JERUSALEM — 23 years ago, in a long moment of national terror, Israelis strapped on gas masks and fled into bunkers to wait out chemical-weapons tipped SCUD missiles they feared would fly in from Iraq at any moment. Though the worst never came — SCUDs did hit Tel Aviv, but not with chemical weapons — Saddam Hussein was a terrifying and near enough neighbor that Israelis felt an attack could be imminent.
Today, as al-Qaeda-style Islamist terrorists seize Iraq's northern provinces, as well as the eastern half of Syria, which shares a border with Israel, there is hardly a peep in Israel. The news was not even mentioned on the front page of today's Ha'aretz newspaper. It instead featured a story on Congressman Eric Cantor's election defeat and what it meant for Jewish Republicans in the US, which was apparently considered a more relevant question for Israelis than whether a terrorist organization would succeed in taking a neighboring capital.
People in Jerusalem are eager to discuss Israeli news — frozen settlements, a new president — and relations with the US and Europe, but people don't seem concerned about the rapidly-expanding catastrophe next door. Baghdad felt nearer when I was in Washington than it does here, though it is only as far from Jerusalem as New York is from Columbus, Ohio.
It is not for nothing that Israelis appear to be more concerned about the ups and downs of an American political party thousands of miles away than about the potential rise of an al-Qaeda-style mini-state in their own region and awfully near to their own border. It is a jarring reminder of the Israelis' popular disconnect from the Middle East around them, which for so long captivated their attention and threatened their survival.
The Israeli sense of distance from its own immediate neighborhood has been long-running and long-worsening; there is a growing sense of isolation from the Arab world, which was far more relevant to Israelis in the years of their conflict than it has been in today's relative peace. This is partly a function of Israeli regional policy during the Arab Spring, which has been to avoid choosing sides and favor the status quo, deepening a sense of "not our problem."
Partly it's a matter of the national identity, which as Israelis have prospered has become a bit more Europe-facing than it had been in the decades of trying to hack it out as a Middle Eastern nation.
But mostly, like so many things here, it is a function of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the occupation, which has come to so disproportionately affect Palestinians that Israelis are hardly affected at all. The Israeli policies of walling off, suppressing, and forgetting have been a catastrophe for the Palestinians. But for most Israelis, this has given the West Bank, and the larger Arab world with which it is commonly associated here, a sense of being a million miles away.
Visiting the predominantly Arab section of Jerusalem's Old City on Thursday, I found every single shop and stall closed. I asked a dozen different Jewish Israelis what was happening. Not a single one had any idea; some speculated it was a Muslim holiday. In fact, they had closed their stalls in sympathy with 285 Palestinian prisoners who are hunger-striking in protest of their detention without charge, one of the many abuses of the Israeli occupation. But Israelis were simply blind to the conflict that was happening literally around them.
It's one of the ironies of the Israeli and American conflicts in the Middle East that America's wars made the region seem closer, more innately tied to American politics and to many Americans' lives, while Israel's still-ongoing conflict has pushed the region ever-further away.
The national near-shrug with which many Israelis greeted ISIS's takeovers in northern Iraq, compared to the terror of Iraqi threats during the 1991 Gulf War, are a sign of just how disconnected the nation has become from its own region. The occupation has encouraged Israelis to forget, and in a sense many of them have. This is an immediate danger to Palestinians, who are left with an occupation that can feel awfully permanent, but also to Israelis themselves. As Israelis are so often warned, if the occupation continues long enough then Israel will lose its claim to democracy, or to a Jewish national identity as the Palestinian population grows, or both.
That much nearer threat may be an even greater threat than the expansion of the ISIS-dominated Syrian-Iraqi mini-state, but like so many threats here it has been present so long it's become part of the background.