Coronavirus Doesn't Scare Them. These Israelis Are Prepared for the Apocalypse

Some are stockpiling guns while others are learning to live without food. These survivalists are preparing for a catastrophe much bigger than the COVID-19. And don’t even get them started on toilet paper

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Ilyan Marshak. “The rule of thumb is for others not to know what you’re doing. It’s bad for them not to have if you do have.”
Ilyan Marshak. “The rule of thumb is for others not to know what you’re doing. It’s bad for them not to have if you do have.” Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Ilyan Marshak, 35, from Tel Aviv, photographer and social activist

Ilyan Marshak is what’s known as a “prepper.” One of a group of people who are certain that a huge disaster is going to strike humanity and who are planning for it meticulously. The preppers’ origins lie in the realms of libertarianism in America, where this subculture is thriving.

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“I started to get organized six years ago,” Marshak says. “I have plenty of equipment, I bought 10 two-way radios, for me and my friends. I also obtained medical supplies, such as Lugol’s, a medication that reduces damage from exposure to radioactive materials, and gas masks. I spent thousands of shekels on masks for a large number of people; I have enough masks to outfit a company of combat soldiers. Another thing has been to create a community, so I won’t be alone if something happens.”

What about food?

“I have stockpiled different food groups: sugars for energy, long-life milk, dried meat, and foods dried in salt and fat. I have sealed containers of mineral water, three gallons per person. I have enough food and drink for a month. I never go below three-quarters of a tank of gas in my car, and I have another 40 liters [10.5 gallons] of gasoline in a jerrican. In a crisis, I don’t want to wait in line for gas like an idiot.

“Besides that, there is survival equipment: climbing ropes, battery packs for lighting; a case for each person. And, on the basis of available space, clothing, playing cards and a notebook. I spent enough time in a military prison to know that a pen and paper are better for maintaining one’s sanity than a book.”

Weapons?

“No. But even if I did have some, I wouldn’t tell you. Because of the logistics, stockpiling weapons is a waste of time. The use of arms is reserved for situations so extreme that even a knife will do the job. The idea is self-defense, not assault. I’m not forming a guerrilla force.”

Where will you hide?

“There are two places I can get to if I’m on the run.”

Do you keep all the equipment at home or in the hiding places?

“I won’t tell you.”

Can you at least hint where the places are?

'When I see a good piece of rope in the street, I save it. It’s useful for a million things. Including to hang yourself.'

“Areas where there are high summits, in the north and the south. Definitely not city centers. In extreme events, city centers become death traps.”

Each prepper (or “survivalist,” as they are also known) has his own scenario. Marshak chose places at higher altitudes because he’s prepping for quite an original event. “I have reached the conclusion that senior figures in the world are preparing for a reversal of magnetic poles, a process that happens once every 12,000 years. Nothing can be done against it – it causes huge waves in the seas and damages the planet’s electromagnetic shield.”

Didn’t the friends you gave the radios to tell you that you’re paranoid?

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. They are people who trust in what I say but have their own scenarios. There are some who’d be ready to flee if Nazis come to power. All this is less widespread in Israel than in the United States. Many people there don’t trust the government. In Israel they let Benjamin Netanyahu seize control of the democracy in two seconds. In the United States that wouldn’t happen without a lot of fatalities.”

A year or so after the first wave of social protests in 2011, Marshak helped the tent dwellers in Tel Aviv build geodesic domes. Today, he says it was part of his “education” as a prepper. “That’s one of the reasons I worked with them on new forms of architecture, to learn and teach methods of survival that are modern, not pathetic. To know how to shit without dying of dysentery.”

As a matter of fact, you didn’t mention toilet paper. Do you have that in your emergency kit, too?

“No. People have a tendency to think we were born with toilet paper. I buy it for my house, because I need to, so it’ll be on hand, one or two packages, tops. But for survival, toilet paper isn’t needed; it takes up a lot of space. You can wipe with all kinds of things.”

I suppose there must be people who laugh when you tell them about these preparations.

“At any given moment during the past six years, there have been people who laughed at me. Some guffawed quietly; some thought I was off my rocker. People also laugh at me when I collect ropes; when I see a good piece of rope in the street, I save it. It’s useful for a million things. Including to hang yourself.”

According to Marshak’s calculations, his preparations and the equipment he bought, which cost about 20,000 shekels (currently about $5,550), would help him survive for a month during an apocalypse.

“That will give me some extra time to understand what’s going on, and to get ready for the next stages. Not that I will be [living like] some tycoon, while others are homeless. By the way, the prepper’s rule of thumb is for others not to know what you’re doing, because in an extreme situation, it’s bad for others not to have if you do have. Because they’ll come to take it from you. People in extreme states become antisocial.”

