Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Sderot has been a besieged city. Just one mile from the strip, its citizens have suffered an endless barrage of Qassam rockets, effectively becoming human shields for the rest of Israel.
It is, to be sure, a heroic stance, but the people of Sderot are fed up with being heroes.
The public siren warning residents about incoming rockets used to be called “Shahar Adom,” or red dawn. But kids with the name Shahar, and there are more than a few, complained that other kids at school were picking on them, so the siren’s name was changed to “Tzeva Adom,” or red color.
The adults in Sderot have had far more serious matters to worry about.
Children have been traumatized by the frightening sirens. Businesses have collapsed. Unemployment, which has always been high in the blue-collar city, soared. Prices of homes, which had been low even before the crisis, have hit bottom; even if people considered leaving, most of them couldn’t.
Enter Ilan Cohen. Thirty-two years old, he runs a successful chess school in his hometown of Modi’in. He felt he just couldn’t go on with business as usual, safe in the center of Israel, while the suffering in Sderot continues. He felt he had to do something.
He asks, “Aren’t we taught from childhood that ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor like yourself’?”
And he kept asking. He started calling friends, sending emails and texting cell-phone messages.
Last Friday, Ilan led a caravan of some 300 cars, mainly from Modi’in but also from some 20 other places, to Sderot. The 1,000 visitors came to the city for one purpose: to do their pre-Shabbat shopping in Sderot and thereby inject some badly needed cash into the struggling local businesses.
Ilan estimates that the caravan spent roughly a quarter-million badly needed shekels at groceries and other businesses in Sderot. He is now planning another, much bigger, caravan, which will go down to Sderot just before Rosh Hashana.
“We will make their New Year different from previous ones,” he promises.
Ilan’s show of solidarity with the residents of Sderot is only the most obvious example of Israelis responding to what they perceive to be the government’s failure to stand by its citizens. How can it be that the strong Israeli military, with its F-16 fighters and Merkava tanks, can’t put an end to the harassment of Sderot by those primitive Qassam rockets?
Why isn’t the government doing anything for the welfare of the poor people of Sderot? And why didn’t it do anything for Israel’s north during last summer’s war with Hezbollah?
The feeling that the government has deserted those it is supposed to serve is, of course, not unique to Israelis. Americans presumably felt much the same in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which rendered the mightiest and the richest country in the world amazingly impotent. In and around New Orleans, private businesses, NGOs and individuals eventually stepped in to do what the government should have done in the first place.
Instead of whining about what the government should have been doing, those Americans took matters into their own hands. So, too, did Ilan Cohen.
Now it’s about time that conscious individuals — Israelis, as well as Jews around the world — take Ilan’s lead and open their hearts and pockets for their brothers and sisters in Sderot. Those intending to celebrate Rosh Hashana in Israel should include in their plans a trip to Sderot, together with the many who will follow Ilan’s next caravan.
After all, do we not pledge every High Holidays, “Kol Israel arevin zeh la zeh” — all Israel is responsible for one another?
Uri Dromi was chief spokesman for the Israeli government under Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.