Operation Torah Shield (Jan. 14-28, 1991): Reflections on Joining Other Roshei Yeshiva and YU Students Flying to Israel at the Start of a War
In August of 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait. The United States led a group of 42 countries that demanded from Saddam Hussein that Iraq withdraw to the recognized boundary. An ultimatum was issued for January 15. Hussein threatened to bomb Israel with ballistic missiles with chemical warheads. Israel was not part of the coalition against Iraq, but he was inviting Israeli retaliation which would lead to his gaining aid from other Arab countries.
A wealthy supporter of Israel offered to subsidize a flight to Israel for Yeshiva students. Other flights to Israel had been canceled. Quickly the flight filled up. On the Saturday night before the deadline the American ambassador met with Hussein and reported that he would not back down. Prior to this meeting most people were confident that there would be no war; Saddam Hussein had to know that Iraq had no chance to win the war.
On Sunday morning pressure by parents led to mass cancellations. The philanthropist wanted a tax break but neither the congregation that was the original sponsor nor Yeshiva was willing to take on the risk if anything went wrong. Rabbi Charlop solved the problem by convincing the friends of Ateret Cohanim to be the official sponsor. This anonymous philanthropist became the organization’s largest donor.
Yeshiva students asked me to assure their parents that the trip was safe. Unfortunately I had no inside knowledge allowing me to make that statement. I decided that the best I could do would be to join the flight. Then students could tell their parents that I felt it was safe to go. My wife was surprised by my last-minute decision and we were unable to call our son who had returned to Israel to learn after graduating from Yeshiva.
Adding a few people who had no other way of getting to Israel, we flew in a full plane, landing on the first day of the war. We were greeted at Ben Gurion Airport by members of the government. After taking buses to Yerushalayim, we went to the Kotel and heard more speeches praising our coming. We spent the night in an empty Plaza Hotel. In the morning we were given gas masks and were learning how to put them on when we heard the sound of a siren. I tried many times to call my son, but could not get through to him. (This was a world before cell phones.)
Tired of the celebrations, I took public transportation to Alon Shvut. I stayed at the home of the late Rabbi Binyamin Tabory zt”l and his gracious wife, Naomi. First off the bus I went directly to the Gush where my son was learning. On the way I met a group of students. One who recognized me said, “It’s a good thing that you came.” I responded that if I didn’t think it was a good thing, why would all of us come to Israel for a war and have to wear gas masks? He explained that my son, not knowing that I joined the flight, was upset that a whole plane filled with people from Yeshiva came and his father wasn’t coming.
I said shiurim that were interrupted in the middle by the sounds of sirens. One amusing exchange was when my son asked me to speak to his friend who, besides putting on his gas mask, wore rubber gloves and a protective collar. My son pointed out that it was extremely unlikely that the Iraqi military would send a missile to bomb the small village of Alon Shvut. When I spoke to the friend, he had wanted to approach me. Would I explain to my son to be more careful — doesn’t he realize that there was a war going on?
I recall Rabbi Schachter and the late Rabbi Tendler giving shiurim. After two weeks we flew home with a sense that in our small way we had helped the morale of the students who had come for the year and were staying. The Israeli government, based on the request of the American government, showed restraint. Saddam Hussein’s strategy failed and the war ended with his defeat.
Photo Caption: An F-117 Nighthawk, an aircraft associated with the Persian Gulf War, flies over the Persian Gulf in April 2003, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Operation Torah Shield, Rabbi Blau writes, happened during the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Photo Credit: United States Department of Defense