Foreign workers and students in Israel can't seem to get out of the country fast enough.
They are reported to be leaving in droves, as the Jan. 15 deadline for Iraq's withdrawal from Kuwait draws closer and the threat of war grows larger.
The situation appears especially bleak after yesterday's unsuccessful meeting between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz.
So, why is a group of Baltimore's Jewish leaders about to visit -- of all places -- Israel?
"To show our solidarity with the Israelis, to show that the American Jewish community hasn't forgotten them and that we're still standing next to them," says Alfred Coplan, who is guiding a delegation of 31 Jewish lay people in a five-day trip sponsored by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
"Right now, Israel is faced with budgetary strain from trying to settle the huge numbers of people emigrating from the Soviet Union, and there's the [Persian Gulf] crisis, and tourism is way down," says Coplan, an Associated official who has led fund-raising campaigns for the organization.
"These are tough times for the Israelis," he adds, "and we just want to show we're still behind them."
Times may get a lot tougher for Israel next Tuesday, if the deadline sanctioned by the United Nations passes and Iraqi forces still occupy Kuwait. In that event, American and allied forces may attack Saddam Hussein's troops. If that happens, the Iraqi president has threatened, he will hit Israel, America's most staunch Middle East ally, with missiles and chemical weapons.
After his talks with Baker yesterday, Aziz said Iraq would "absolutely" attack Israel if the allies moved into Kuwait.
Foreigners in Israel have crowded airports in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv this week, trying to book the earliest available flights out of the country. Several foreign airlines have canceled or limited trips to Israel because the cost of insuring the flights has become prohibitively high.
A growing number of nations are urging their citizens in Israel to think about leaving before Tuesday, and the U.N. has advised its non-essential personnel in the country to get out. The crowds at the airports would suggest that the foreigners don't need much urging.
Meanwhile, officials of the Israeli government have all but conceded that war seems inevitable. The government has distributed 3 1/2 million gas masks to its citizens, and plans to hand out a million more.
Into this brewing storm flies the Baltimore delegation, though it may cancel its trip if the U.S. State Department issues a travel advisory against trips to Israel.
No such advisory has been issued. However, a State Department spokesman said yesterday, "That doesn't mean it won't happen. I'm sure you've seen the stories [about the crowds leaving Israel]."
"If the State Department issues an advisory, we would in no way jeopardize our people by going," says Darrell Friedman, president of The Associated and a member of the delegation. "But, barring that, we're going and we look forward to it. We're mindful of what's going on over there, but I have no anxiety about it at all."
The Associated would not release the names of the delegation members, but Coplan and Associated vice president Martin Waxman, another delegation member, say the group includes Associated officials, local Jewish businesspeople, lay leaders of religious congregations and their spouses.
The group is scheduled to leave Saturday from BWI Airport and, after a changeover in New York, arrive Sunday in Tel Aviv. They have arranged to meet with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, William Brown, Israeli defense minister Moshe Arens, housing minister Ariel Sharon and former prime minister Shimon Peres.
During the trip, the delegation also will look at how Israel is spending funds that were raised in Baltimore to assist projects such as settling Jewish immigrants from around the world, housing the poor and creating programs for disadvantaged youth.
"We have a philanthropic partnership with Israel," says Friedman.
Reportedly, many of the tourists arriving in half-full planes to Israel are members of "solidarity" delegations such as the one from Baltimore. According to Waxman, the local group will be flying in with a similar delegation from Cincinnati. Earlier in the week, Jewish groups from Chicago and Atlanta landed in Israel, to be followed by a delegation from Philadelphia.
The Baltimoreans will leave Israel next Thursday, returning to BWI Airport Thursday morning. Waxman plans to stay in Israel to lead another Baltimore group that will arrive to help in a job-creation program in the town of Kiryat Gat.