Marshak feels that the period we are now in has proved that his preparations have not been in vain. His Facebook page has become popular during the coronavirus shutdown, because of the clips and statuses in which he attacks the conventional wisdom about the virus in his colorful style – adorned with multilingual curses – offers hot conspiracy theories, and urges people to stockpile many gallons of bottled water.

“I’ve got a bonanza of ratings,” he boasts. “From one new follower a week before, I’m getting 150 new followers a day now.”

Shimi Ref.
Shimi Ref. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Shimi Ref, 43, from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek, gatherer

Shimi Ref is one of the fathers of Israel’s gatherers, a movement that has grown considerably in recent years – Ref estimates their number to be in the thousands. As a master gatherer, he has trained many to how to walk about in nature and identify edible plants. When the world’s countries ban food exports, the shelves of the supermarket empty out, and your average Israeli is dreaming about bourekas, Ref will be sauntering through the fields, enjoying tanner’s sumac.

“For years I’ve taken an interest in the tasks of hunter-gatherers. The reason I chose to focus on gathering and not on building arches or chiseling flint tools, is that it’s easy and simple for the gatherer to get an immediate product – it’s not hard to get to know the nettle and the mallow. And once you know how to identify plants, you can use them immediately.

“Gathering affords a connection to nature, which is critical today,” Ref notes. “When people talk about the collapse of human civilization, I think about global warming and about air pollution. It’s all happening because it’s easy for us to pollute, because we became alienated from nature. That’s the reason nature looks threatening, superfluous and useless to us. There’s a belief today that nature isn’t needed, and that creates alienation.”

Were you prepared for the current epidemic?

“The present epidemic is not an end-of-the-world scenario, it’s a familiar event. Not a black swan, but a gray swan. People who listen to scientists know that it was expected, but it’s easier to ignore things.”

Did you just mumble “I told you so”?

“Let’s say that it was known there would be an epidemic, and there might also be more serious epidemics than the coronavirus. The coronavirus isn’t all that serious. A scenario of tens of thousands of deaths is not the historic epidemic people feared. It’s not as dramatic as the Black Death. Imagine 20 percent of the human population dying. That happened and it could happen at any moment. All you need is a mutation in an existing virus and it will happen.”

What are you going to do to protect yourself from it?

“There isn’t a lot to do, other than trusting natural immunity. But if there’s a rush on the supermarket, it won’t bother me.”

I suppose that your two children eat food from the supermarket.

“They eat what’s available in the kibbutz store. But my older daughter, who’s 3 and a half, already knows the plants and knows which ones to gather.”

There aren’t enough open areas in Israel to feed millions of people by gathering alone.

'The most important thing in extreme situations is for there to be a community that will look after you. A solitary individual will have a hard time surviving.'

“That’s true, but if you have a staple food, rice or flour, leaves can help with what’s lacking, they add minerals. Not much is needed for each person. What there is in nature could provide for everyone, if pesticides haven’t been used. Most wild plants, other than a few, are edible.”

Are gatherers better prepared for the end of the world?

“Besides the practical knowledge of how to enrich our food, gatherers are used to simplicity. There was talk about a panic over toilet paper, but why do we need toilet paper? You can wash yourself with water, which is what most of the world does.”

Will we only need food in such a situation?

The most important thing in extreme situations is for there to be a community that will look after you. A solitary individual will have a hard time surviving. One can get along in a community, with shared intelligence and connections, but in the past few decades the consumer culture has broken up communities, because solitary people consume more.”

What are you stockpiling for a time of trouble?

“I’ve gone through several stages. I planned how to escape into the forest, how to grow food. There was a time when I stockpiled water, seeds for the winter and the summer, and I had a car that ran on bio-diesel, which ran on oil that had been used to fry falafel. And then at some stage I realized that at the fateful moment, I wouldn’t want to have things that others don’t have, because what will they do? They’ll immediately come to take things. Better not to have.

“So I decided, actually, to look after the community, and then many people will have resources, not just me. I started educating others. Today I understand that I don’t need anything more than knowledge. The economics books explain that money generates trust. If as a person I can give others a sense of trust, that is the currency that’s most needed in an extreme situation. More than gold.”

Probably people said you were paranoid when you told them about your planning for a disaster.

“There was talk like that. But we need to prepare for the scenarios. Israel is also preparing for a war or an earthquake that happens once every hundred years.”

Ref actually finds the potential for creating a better future for humanity in the coronavirus crisis: “I felt hopeless about global warming, which is the real danger. There were always solutions, but it looked as though humanity would not adopt them. Now we see that it’s possible to take drastic measures.

