Dan Leon: As Israelis working for many years with children in professions like psychology and education, how do you see the impact of the conflict on Jewish Israeli children?
Haggith Gor Ziv: I was born in Kibbutz Ginnosar in the North, when the Syrians were above in the Golan Heights. We were afraid of hearing the sirens and, for years, I remember a recurring nightmare from the 1960s: we had to go down to the shelters and I couldn't find them, everything was empty. Though we ourselves were not under fire, there was fear and tension in the air as we children grew up there.
Atar Oman: In general, it should come as no surprise that one finds relatively little literature on the effects of the conflict on Israeli society. In Israel, war and conflict are seen as inherent to our very existence. The political system justifies this as the price we have to pay, educationally and psychologically, for achieving the higher objectives of our society, for a reality which we, as a people, choose.
Israel established a state in which the children are protected by institutions. The children are indeed guided into the shelters. Things are under control. When Israeli towns and villages are under fire in the North, an army of psychologists is there to help children and adults. Children are for the most part not in the front line, but even with a protective system, there are many consequences for children of living with conflict and aggression.
Haggith: I am not sure they are really so protected. They are seemingly protected, but perhaps the establishment fosters this illusion in order to calm us down and numb our natural instincts as parents who don't want our children to be exposed to any traumas.
Atar: When the effects are not direct, they may be more difficult to see. The adults seem, at the time, to be protective, but there are deeper internal processes at work among children which are not always readily expressed. There is an ambiguity built into the situation when adults are protective, but, at the same time, expose the children to the dangers of violence.
Haggith: In this connection, it is built into the system that we must play down the cost of the conflict to children and foster the myth of how much the system cares for them. Thus the actual effects are de legitimized and wiped out, with the symptoms being ascribed to other factors.
Afar: For the Palestinians, 'the approach is the opposite. There, poverty, violence and conservative values are played on as symptoms of the occupation. In direct contradiction to Israel, where the aim is to show how "normal" things are, the Palestinian political aim is to show how "abnormal" the situation is. Everything, including psychological problems of children, is viewed from the political and ideological aspect.
Haggith: There is a big difference in Israel between being exposed to direct violence, or violence which is more covered up, but our kids are exposed to much indirect violence: fear of terror, exposure to death, etc. Our education seemingly aims to help and protect the children, but this is so they can accept the situation as normal, even if it sometimes goes against their basic instincts.
Dan: When you say "against their basic instincts," can you give some concrete examples?
Afar: The first basic instinct is to survive, to live. Children play out their worst fears and are preoccupied with death even when it is not a part of their own lives. When the probability of death is high, and when children come up against "abnormal death," not of old people, but of the young and healthy, they are preoccupied with this and have to find more complicated ways to deal with their fears.
I read in the press today about a film on Lebanon eight years ago. Those who were children then are now soldiers and the situation is still identical to the past one. Both the children of then and the soldiers of now are "playing with death" as if this were "normal," though it is, of course, against their basic instincts.
Here is an example of the effect on Israeli children. During the Intifada period we witnessed the "road roulette" game (seeing who can stand longer on the road as a car approaches). Psychologists saw this as the way in which children exercised their fear in games, showing how they were preoccupied with death.
Haggith: The Ministry of Education instructed all teachers to talk the next morning with children about the dangers of the game as if this were some instant remedy, but at the same time there was no talk of Palestinian children. The symptoms were discussed, but detached from the political issues as though there were no connection with what one sees on TV.
We educate children, especially boys, to accept the notion of giving up their lives for the country. Over the years, this is presented as being more important than the basic instinct for life. Unlike the atmosphere ten years ago, in recent years we see children showing less readiness to go into the army or to die as soldiers. But there is still ideological brainwashing behind the efforts to educate toward "risking one's life for the homeland."
Atar:Parents are also part of this. The biblical "sacrifice of Isaac" is a symbol of the way in which parents give up their basic instinct of preserving the life of their children in order to maintain their convictions. Modern Israeli literature dwells on this symbol.
Haggith: Massada, with its swearing-in ceremony for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), is less prominent today as a symbol, but it carries a similar message: one of heroic devotion until death for national goals. After all, since children don't usually commit suicide, the children there were murdered. Only at the end did the last adults commit suicide. This myth serves to foster the sanctity, not of life, but of sacrificing one's life for the nation.
Atar: I think this is changing. Views are less rigid than they were when we were children.
Haggith: Still, it is changing too slowly. There is still acceptance of a total doctrine of thinking in only one way, of the concept that, in order to survive, we have no choice since "we have no other country." In spite of the peace process, negotiations and dialogue are not viewed as secure options. We see violence on the TV news and the Israeli child still identifies and wants to be a soldier like the one he is watching. The child imagines his future as someone who, when he grows up, will be the same as that soldier's, and the same will happen to him. That is a heavy price. There is identification with heroes, with wounded soldiers, with funerals, where certain behavior is expected from everybody.
