The Children of Israel 7: Growing up with Terror

If you are an Israeli old enough to recall the 1991 Gulf War (number 1), say 4 years old then, you are now 25 and perhaps already a parent to young children. How many waves of terror have you lived through? Say you live in the South and were spared personal exposure to the missile attacks on the North in the Second Lebanon War. So you have 2 Gulf Wars (the second more virtual), the “Peace Process (aka Oslo)” terror attacks of the 90’s, the Second Intifada, 3 “Operations” in Gaza with accompanied by shelling and missiles (the burden moved from Beer Sheva towards Ashdod and Ashkelon, never relenting from Sderot and the Gaza border), and whatever you choose to call the recent wave of terror knifings etc. That comes to EIGHT! Of your twenty-five years you will have lived much less than half of them in anything resembling security. Or, count it this way. As you are inducted now into the IDF you have weathered SEVEN such waves, your school years from 6 to 12 years of age (2004-2010) were burdened by 2 waves of terror, and your high school years by another three.

What an odd “reality” for Israeli children, an entire generation and then some! What could we learn from this awful experiment of (human) nature about children and their development? While there are many more questions than answers, I propose to look at the results of such a “reality” in terms of how children view themselves, their families, their schools and communities, and their government. I will approach these issues based on my personal experience with residents of Israel’s South during the past three decades and on developmental theory. To my knowledge, reliable objective studies have contributed little to the questions I have posed.

I will begin with my experiences with children during the “First Gulf War” in 1991. At the time the Israeli government told its citizens that there was a substantial risk that Iraq would attack Israel with missile armed with chemical weapons. Families were instructed to create “sealed rooms” (business boomed for kibbutzim who sold out their factories’ supplies of plastic sheeting and masking tape) and put on gas masks, or something like it for small children).  On hearing the alarm, families in threatened regions were huddled into these rooms for say an hour, with masks on their faces for about half the period. Israeli television created a repertoire of “missile music”. The “Man of the Hour” was one Nahman Shai (now MK) whose principle advice as IDF Spokesperson was to “drink water” in order to relax. This strange advice was hard to execute while wearing a gas mask and was responsible for no small number of bathroom emergencies. It became the emblem for “remaining calm,” which was the chief message communicated by the then inexperienced “Home Front.” This situation lasted a few months; in the middle the sealed room and masks were scrapped as the chemical weapon threat seemed to evaporate. When that war was over, it was just over, and little attention was given to the developmental outcome amongst Israeli children. More on this is covered in my recent account Losing It.

In the ensuing years I encountered some surprising reactions to this experience. Some young people felt they were not allowed to express their fears; that water was more or less shoved down their throats and they were expected to “be calm.”  Others felt the gas masks scared them more than a possible explosion. {The first fatality of the War had been a man in Eilat who had neglected to remove the cover to the air hole in the mask, and when he could not breath he panicked, injected atropine believing his respiratory distress a reaction to a gas attack, and suffocated. I visited Eilat during the War and my jocular, “At least here one can relax…” was met by an icy silence.) Some children in the South were traumatized by the confusion of sitting in shelters when NO missiles were falling there. Their ability to differentiate reality from fantasy was undermined and they imagined missiles just falling anywhere. Today I meet many new trainees in mental health services who were children during this war, and they often report having felt manipulated and controlled rather than listened to. This would be a kind of “Childism” that I took up in the first blog in this series.

The Second Intifada followed immediately on the Peace Process Terror of the late 1990’s. Too often a bus in Jerusalem would be attacked early in the morning. All mothers kept their mobile phones open at all times. When I taught in-service and graduate school sessions in Jerusalem it was understood that this was not a time for mobile silence. Children were ushered into school after such a morning and quickly expected to – you guessed it – “calm down.” This did not work well, because the teachers were anything but calm. I suggested at many meetings with teachers that they would be able to help their pupils if they took care of themselves first. I suggested that teachers meet briefly among themselves to at least debrief that they and their loved ones are out of harm’s way, and to make eye contact with each other.

I suggested that pupils be moved through a three step process. The first stage is one reestablishing a sense of security in the classroom, that at this moment all the children are safe. The second stage is “connection,” acknowledging together that the terror and the feelings it arouses – fear, anger, helplessness – are common to all the children in a way that binds them together going through a common experience. Only after the group feels safe and connected is it helpful –indeed, necessary, – to address meanings. Here children are invited to speak about what is not common to the group, but rather what is particular to each child. The group then deepens its cohesiveness to include accepting and supporting particular reactions. Teachers largely agreed that this sequence is necessary to repeat in response to each terror attack, and that the class would become able to return to its work as a “learning group” only after the sequence is completed. An incomplete process, they felt, often would be expressed in an unsettled group and in either expectation that all classmates share the same feelings, or that unusual feelings were unacceptable. It would be the task of the teacher to give time and space to this process each time, assuming that over time children would wish to shorten the activity, but must always know that it is available as needed. I delineated this approach in an article in The Jerusalem Post and later in an Israeli journal dedicated to community stress prevention. However, most teachers felt that their principals or someone in the Education Ministry would not allow the necessary time to be devoted to “process” and expected the class to magically “calm down” and get on with studies. To my mind this constitutes another example of ‘Childism”.