“Just imagine if substitutes will be found for polluting industrial plants that cost three times as much – now it will sound more logical to make use of them. It’s only a matter of paying three times as much. That doesn’t mean that a huge number of people won’t get to work.”

Tal Gilboa.
Tal Gilboa. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Tal Gilboa, 34, from Rosh Ha’ayin, prana food instructor

If Ref the gatherer will make do with the nettles, and Marshak has hidden a stockpile on some remote mountain, Tal Gilboa will survive just fine, because he simply needs nothing. Gilboa is one of Israel’s first prana practitioners – people who can (they claim!) go for a long time without food. Gilboa, who has been into prana nutrition for nine years, munches on something between one and three times a week. When we spoke last Thursday, he told me that he hadn’t eaten anything since Monday or Tuesday. Still, he sounded as energetic and happy as someone who had just won the lottery.

Gilboa was an average Israeli who sold software for real estate agents. He started learning the prana way on February 7, 2011, during a trip to Brazil, and since then he’s celebrated the event every year “like a birthday.” He’s abandoned the marketing business and is now working with people who want to shift to prana food. “The Creator told me, ‘Ya habibi, take, take, take,” he says of his good fortune.

“Prana is life energy; some call it love, and I connect with that,” he explains. “Prana nutrition means reducing your daily need for food. You can compare it to a hybrid engine. The body knows how to run like an engine on food, but also on prana, on energy.”

What kind of energy?

“There are people who move on solar energy, others on wind energy. Life moves itself. Despite what we were taught to believe, it’s important to know that it’s possible to live without food, or with much less food. To reduce dependence [on food], you have to go through a period of adaptation, and I teach people how to do that. Still, it’s not necessarily suitable for everyone. A person who doesn’t like his job, who quarrels with his wife and wants to go prana – it won’t work for them.”

Are you against food?

“Prana does not mean to stop eating or being against food. Personally, I enjoy eating very much, but I know you can get along without eating every day. Eating is fun, it’s togetherness. Why stop?”

I agree. So for you every day is Yom Kippur?

“I don’t define it as fasting. We were educated to believe that if you don’t eat or drink for three days, you’ll die. But that’s not necessarily true. I survived even 10 days without food or water. It was challenging, but I felt amazing afterward. Most of us don’t know that we can do it. We haven’t undergone any training. There’s a transition stage, to get rid of the old way of thinking.

'Despite what we’re taught, it’s important to know that it’s possible to live without food, or with much less food.'

“A prana practitioner can eat, but if he doesn’t eat, he won’t be hungry. In the everyday, as a prana person, you get up and don’t feel hungry. You go on to midday, and your stomach doesn’t rumble. And in the evening, you don’t have a craving to raid the refrigerator.”

How many prana people are there in Israel?

“There are dozens who actually live like that and hundreds who have gone through a process. Worldwide we’ve passed the 100,000 mark, we have large international conferences. I’ve apparently been doing it longest, I’m known as the father of prana in Israel.”

The Theodor Herzl of prana.

“I’m known as Grandpa Prana, too. I also work with people after the initial process. I’ve done that for a few dozen in Israel and for a few hundred internationally.”

Why is it so important to have someone accompany you?

“No one accompanied me and I fell hard. I became really thin, friends thought I’d lost it. I’d weighed 73 kilos [161 pounds] and I lost 15 kilos, but now I’ve put the weight back on.”

You gained weight even though you hardly eat?

“You’re supposed to die in a situation of calorie deficiency. But at a certain stage you stop losing weight and start gaining. Think how much money, or even how much time, a prana person saves. I sleep between four and five hours a night; last night I slept for two hours.”

Maybe it’s photosynthesis?

“Could be. But if I ask myself if I want to eat or drink, it’s no. Food is fun. Before a meal, I like to make a blessing in my heart, to thank whoever did the cooking, whoever planted the fruits. I enjoy that. If a decade ago, people thought that vegetarians were crazy, today you’re likely to find vegetarians, vegans and carnivores at the same table. Another few years you’ll probably also see prana practitioners at the table.”

Even though the prana people have no reason to sit at a dinner table.

“Well, maybe some of them will eat there.”

Josh Wander on “Doomsday Preppers.” A prepper with Orthodox underpinnings whose survivalist methods are based on matza.
Josh Wander on “Doomsday Preppers.” A prepper with Orthodox underpinnings whose survivalist methods are based on matza. Credit: National Geographic Channel

Josh Wander, 49, from East Jerusalem, PR person

The American subculture of survivalists entered world consciousness via National Geographic’s reality series “Doomsday Preppers,” which ran from 2011 to 2014. To my surprise, I discovered that one of the leading figures in the series, Josh Wander, is a religiously observant Jew. An immigrant from Pittsburgh who served in the IDF, he lives with his wife and their six children in the Ma’aleh Hazeitim neighborhood/settlement in East Jerusalem, but frequently goes back and forth to the United States.

