Future Imperfect

For Israeli and Palestinian youth, a longing for normalcy has been dashed by the tide of violence.

Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel."

July 21 2002

NEW YORK -- When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed in the fall of 1995, I was at a Jerusalem hospital with my newborn baby, who doctors mistakenly thought had pneumonia. New to the city, I didn't know where the hospital was or how to get there, so a friend, an older Israeli woman with a bad sense of direction, got me there, circuitously, and while we were sitting waiting for the baby's X-rays to come back, the news came on that Rabin had been shot; we did not know yet whether he would survive.

I remember her face, already weathered by so much experience in crisis. She had participated in the War of Independence, had been in Jerusalem during all the many really rough times, had even known Rabin and his wife in the days when they were all young and hopeful and comrades in arms--and now it had come to this. When they finally broadcast the news that he had died, her face collapsed.

"He was the only one," she said. "This is the worst news." The next night, I walked over to Rabin's Jerusalem residence, a few blocks from my house. An important Israeli art school is nearby, and all the art students were out, wearing black jeans and white T-shirts (not a special uniform for the occasion but their everyday outfit), sitting on the ground in front of the fences and walls, lighting candles and writing poems the way teenagers do to mark any meaningful passing. They were trying to pluck hope out of what looked like a really bad situation: the senior statesman, prime minister of peace, a man of their grandparents' generation, shot down by a radical right-wing Israeli religious militant their own age, more or less. Israel was changing.

"What will come next?" one serious, thin, blond girl asked me. Her mother, a Peace Now activist and, therefore (as they used to be) eternally hopeful, answered, "A resurgence of support for the peace process." No one wanted to frighten the children, and back then, peace seemed unstoppable. Even people who were traditionally pessimistic could not deny its imminent advent.

We were wrong, of course, and now many of those same young people and their contemporaries--called since that night of remembrance "the children of the candles"--are fighting at close quarters in Jenin and reoccupying the West Bank. They and their contemporaries are dying in suicide bombings or suffering terribly in rehab centers for trauma injury. When they go out and try to be teenagers and young adults, they're exploded in lines waiting to get into nightclubs, blasted to smithereens because they went out to have a cup of coffee, bombed as they go into the grocery store for a red pepper to complement the fish dinner. Even little kids are not exempt: Schoolchildren are killed on buses and babies are torn apart sitting in strollers in pizza parlors.

War is a terrible thing. For years during the Oslo peace process, Israelis could imagine that they lived in a country not at war, one that was close to normalizing its relations with its enemies and therefore close to normalizing its own interior, domestic life. It was a different world then. The red Egged Co. buses were a sign of national cohesion, not rolling engines of a possible death. Places where people congregate were exactly that: places where people congregated, not vast empty pedestrian plazas or cave-like shopping malls or echoing cafes and restaurants. Soldiers were in some places, but not everywhere. Now the space for secular life is gone. Playgrounds are sparsely played in. And although people still go out--teenagers, the most intrepid of all--there is a sense of foreboding with each social foray. Better to invite people over, the kids think. Better skip the bagel in Zion Square. I have an espresso maker in the kitchen; why should we go out to Kafit?

In these conditions, for a large swath of Israeli youth, it's harder to believe in a place called Israel. Israel was home; now it's a waking nightmare. Though they continue to believe in the country, and to fight and die for it (or its leaders' version), they are frightened for the future and beginning to question. No one can say for how long these kids will be willing to uphold an old embattled general's idea of what Israel should be.

It's easy to empathize with the cut-off lives of Israeli kids and teenagers because they seemed to hold so much potential, seemed so like the lives of American or European children and teenagers, with their consumerism, their education, their video games and shopping malls.

What, then, of the Palestinian kids across the Green Line? Similar things are happening there as the violence escalates. Palestinian children's lives never promised quite as much as those of Israeli kids across the way, but during the cool years the Palestinians were also beginning to think that perhaps something more normal might await them in life, more normal than tanks and guns and checkpoints, more normal than Areas A, B and C (of Oslo's formulation), which were already a small improvement over total explicit occupation.

Now young Palestinians, like everyone else on the West Bank, live under curfew, sometimes 24 hours a day. Their schools are more often shut than not. The universities they attend or hope to attend are closed by the Israelis. They are taught to love martyrdom. Because martyrdom is at least a path you can choose. Most other paths are now closed off. Even to buy candy is a risky venture. Boys riding bikes home from the store get chased down by tanks and shot. Their elders are forced out of their offices by the Israelis. Doctors cannot visit their young patients during curfew or travel across checkpoint lines. No grown-up seems to have any real power over his or her own life, and so no adult holds real authority or can set a real example of how to live life when you have choices to make.

What, then, can these two sets of children, enemies politically but in fact so alike, make of the future of their homelands and, by extension, of their own future?

A piece of satire, written by the Israeli humorist B. Michael of the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharanot and translated by Amos Elon, the respected Israeli political writer, illustrates the feeling of normal people on both sides of the conflict, though it was written strictly about the Israelis:


(Readers living by the sea are requested to cut out this note, translate it into English, fold it nicely, put it inside a sealed bottle, throw it into the sea--and hope for the best.):



This message reaches you from men, women and children stranded on an isolated piece of land in the Middle East. We are decent people, but ... we are now at the mercy of a particularly stupid group of leaders: mostly generals, colonels, clergy and other thugs. These bad people insist that God himself directed them to fight endlessly for a few useless pieces of real estate.... They are forcing us to participate in their war games, finance and sometimes take active part in them. If you find this note, please take it to your leaders.... We still have food and water but only a few drops are left in the supplies of sanity.

--P.F.L.N.P. (The Popular Front for the Liberation of Normal People)

The piece sounds a note of desperation, and the young people of Israel are both desperate and depressed. At Passover this year I met a group of Israeli teenagers who had come to New York to celebrate and to spend a week, and their relief at being away from home was palpable. "We're all so sad," one girl said from across the table. "It's terrible in Jerusalem." This was the night of the Passover suicide bombing in Jerusalem, incidentally. She and her friends didn't really want to go back at all. Who would? But they did because Israel is home and where their families are, their friends. Their future.

Israeli politicians have a grave obligation to these children who in a year or two will be serving in the army. The politicians must figure out a way to ensure that there is a future to be lived in Israel for this generation. If they don't figure that out, if they don't turn away from total and eternal war toward some new kind of peace, and soon, there may well be no future generation in Israel to continue their bloody and fruitless occupation for them.