Israel needs us more than ever, recent visitors say

"You always hear in the news that X number of people were killed and X number were injured, and that's the last you hear about it. You don't necessarily get the ongoing basis of what it means to be injured in these cases."

Wolf, president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay's board, returned May 24 from a five-day solidarity mission to Israel. A visit to Hadassah Hospital to speak with terrorism victims left a deep impression on her.

Those maimed in terrorist shootings and bombings "are lost in all this, but there are an awful lot of them. We've lost over 400 dead, but so many, many more wounded."

The sobering visit to the hospital was memorable for other East Bay residents on the mission as well. Dr. Ed Miller, a Lafayette radiologist, recalled meeting 21-year-old Natan Sandaka.

On Sept. 4, Sandaka, a border policeman, chased down a terrorist disguised as a Chassidic Jew. The suspect had caught the attention of civilians by sporting a black beard, a black yarmulke and no payot. When Sandaka, 21, and his 24-year-old partner, Guy Mughrabi, ordered the man to halt, he detonated the bomb in his backpack — sending the Ethiopian-born officers flying, and showering a nearby school yard with body parts and shrapnel.

Mughrabi escaped with minor injuries, but Sandaka suffered major burns and was in a coma for two weeks. After much rehabilitation, he is now advanced to the point of being able to go on a daily run.

"It was truly inspiring to see the courage of our fellow Jews living under such adversity and suffering so gracefully," said Miller. "There were smiles on their faces, no bitterness. I was awestruck with our fellow Jews in Israel."

Miller also conversed with Steve Zanger, a pediatrician, who accompanied Israeli troops on their takeover of the Jenin refugee camp. He told the East Bay contingent about the sorrow and heartbreak he felt after leafing through family photo albums in several Jenin homes and discovering pictures of Palestinian children outfitted in explosives belts.

While the Israelis the group met said they have no desire to leave the country, the mission's eyewitness accounts also demonstrate that many Israelis have no desire to leave their homes — and that tourists are avoiding Israel more than ever.

"You can see the strain on people at this point. The tension is palpable. Areas like the Kotel plaza where, usually, you see huge throngs of tourists were virtually empty," said Miller, whose two sisters and mother live in Israel.

"You go by the shops and the shopkeepers are standing in the doorways with looks on their faces like 'where are you?'"

Wolf, too, was saddened by the eerily empty city streets. The ghost town-like atmosphere, she said, is good reason for Jews to make trips to Israel.

"They need us more than ever. Not just financially but emotionally, because of all the isolation they have," said the Piedmont resident. Israel has been shunned by "its neighbors, Europe and the whole world. Jewry and America are the only two allies, and the only one they can count on is world Jewry."

Miller was disheartened by the abandoned cities, but did see glimmers of hope.

"Walking through Jerusalem during Shabbat, you still see some families in the park, and that sort of thing. They're trying to go on with their lives as normally as possible," he said. "You walk down the street and everyone says 'Shabbat Shalom.' And that always gets you right in the heart."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.