The world is supposed to be a little crazy, backwards and upside down on the Jewish holiday of Purim, which began on Wednesday. The festival’s traditions are all about spoofs and parodies and bizarre behavior.
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Unintentionally, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv contributed to the holiday spirit by sending out a travel warning so out of the ordinary that many American citizens living in Israel, like me, wondered for a moment if it was indeed a Purim joke.
Mind you, there’s nothing unusual about travel warnings from the embassy. After terror attacks, we are typically cautioned to stay away from hot spots in Israel and the West Bank, or from border areas when there are missile attacks or sniper threats. Occasionally, when the situation on the Egyptian border heats up, we’re warned against crossing into Sinai to enjoy the beaches.
But we aren’t used to getting advisories telling us that it might be a good idea to avoid the Eiffel Tower. The email, with the subject line “Europe Travel Alert,” delivered the following message:
“The State Department alerts U.S. citizens to potential risks of travel to and throughout Europe following several terrorist attacks, including the March 22 attacks in Brussels claimed by ISIL. Terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants, and transportation. U.S. citizens should exercise vigilance when in public places or using mass transportation. Be aware of immediate surroundings and avoid crowded places.”
While the embassy didn’t intend to sound like a Purim spiel, the idea of telling Americans living in Jerusalem, West Bank settlements, or even in Tel Aviv – where American citizen Taylor Force was recently killed by a terrorist – to stay away from Brussels, Paris or Amsterdam because of the risk feels, well, silly.
It’s not that the diligent public servants at the embassy don’t have the best of intentions. They are only trying hard to keep their citizens safe, and likely relaying a message from the White House distributed to embassies elsewhere as well.
But the Tel Aviv staff must be aware that their local audience is already deeply schooled in the art of being cautious, and that for us ex-pats living in Israel, daily vigilance is a second language we learned along with Hebrew.
Nevertheless, the embassy has, for the past several months, struggled to figure out how to advise residents here on protecting themselves against the recent spate of lone wolf knife attacks and car-rammings, resorting to some rather creative language.
Earlier this month, officials sent out a well-intended but rather absurd advisory recommending that U.S. citizens “maintain a high degree of personal situational awareness” anywhere they go in Israel – a warning which sounded more like a meditation or yoga mantra than a call to keep one’s eyes open and make sure the guy behind you on the sidewalk isn’t trying to stab you or that the approaching car driving isn’t gearing up to run you down.
Unfortunately, that same missive said, “while the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority undertake considerable efforts to ensure general security, no efforts are guaranteed to be 100 percent effective in preventing successful attacks.”
Those of us who have lived in the Middle East for a while didn’t really need the U.S. embassy to tell us that – but the reminder was appreciated. And now, I suppose, vigilance is a language that Europeans will have to learn as well, and European governments will have to figure out creative ways to remind their citizens to stay alert and stay away from the crowds.