Michelle Lisses Topaz

Nowhere, Under the Rainbow

Not the Ruby Slippers
Not the Ruby Slippers

In a world where things happen so fast that just a few days ago seems like “once upon a time”, 17-year-old Mia Leimberg was released from the clutches of the Hamas terrorists who kidnapped her on October 7th, 2023, after being held hostage for 52 days. One of the first images released that day was of Mia, flanked by her black clothed clad male Hamas captors with their almost emerald head bands, walking in the direction of the Red Cross vehicles. She was dressed in a ruby red garment, carrying her little white dog. Many on the internet noticed the scene of a young female hostage with a small dog cradled in her arms and made a comparison to the character of Dorothy Gale, who had a similar presence of mind in a crisis; to scoop up her dog Toto and carry him with her to the Land of Oz.

People who know me well, and my love for all things cinema, especially the “Wizard of Oz”, made me aware of the image I just described. They tagged me on posts made by those on-line who created side-by-side images of Mia and Judy Garland in the role that helped solidify Judy’s name in Hollywood back in 1939.  The picture of an ingénue with braided plaits carrying a little black dog entered the pantheon of collective Western consciousness and I am certain that many can recall it easily in their minds, making the visual comparison striking. But, for me, this is where any romantic parallel ceases.

Mia met no Munchkins or bubble gum-colored good witches in her time in Gaza.

Although, as Mia said yesterday in an interview, Bella, her dog did give her strength to make it through the ordeal. However, there was no fairy tale. No, Mia instinctively saved, in the most dire moment, the canine member of her family from certain death. Death that would have been either immediate or prolonged due to the inevitable neglect that would have occurred if her beautiful dog Bella had been left behind when she and her mother, Gabrielle, were forcibly taken hostage by Hamas terrorists from the home of a friend they with whom they chose to celebrate the end of Sukkot (The Festival of Tabernacles). It has been reported that Mia and her mother kept her dog alive in captivity by sharing with her the scraps of the sparse amounts of food they received in captivity, just enough to keep them all conscious and breathing to make it out the horror more than seven weeks later. Mia also said yesterday, when she was interviewed, that they constantly tried to hold Bella to keep her safe and unnoticed by their captors.

Make no mistake. Mia is a worthy heroine in my book. She did what she needed to do to make sure that she and her beloved family returned home, safe and sound to their very own rooms and their very own beds in Jerusalem, where they reside.

But many of the more than one hundred other hostages who were released last week have no homes or beds to which to return. On October 7th, the Hamas terrorists burned down many of their homes. Or rampaged and ruined them to the point to which they are inhabitable. And we all know what a violation that is, because truly, there is ‘no place like home’, especially after you have been through an unimaginable ordeal.

No, there’s nothing romantic or fairy-tale like about what Mia and the more than 240 hostages (of which 137 are still being held hostage in Gaza) endured or are still enduring. As more of those blessed to have been released from the inhumane clutches of their captors have begun to talk, we begin to realize the extent of the cruelty they had to endure in order to make it back home. We hear of children being purposely branded on their exposed skin by the hot exhaust pipe of the terrorists’ motorcycles, so that if they tried to escape, they would be easily identifiable. Tears spring to the eyes of anyone with empathy after hearing this information; but for us as Jews it connotes the inhumane and dehumanizing tactics of the Nazis who branded their Jewish prisoners like cattle by searing numbers into their flesh or forcing them to don garments with a yellow star.

The more we hear, the more we become aware that our worst nightmares are in fact a reality. Hostages, returned with dark circles under their eyes, having lost considerable body mass, children even 10 kilograms and more. Hostages returned with scars not visible to the human eye, who were made to believe that their nation and people had forsaken them. Hostages who whisper about rape and violation, and intimate that those women who have not been released are not yet being released because the Hamas terrorists do not want the world to be aware of the extent of their taint and the depth of their depravity; their penchant for abusing women in a violent, inhumane manner, so contrary to the pious and righteous image they want to portray to the world in order to garner support.