We now come to the experience of rocket attacks, during the “Second Lebanon War” in the North and in day-in-day-out life in parts of the South, concentrated there in three full military “Operations.” If we take Sderot as an example, there have been thousands of alarms and many dozen perhaps hundreds of rockets falling in the town over more than a decade. Each alarm gives a 20 second warning before a missile could fall – or hopefully be intercepted, with possible dangerous debris falling after the interception. Obviously, it is impossible to be continuously within a 20 second dash to adequate shelter. Children in Sderot learn to treat reality in a unique manner. They are at nearly constant risk of occasional missiles and at occasional risk for nearly constant missiles. Their physical survival and that of their families and friends is never quite secure. The adult world has no definitive answer for how to make their lives better. The adult world neither provides a shelter solution nor a military solution nor a political solution. The rest of the country (via the media and a veritable army of psychologists from Tel Aviv) give episodic extreme attention during military operations and then nearly no further interest whatsoever. The schools are not adequately protected (until perhaps very recently). In addition, you are expected to be brave and not be affected. If you show some emotional stress you are referred for a short treatment and expected to get over it. If you don’t get over it, you will become a bother to your family. If you lose your ability to concentrate the school will refer you for Ritalin which will make matters worse. No one, absolutely no one, will take an interest in hearing about your experience let alone your thoughts about your experience. You are expected to express gratitude to the adults in Jerusalem who have failed you during your entire life, and never to question the wisdom of how things are managed. If as an adolescent you go near the only thing that calms you down, marijuana, you will be arrested, your family seen as inadequate, and you may be taken out of your home and placed in a residence.

I have to admit that until this moment I had not realized just how miserably the children of Sderot have been  treated, until I put the whole picture down on paper. I give credit here to Hannah Arendt’s insight that thinking is dependent upon public speaking! The invisible children of the Gaza periphery, including Beer Sheva, Ashkelon and Ashdod! To the best of my knowledge no effort has been made to encourage them to speak of their experience (media-worthy horror cases excepted), the Education Ministry has not allocated funds to encourage kids to regain their voice, to talk together about what they think (saying in public, thanks again, Hannah) and feel. What is crucial is that these kids require adult mediation in order to learn how to turn experience and feeling into communication and reflection. They need what I am fond of calling “the Vygotsky function.” In this term I recognize one of the many central operational concepts of the Soviet (since you asked, yes, one of us) developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky noted that what a child fails to do on his own should not measure his development, but rather what he is capable of performing with assistance. For example if a baby builds a a tower of 5 blocks, but fails to add the 6th by himself, one should see if together with an adult he can succeed in adding the 6th. That 6th block is the baby’s experience of his future, what he will do on his own tomorrow. It is tomorrow that is important in development, said Vygotsky, calling this the “zone of proximal development.” For children of Sderot this Vygotsky function is the group discussion and reflection on the experiences of terror. Such reflecting needs to continue to occur over time, since one would hope that as they grow and mature, children have expanded and deepened their capacity for this discussion. This is exactly what is not on anyone’s priority list for the children of Sderot. They are encouraged to get over it, to return to being good brave children who have been unaffected by the horrible experience of terror in their skies. One might add that Israeli culture (kibbutzim excepted) does not encourage adults to engage in expanding and deepening levels of discussion and reflection, so a hunt for potential Vygotskys may come up pretty short. What the children of the South learn is what they do not learn, namely that there is no value in cultivating and maturing a political discourse that allows even experiences of terror to become sources of thinking and learning.

Learning not to learn places a burden on family life as well. When conflicts in the outer world are a source of silencing, of not considering options of thought, speech and action, how are children to approach the inevitable conflicts that arise in family life, say between siblings. I took this matter up in the previous blog, where I pointed out how demonizing the other side leads a short-circuiting of learning from conflicts.

The current wave of individual terror attacks has created a growing feeling of personal insecurity among the children with whom I come into contact. I have not found any child who finds geography reassuring (Jerusalem is 2 hours away, etc.). The overwhelming fear is connected to an increasing sense of helplessness. Any Arab (or someone who looks Arab) could raise a knife at any moment. I have not witnessed what one might think would be (and perhaps was once) a robust proactive Israeli response of learning self-defense techniques. After all, most of the current attackers are either poorly trained or not trained at all. I wonder whether the hopelessness has to do more with the feeling that one form of terror turns into the next, so why bother to respond to a passing terror-whim.

The point of this blog is to paint a grim picture. The adult world in Israel has failed its children in the most basic issue of personal safety. After nearly two decades, this is, sadly, a fact. I do not think academic studies of the responses of children have much to add here. There is a great deal that our current knowledge clearly dictates we provide for our children growing up under terror and we are doing none of it. True, it is worse elsewhere, for example in Africa. One could contemplate the sardonic thought that our PM needs to place us in Africa where we look relatively good, now that we have achieved bottom of the class status as a society in the OECD, where it is better for children everywhere.

If a nation chooses political stalemate at the cost of continuing terror for an entire generation, that nation cannot afford to cast a blind eye on this generation of its children.

About the Author
Alan Flashman was born in Foxborough, MA, and gained his BA from Columbia, MD from NYU, Pediatrics, Adult and Child Psychiatry specialties at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, The Bronx, NY. He has practiced in Beer Sheba since 1983, and taught mental health at Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and Ben Gurion University. He is currently CEO of Family Instiute of Neve Yerushalyim, sponsoring a first fully accredited post-masters training in family therapy for the Haredi community. Alan has edited readers on Therapeutic Communication with Children (2002) and Adolescents (2005) in Hebrew, translated Buber's I and Thou anew into Hebrew, and authored Losing It, an autobiography, and From Protection to Passover.