Wander had a Jewish Preppers blog and also a YouTube channel on which he promised active web surfers firearm magazines loaded with high-quality cartridges. The television series portrayed him as a prepper with Orthodox underpinnings – for example, his survivalist methods are based on matza. But matza won’t be enough when doomsday strikes, so he also raised animals for eating. Frequently pictured holding a submachine gun, he urged people to stock up on firearms and to undergo training in preparation for a future wave of terrorism.

An anti-gun control activist and certified National Rifle Association instructor, Wander is also active in the Republican Party. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when friction developed between Washington and Paris, there were reports that Wander was demanded that the United States return the Statue of Liberty to France. (Today he says that was a joke that succeeded only too well.)

In 2013, after all the other Republican candidates had pulled out of the race for mayor of Pittsburgh – a strongly Democratic city – Wander, who had apparently already moved to Israel by then, announced that he was the party’s candidate. He won 12 percent of the vote.

In Israel he was involved in a project in which a collector’s coin was minted and emblazoned, on one side, with a likeness of Cyrus the Great – the Babylonian king who allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple there. The obverse side carried a likeness of Donald Trump, whom Wander mentions as being connected to the building of a new temple in Jerusalem. Wander has also published articles protesting the fact that fewer and fewer Israelis possess arms.

He now dissociates himself from the TV show he was in, and tries to present a more conventional image. “Not everything there is accurate,” he says. “It’s scripted reality.” Still, it’s important for him to say that hoarding matzot has survivalist logic. “Matza keeps longer than bread, even months or more,” he tells me.

Wander believes in a connection between the Jewish holidays and the prepper movement. “Pesach has a connection to the preppers, there’s an aspect of preparing in it. On Sukkot we build shelters to escape to. On Shabbat, you learn how to get along without electricity and technology. If you look at the tragic history of the Jewish people, you’d expect us to be the nation most prepared for a disaster. But we are the least prepared nation.

“In America, the Jews don’t know how to defend themselves. Most of them are against bearing arms and demonstrate against it, even though what they need is weapons.”

Wander thinks that having an M-16 rifle will be useful after the coronavirus epidemic wanes in the United States. “The economic situation will be rough, the government will spend trillions, the dollar will go under. When the economy collapses, the Jews will be blamed, because the secretary of the treasury is a Jew and so is Ivanka Trump.”

'When the economy collapses, the Jews will be blamed, because the secretary of the treasury is a Jew and so is Ivanka Trump.'

Since moving to Israel, Wander has been secretive about his preparations for disaster. He’s willing to talk only about his prepper days in the United States.

“Being trained is more important than storing things,” he says. “My wife and I are engaged in medicine. I am a paramedic in United Hatzalah [an emergency medical service organization], and I help both Jews and Arabs. It’s very important to be familiar with the equipment. A two-way radio won’t help if you don’t know how to use it. I was a radio ham. I was also a weapons instructor.”

How many rifles did you have?

“I had a fine collection. It’s also important to teach the family and the children. You can’t survive alone, only if you have a bunker. In Pittsburgh I prepared the Jewish community, and in 2018 there was the synagogue massacre there. But they’re liberals, they’re against firearms. Too bad people don’t listen until it’s too late.”

Were you there when it happened?

“I was in California lecturing, and I hurried back [to Pittsburgh], because I’m a volunteer in the hevra kadisha [burial society].”

Wander says he learned a great deal about stockpiling and about survival in general from the Mormons. “The Mormons are wild about it. In the past, every Mormon stockpiled enough food for seven years; nowadays every believer has food for a year.”

What about you?

“My family and I had food for a few months, especially kosher canned goods that I bought in bulk from the Mormons. For example, I bought wheat that can last for decades if not centuries. There are grains of wheat that survived from the time of the pyramids.”

How many preppers like you are there in Israel?

“Thousands. But there are many different levels. From elderly Holocaust survivors who keep their refrigerator filled with food, to people who build nuclear bomb shelters. But no prepper will talk to you. It’s not smart to admit that you’re a prepper. It’s best to be discreet. Most of us were born in other countries – the idea is less suitable for the Israeli mentality.”

Israelis say, “It will all be okay,” which isn’t exactly a prepper sentiment.

“I don’t want to talk about Israel, but the Jews worldwide are in a perilous situation.”

Do you now say, “I told you so”?

“People thought we were crazy. Some preppers do say, ‘I told you so.’ I don’t want to say that, only to help people prepare.”

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