L. Frank Baum, the author of “The Wizard of Oz” maintained, at the turn of the 20th Century in the introduction to his beloved children’s book, that the world was ready for change: “…the time has come for a series of newer ‘wonder tales’ in which the stereotyped genie, dwarf and fairy are eliminated, together with all the horrible and blood-curdling incident…Modern education includes morality, therefore the modern child seeks only entertainment in its wonder tales and gladly dispenses with all disagreeable incident.” Baum concludes his introductory statement to his story, which stands as an alterative to Grimm and Andersen, by saying of the tale that he crafted that “it aspires to being a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained, and the heartaches and nightmares are left out”.

More than 100 years later, I work with children in Israel who have recently discovered that nightmares are not the stuff of dreams and that monsters can come for you, even if you are hidden under the bed or in a closet. I am astounded and proud to find, although not completely surprised, how strong my young clients are. How much they understand and how compassionate they are. They have real life concerns and questions, as well as a large capacity to interact intellectually and emotionally with the complexities of good and evil and all the grey in between. Slowly, but necessarily, we peel back the blinders that defense mechanisms fail to completely cover since the 7th of October, 2023. Defenses that are supposed to protect the psyche, like denial. The wallpaper was violently and abruptly ripped from the wall of consciousness on that fateful, horrible Shabbat morn, and the children of Israel (and their parents) do not hide comfortably behind the lie that defenses once hid anymore. Nor do they completely believe in absolute military defenses or high fences, but we will leave that for other bloggers to discuss.

In my field, a defense mechanism is essentially a psychological strategy that keeps anxiety at bay. In order to cope with difficult thoughts, feelings or events, our minds’ enlist methods to help separate us from unpleasant or threatening events. Denial is probably the most well known in the general public, but there are many others. One of my professors once likened it to the lid we put on a boiling pot of water to prevent us from getting scalded by the fervor of the bubbles within. But there is a price to keeping the lid on too tight – because the frantic bubbles in the water, when too tightly contained, either overflow or the pot bursts, flooding the consciousness and wreaking psychological damage.

Since the joyful release of the more than 100 hostages, many of them mothers and their children, last week, we have been witnessing another defense mechanism at work on the global stage. This one is less well known and perhaps more insidious than denial but works in concert with it. It is the work of rationalization tinged with a need for completion. It goes something like this:

“They’re walking on their own two feet, so they must be ok.”                                         
“Look, she’s smiling and hugging her dog and her father in the hospital with her siblings, so nothing really bad could have happened.”
“Oh, how lovely. He runs down the corridor into his father’s arms. Happily ever after.”

This plays directly into the hands of the narrative of the Hamas terrorists. Monsters do not want to be discovered. I am not buying the lie the images portray and I know that my fellow compatriots do not either.

My concern is of the need for the international media to project the joyful images again and again, not only playing into the hands of the terrorists, but at the same time helping to blind and strengthen the need of the global populace for a “modern day fairytale”, as Baum called it. As a professional in my field, I know that this projection is even more easily absorbed by a global populace who doesn’t follow and/or isn’t shown the details of the aftermath the way the Israeli media shows the Israeli public, nightly. The global populace easily absorbs the ‘happily ever after’ and moves on, safe and secure with the lie. That way they can lie in their beds at night, tucked in, defense mechanisms intact and believe that the monsters won’t come again or that it’s not really so bad.

Among other things, that is what we need to combat. Because in these stories, I’m here to say, we cannot afford to leave out the “heartache and nightmares” as Baum wished. Otherwise, Oz/Gaza will most certainly swallow up Kansas too.

About the Author
Michelle Lisses-Topaz is a psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and parents, both in the public and private sector. She has lectured widely to both professionals and the general public on Child Development and raising bright, well-balanced, independent human beings. She has also written on the subject of the complexities of being a third generation Holocaust survivor. She lives in Israel, and is committed to her chosen country, in good times and in bad.
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