The mayor of Sderot, David Bouskila, and the award-winning journalist Linda Scherzer were guest speakers at a Jewish National Fund event held last week at the Englewood home of Doryne and Milton Davis. More than 40 people gathered there to learn about the current “matzav” (the situation) in the border town, a target of 8,600 Hamas rockets since 2001 – with 28 deaths reported by 2009, hundreds injured, millions in property damage, and thousands of people, including 3,000 children, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sderot has a population of approximately 22,000. At the end of 2008, the mayor reported, 10 to 15 percent of the population had fled – the average number of missiles that landed in the city daily was nine. Today, said Bouskila, the town enjoys a period of relative calm; only one or two missiles land every other day, and people have begun to move back to the city.

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JNF’s Bob Levine, left, stands with Sderot Mayor David Bouskila during a JNF gathering last week. Jeanette Friedman

Teaneck resident Bob Levine, JNF’s vice president of education, noted that a 21,000 square-foot, bomb-proof facility is protecting hundreds of children and senior citizens daily. It was built as a giant recreation center to provide children with a state-of-the-art safe play space/social center so that they wouldn’t have to worry about getting to a conventional bomb shelter within 15 seconds – the time between the sirens going off and the rockets landing.

Bouskila said that 75 percent of the children suffer from PSTD. “They may never be like other children,” he continued. “They lost their childhood, they worry about the situation and their parents and they don’t know what to do….

“Our children study in a democratic society with values of human rights … but the terrorists use human shields so civilians die. Yet that is not the point. It is the media. We are not popular in the international media. It is impossible to be strong and popular at the same time – we have to be underdogs. But if we become weak, we will be destroyed.”

Linda Scherzer, who made a presentation before the mayor spoke, had been on the Middle East beat for eight years and connected to Sderot as part of the Bergen County Jewish community in 2008, when a group of local women arranged to bring 40 traumatized kids from Sderot to summer camp in the United States.

Scherzer, a former Mideast correspondent for CNN, described today’s relative calm as a “hudna,” defining that Arabic word, often translated as “ceasefire,” as a time to rearm and prepare for more war. She said she’d learned from the Palestinians she covered in the west bank and Gaza that they had generational patience, that they felt that their turn would come eventually. As for Iran, she said, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is two years closer to his nuclear bomb, while he arms terrorists on Israel’s borders. “The extremists will tell you to your face they have no interest in peace,” she said. “They are willing to wait. They understand that if their grandchildren won’t see it, then their great-great-great-grandchildren will replace the [Jewish] state with a fundamentalist religion. Their numbers have grown and their ideology is consistent. What you see is what you get.”

What is far more troubling, she said, is the callous indifference of the international community and how everyone heaps calumny upon Israel. She wondered aloud if the media are to blame for this attitude and why it was not aimed at Sudan, Libya, Iran, and other regimes that ignore human rights.

But she feels the media are generally honest, with a fair degree of integrity. “It takes journalists a while to get up to speed,” she said, “but the Palestinians have convinced the world that they are the real victims. They know they are no match for Israel’s army, so they confront [it] on the airwaves [and] in a public relations war where they embed their fighters in civilian populations. Then they aim at Israeli civilians, knowing eventually the army will respond, and the images that result from that are compelling; they are filled with tremendous pain, and they make the pain on the Israeli side look like nothing.”

Scherzer told of a doctor, a Holocaust survivor, who was in her clinic in Ashkelon during an attack and was disfigured. At a U.N. panel discussion in Geneva, one of the panelists said to the doctor, “I feel sorry for you, but it in no way does it make up for the horror Israel inflicts on Gaza.”

The mayor thanked the JNF and American Jewish community for what they have done for the children of Sderot and added, “It’s not just about the children. JNF also built us a reservoir that provides water to all the farms around Sderot and gives life to the area. People who left are coming back and starting to buy houses and apartments. No one should believe that if we leave Sderot, there will be peace. We left Gaza, and nothing changed. We will not leave, because next it will be Ashkelon. We are in Israel proper, not in a settlement. Bibi came to visit, and played with the children. We are proud, because I bring world leaders to the recreation center and show them how the American people built it for our children. When Obama came to Sderot he said that if his daughters were in town, he wouldn’t let them sleep there.” Quoting the late Prime Minister Golda Meir, he said, “We will have peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us.”

To raise funds for the shelter and other projects in Sderot, JNF is selling steel tulips for $1,000 a piece. Conceived and designed by soldier/artist Eldor Levy of the Givati Brigade, they are made from Kassam rockets that landed in Sderot. Bouskila said, “When a deadly weapon is transformed into a beautiful flower, it makes a powerful statement for peace. You touch the metal that was meant to kill. Now we can sell it to give life. This is our wish – to teach people to love.”