes into a crazy panic! Entire supermarket shelves are completely emptied before impending snow. And yet this store-storming buyers’ panic does not occur on the eve of a war.
While I personally believe keeping extra water and a small supply of food and medicine is a good idea for the sealed rooms, perhaps Israeli reticence is based on the idea that no man is an island: that to win in adversity, one must cooperate and share resources and help one another get through whatever trials life brings. Because ultimately, despite the craziness, Israelis have each others’ backs.
Seeing how Israel behaved during last summer’s conflict forced me to ask myself this question: in a survivalist’s bug-out location, one can survive Apocalypse — but does one want to be a survivor in such a world, where people unknown to you are the enemy, and one must live only for oneself and one’s immediate family at the expense of another?
I love my life here in Maine, but I think a large part of my heart is tied to Israel. Living in Israel is about being part of something greater than myself, about being a part of history, and a part of destiny – – a perhaps-irrational desire that emanates without logic from my Jewish soul.
Aliyah (living in Israel some day) is a dream that I hope will become my new reality in the near future.