Selfies in the Bomb Shelter: How Israelis Cope When Rockets Fall

Israelis turn to social media - for helpful hints, levity, and most of all, as a way to come together in the isolation of a safe room or bomb shelter.

Sara Eisen

When the going gets tough, the tough take selfies. That’s the attitude that Sara Eisen, a resident of Beit Shemesh decided to adopt when she started a Facebook group called “Bomb Shelter Selfies.”

She was inspired by the many “Selfie Challenge” sites across the web. “There’s a selfie for everything so I figured why not bomb shelters?” In addition, she said, it was a way of “showing the world that we weren’t letting this get to us.” At first, she recalls “I wanted to call it ‘Bomb Shelter Bombshells’” - but her husband told her it was over the top.

Eisen may have made it official, but ever since the rockets began to rain on Israel - including the central parts of the country and coastal plain, which until now, have been unfamiliar with the experience - from Ra’anana to Hadera to Zichron Ya’acov - have been bringing their experiences, as they do with nearly all other aspects of their lives, to social media - using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp to make the situation more bearable and to keep their spirits up. Hers wasn’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last forum where Israelis - children, teens, and adults - are sharing photos and videos of the minutes and sometimes hours they are spending in safe rooms, bomb shelters, and stairwells.

In Hebrew, English, and other languages, everyday Israelis, on both the political right and the left who, until recent days were more concerned with whether they could afford tickets to the upcoming Neil Young concert after the money they spent on Rolling Stones tickets, now have to contemplate whether going to the supermarket for eggs and milk is a wise decision or one that could end up with their car being parked on the side of the road, and with them lying in a ditch taking cover from potential flying shrapnel.

While much attention is paid to the use of social media for political mud-slinging between right and left, that is only one of its roles.

Along with sharing their fears and sending out encouraging messages, Facebook and Twitter have turned into a forum for trading tips on coping with the stressful and often surreal situation in which Israelis find themselves, where mundane activities can quickly turn terrifying. Parent forums are full of worried (mostly) mothers agonizing over whether it would be riskier to send summer vacationing children to day camp, take them to the park or other outings - or be forced to deal with them climbing the walls at home. They also share ideas on keeping the kids happy and distracted when they are in the shelters.

But it’s not just parents who are looking for advice. One Facebooker posted for advice on Tel Aviv, where bicycling is a popular mode of transportation with a dilemma she has been struggling with for the past 24 hours.

She asked: “You're riding your bike, and the sirens go off. Do you:
a. leave your bike in the street and run for cover?
b. waste 20-30 precious seconds locking it and run for cover?
c. be a chutzpadik Israeli and drag it into the nearest shelter with you, not giving anybody else room to move or breathe?”

Responses from her friends varied - some said she should take the time to lock it, others said to leave it unlocked in the entrance of the building in which she’s taking cover. Another proposed: “the option of ignore and keep riding because the odds are very very low that rocket will happen to land right where you are.”

One friend reacted by saying: “I honestly don't know what to recommend to you. But I will say that anyone who dares to steal a bike during a bombing alert deserves to get, well, exactly what Hamas is trying to give all of us right now.”

One woman from southern Israel kept busy offering helpful tips to Facebook friends who were ‘newbies’ to the emergency routine and were expressing alarm at hearing booming noises without warning sirens. She explained that “99 percent of the time a boom without an alarm means you are hearing the Iron Dome boom of the rocket being shot down in the middle of its arch. The system is so sophisticated that the sirens only sound where the rocket is marked to land. In theory this is supposed to make people calmer but in reality the booms that you don't expect are scarier than the ones you do expect.”

In addition to advice, black humor, always a staple of Israeli coping devices, has been thriving in online forums. Many of the “memes” and popular cartoons from Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 have been revived and re-circulated across social networks - such as a cartoon guide to dealing with attacks on Tel Aviv that includes this advice: “Pause your TIVO;” “go out to your building’s stairwell. See that it’s a 1950’s Bauhaus building with no shelter, then hide on the second floor or something;” “observe your neighbors and try to figure out what they were doing at the time of the alarm by what they are (and aren’t) wearing;” hear the boom, then “confirm on your phone what you already know;” and finally “ignore the official instructions to stay in hiding for six more minutes and go say what people are saying on Facebook.”

Some of the humor, inevitably takes a political slant. Amir Sheinkman posted a report of missiles hitting Caesaria, near the Prime Minister’s home, and wrote: “Nu, Sara, you still think it was a smart idea to get new furniture to Caesarea?” referring to a recent scandal regarding the first family’s spending public money on new garden chairs.

With the attacks coinciding with key World Cup games, many have been following the war and the game scores simultaneously and making related wisecracks - like offering the Brazilians an Iron Dome system for their goal as they were losing badly to Germany.

The locations of the missiles are a frequent source of snark. One Modi’in resident asked whether his community should feel offended that Hamas didn’t feel they are worth hurling missiles at. A snobbish Tel Aviv resident sniffed when a rocket fell on what he felt was a lesser neighboring suburb. “Really - Givataim? Hamas must be really getting desperate for targets.”

For English-speaking Israelis and their friends abroad, the go-to man for levity is stand-up comedian Benji Lovitt, who has made it a practice to bombard his Facebook and Twitter feed with crisis-related off-color one-liners like "Remember, guys - it's not a booty call if you just want to use their bomb shelter."

At one point, he interrupted his stream of wisecracks with an acknowledgement that “people in Gaza are dying, some of whom have done nothing wrong. I wanted to take a minute and at least try to be conscious myself of what’s happening: that this is a w-a-r and that there is real suffering, even if I don’t feel it from my little cocoon.”

He took an amusing visual jab at the English name of the military effort, “Operation Protective Edge” which sounds to American ears too much like a brand name for safety razors, feminine protection products, or as he indicated, an even more intimate item - a condom - with a tag line “keeping you safe down south.”

The Hebrew version of the name - Tzuk Eitan - which translates roughly as “Mighty Cliff” has also been the subject of online ribbing, especially when observed in the context of previous operations like “Pillar of Defense” and “Cast Lead” -- and it has been suggested that the emphasis on verticality and firmness might be a bit - to put it delicately - a little heavy on the suggestion of virility and maleness.

As Lovitt suggested, with the relatively frequency of the conflicts and the increasing difficulty to come up with creative monikers, Israel might want to drop the tough-guy names and consider adopting the practice of simply naming the military efforts the way that the weather service does with hurricanes: "Just after dawn today, the IDF launched Operation Jennifer...."

Like the one-liners and bomb shelter selfies, it might take the rough edges off of a scary and uncertain situation.
 

From Benji Lovitt's Facebook