Dan: As educators, how do you find this affects our children and youth? Atar: One of the consequences of the conflict is that, compared to other Western societies, our children and youth are usuallly more conformist and conservative. No research can measure how much this is the result of this situation of aggression and war. But how is it that Israeli students study the way they do, with no interest in political issues, no political protest? I think one of the answers is that the educational-psychological system in all institutions tends to have conservative and conformist expectations from students.
Haggith: After the 1967 war there was talk in my high school of the "liberated territories." When I said we should return the territories, the teacher said that it was forbidden to express views outside the consensus.
For example, following the disaster in the spring of this year [1997] when two IDF helicopters, on their way to the Lebanese security zone, collided in mid-air, causing 73 deaths, psychologists and teachers had to discuss the event the next morning with children. The system talked as one about the national mourning though, among the children, there was not one line of reaction. No place is left for a variety of reactions among children.
Research shows there is much aggression in kindergarten and I, particularly, felt this as a kindergarten teacher when I came back from the USA. Again, this goes back to the children acting out what they see in their society and here, more than elsewhere, it is legitimized by the need to prove that they are strong.
Atar: It depends on with whom we make the comparison.
Haggith: I don't have any academic comparison, but this is my experience compared to kindergartens in the USA. Since our society is more aggressive, this also shows itself in play.
Atar: Even if one thinks this is so, one can't prove this is the direct result of the conflict.
Haggith: In the army, too much feeling and sensitivity in the men must be blocked out and, later, this will show up in their family life and human relationships.
Dati: What about Holocaust education?
Atar: On Holocaust Day in schools, the children express genuine feeling and identification with the victims of the Holocaust. But what we want from our children is a conformity of emotional reaction toward feelings which are very frightening and terrifying. So, in order to survive, many children nowadays say they go to the ceremony, but shut themselves off from what is going on.
Haggith: It is a sign of hypocrisy that, while we really want to protect our children, we start Holocaust education, which is so important in the curriculum, much too early. In this connection, in my work in training teachers, I ask them for their earliest memories as children and often hear terrible stories. One kindergarten teacher candidate recalled that, as a girl, after hearing from her teacher about the gas showers in the death camps, she couldn't take a shower. Others heard of death trains and couldn't travel by train.
Atar: I have heard many similar examples.
Haggith: Now the trend is not to tell the harshest stories about, or show terrible pictures of the gas chambers, but to explain the children's fight for survival in the ghetto, as well as stories of heroism. This is an attempt to make it easier, but I am not sure it does so on the psychological level. Children are taught that there is a direct connection between the Holocaust and the danger of war with the Arabs, unless we are strong.
Atar: The general fears caused by the conflict are expressed in the children being frightened of Arabs, of any Arab, of anyone looking like an Arab. This prejudice, fearing the "other," fosters the need not to see him/her, to push him/her out of our lives. This in turn nourishes the fear. In a way, one can measure the fear among our children by the amount of prejudice.
Haggith: A society which supposedly protects children, actually leaves them alone with their traumas. For example, after the suicide bombings on buses, psychologists provide an instant reaction, but the trauma which a child feels may come later and it may appear as unconnected to the real source.
Atar: We pay a high price for insecurity and for the blocking of elementary feelings. War is more "easily" accepted than terrorism because war has more clearly defined limits. Children think that only old and sick people die. Outside these categories, "unnatural" death is shattering. Terror knows no limits and breaks all lines of defense. Children are affected, they think they may be the next victims. An eight-year-old boy started blinking after he saw, near his house, two young Arabs whom he suspected were carrying bombs. But the connection between the source of anxiety and the symptom could easily have been overlooked.
Haggith: Such incidents are common, but they are not always accepted or talked about. Staying afraid is not legitimate and children must accept the situation as part of their lives, including the different world of soldiers serving "out there."
Dan: What about different approaches to boys and to girls?
Haggith: As regards boys and girls, both pay for our being a militaristic society. Boys must fit into a strong masculine mold and teachers will be more tolerant of their behavior because of their future in the army.
Atar: Our society has different and conservative gender models. From early days, boys will be strong, violence by them will be tolerated and insensitivity in them will be considered a problem of adjustment. Girls, on the other hand, are passive and supportive. Israeli education has a slogan of "equality of the sexes," but, in fact, the rules for the sexes are different.
There is something schizophrenic in the gap between slogan and reality.
In the army, there is meant to be equality but, under the surface, the message is the opposite. Israeli boys have "the privilege of sacrifice." Sexist attitudes start from kindergarten age and, from then on, there is a double standard specific to this society.
Haggith: We try to imitate the democratic values of the Western world, but the boys are actually in a privileged position because of the military message, while the girls are educated to accept that their military service is less important.
Atar: The greatest danger is in the double message: we say one thing but we mean the opposite. The message is liberal, but underneath it we nourish a different message which is conservative and dogmatic.