Tel Aviv Diary: A New Year's Sandstorm Stirs Unhappy Memories

09_14 Israel Sandstorm Refugees
Beachgoers bath at the Mediterranean Sea during a sandstorm in Tel Aviv, Israel September 8. As this Jewish year comes to a close, Israelis can look back and realize that the storms of the Middle East did not hit Israel’s shores this past year, the author writes. Baz Ratner/Reuters

When I began writing this article, I was sitting on an Aeroflot airplane en route to Moscow from Ben Gurion Airport, (the first stop on a trip that will take me to New York.) As we climbed into the skies above Tel Aviv, I saw the sun for the first time in days.

Today, for the third day running, Tel Aviv was blanketed by a sandstorm, amidst a brutal heat wave. During the first day of the storm, my teenage son looked out the window in the morning and questioned how we had suddenly been hurled into a postapocalyptic world. With all the talk of Iran and nuclear weapons, the sky looked as if the bomb had already gone off.

My octogenarian barber (who fought as a soldier in Israel's War of Independence) said the last time he remembered anything resembling this sort of weather in Tel Aviv was during his childhood—a fact that was later confirmed by a meteorologist, who reiterated that this was the worst sandstorm in 75 years. Thus far, Israel's leading climatologists have unable to explain the cause of this rare meteorological development.

Sandstorms that arrive in Israel originate in the deserts of North Africa. This current dusting was launched from the deserts of Iraq and Syria. One theory being circulated suggests that the continued civil war in Syria has resulted in farm lands being abandoned, and as a result these vacant farms are susceptible to creating sandstorms. Of course, that theory does not explain why a storm would come from the north and east, when prevailing winds originate from the other direction.

This heavy, hanging sandstorm accurately reflects the current mood within Tel Aviv and Israel as the Jewish New Year approaches. The fear in Israel is that this sandstorm is a metaphor for the greater whirlwinds that have been sweeping the Middle East (from which, until now, Israel has been largely exempt).

The scenes from Europe of thousands of refugees on the march are a grim reminder to most Israelis of recent Jewish history. Israelis remain divided—as they have been over most issues these days—between those who believe we should do our part and take in at least some symbolic number of refugees into our borders versus those led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who feels Israel does not have the capacity to absorb any refugees. According to opinion polls, the divide in approach follows left-wing–right-wing partisan lines, with a majority of Israelis supporting the views of the prime minister.

The news from Washington these last few days has certainly not been what Netanyahu had hoped. Earlier on in the Iran nuclear deal fight, one of Israel's leading political analysts stated he was not sure what would be worse for Israel, (a) to win the fight in Washington, or (b) to lose the dispute so profoundly that President Barack Obama had no need to veto the proposed legislation for disapproval of the agreement between the P+ 5 and Iran. Well, the outcome is the latter.

For all of Netanyahu's lobbying, speechmaking and fist waving (together with all the red lines he crossed), the prime minister still failed to move the votes of almost any Democratic members of Congress. In the aftermath of utter defeat, the Netanyahu government has been working very hard to spin the results. They are alleging the fight was worth it, as it would help ensure that a future U.S. president will be able to disavow the agreement.

Despite the spin—and notwithstanding the fact that most Israelis oppose the P+5 agreement with Iran—the realization is widespread that the fight over this deal was lost and the damage to U.S.-Israel relations may not be irreparable, but is significant just the same.

Generally, this time of year Netanyahu grants interviews with the the leading news outlets. This year he scheduled the annual appearances and then abruptly canceled them. Speculation suggests that Netanyahu was unwilling to answer questions about what went wrong in Washington, nor to address various touchy domestic issues.

As this Jewish year comes to a close, Israelis can look back and realize that the storms of the Middle East did not hit Israel's shores this past year. It was a year without war and a year of continued, albeit slower economic growth.

This was a year that saw Israel's population reach 8.4 million. However, on the eve of 5776, Israelis raise eyes upward, toward their yellow skies, filled with the sands of Syria and Iraq, with deep and understandable concern for the future.

Multimedia historian Marc Schulman blogs at