In recent days, as discussions about a possible war with Iran grow louder, I have heard that persistent question from people wondering if Israelis aren't making too much of the Iranian threat. Are Israelis paranoid?
We can discuss whether or not a war is justified. We can argue about whether the United States should intervene, whether Israeli should -- or could -- take on Iran alone. We may wonder what would happen if Iran acquired nuclear weapons and a host of its Arab neighbors followed suit. And we can ponder which would entail more risk, going to war or learning to live with a nuclear-armed and much more powerful Islamic Republic.
But, no, there is no arguing the question of whether Israelis are paranoid: You bet they are.
And with good reason.
Let's set aside the lessons of history, which are multiple, tragic and eerily repetitive. Let's focus instead on the present.
Just a few weeks ago, on Feb. 3, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, the country's most powerful man and its spiritual leader, told the faithful in his Friday sermon that Israel is "a cancerous tumor that should be cut and will be cut." Iran, he said, would help anyone who wants to help carry out this Israelectomy. Ayatollah Khamanei vowed to promote "the hegemony of Iran."
While reaffirming his commitment to continue with the nuclear program, Ayatollah Khamanei admitted that Iran has already participated in recent wars between Israel and groups that exist for the purpose of destroying the country. "We have intervened," he revealed to no one's surprise, in the wars between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008.
During those wars, thousands of rockets were launched against Israeli civilians, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes and more than a million to live in underground shelters while missiles crashed above ground.
Back in 2006, a visibly shaken Israeli mother of three told me, "Next time, the rockets will carry nuclear weapons." She was no security expert, but she expressed a fear that keeps parents awake, just as it does military and government leaders.
A few weeks ago, I witnessed a drill in which Israelis prepared for a "dirty bomb" attack near the country's principal port, Haifa. The simulation presented what organizers called a "plausible" scenario in which terrorists detonate a conventional weapon laced with nuclear materials in a highly populated area. It's a major fear of Israeli security experts, who believe Iran would be happy to hide behind terrorist groups, as it has done before, and pass them small quantities of radioactive material.
To anyone wondering if Israelis are worrying too much, there is much evidence to show that is exactly what they should be doing.
At about the same time as his "Israel is Cancer speech," a close ally of Ayatollah Khamanei published a theological justification of why Israel and the Jews should be killed, along with a detailed military proposal. "Residents of Tel Aviv and Haifa can be targeted even by Shahab 3 missiles ... [the area] comprises about 60 percent of the Israeli population," wrote Alireza Forghani.
In the meantime, the prospect of rockets falling on Israelis requires no paranoia or imagination. Rockets and mortar shells are launched regularly toward Israel from Gaza. As I write this, three more missiles have just hit Israel. Since the start of the year, those trying to kill Israelis have launched 39 rockets. Last year they shot 653. Most -- not all -- of the projectiles miss their target, but they keep people, especially children, in a state of constant anxiety, and they serve as a reminder that much worse could be in store.
Iranian leaders repeatedly proclaim their wish to destroy Israel. Journalists have photographed military parades displaying long-range missiles, capable of reaching Israel and Europe, draped with banners reading "Israel must be uprooted and erased from history."
And to those saying Iran makes "rational" decisions, let's remember their rationality includes the belief that dying can be glorious. Chillingly revealing was their well-documented practice of sending thousands of Iranian children as human mine clearers during the war with Iraq. The children, who died in explosions they set off, received plastic keys to wear around their necks, indicating they would soon enter heaven. This may be rational within some people's worldview, but it is hardly reassuring.
Undoubtedly, there are strong arguments to make for and against attacking Iran to stop its nuclear program. But there is also plenty of reason to be nervous, even paranoid.
Frida Ghitis writes about foreign affairs for The Miami Herald (fjghitisgmail.com).