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War Eats at Soul of Israel

Months of chaos drive even those who have escaped physical impact to seek diversions. Many take vacations abroad. Some just leave.


TEL AVIV — Even in the worst of times, and these have been pretty awful times, Israelis pride themselves on their ability to reach into a deep repository of perseverance. A lifetime of wars in a nation of Holocaust survivors and immigrants has honed the survivor's instinct.

But today's crisis has been especially debilitating, particularly among younger generations. By now, the year 2001, things were supposed to have been better.

Nine months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes have taken an enormous psychological toll, even on the majority of Israelis, who have suffered little physical impact. To teeter on the brink of another war has led to some fundamental questioning about purpose and future.

And so Israelis have come up with a range of what shrinks call coping mechanisms.

Some Israelis resort to a cultural tradition: They say, "davka," to hell with it, I will do everything in my power to live a normal life. Others are looking for ways to escape.

More Israelis are traveling out of the country, and there's a lot more talk of leaving for good--though large numbers have yet to act on that. Use of sedatives is up. Tuning in to the news is down. Escapist television programming is suddenly the rage.

Newspapers publish "guides to escapism," listing the available alternatives, from New Age spirituality to after-hours nightclubs to the lottery. So prevalent is the notion that one columnist wondered about the correct word in Hebrew: eskapizm?

Haim Cohen is among those looking to escape. Cohen was sunning himself on a Tel Aviv beach recently, and thumbing a small publication called "Life's Little Instruction Book." He was dreaming of California, a place where he worked for 15 years as a landscaper. Maybe it's time to go back, he said.

"It's crazy," said Cohen, 43, wearing shades and stretched out on a beach blanket. "Israel is becoming like Bosnia. It's too much crisis. You hear it on TV every day, but it's every day, so you become aloof. But then you can't really be aloof."

Indeed. Six days later and three blocks away, a terrorist bombing at a seafront disco killed 21 young Israelis out for a good time--the deadliest attack in five years.

Too much escapism can be pathological, of course, plunging people into denial and a fantasy world. But a modicum can be a good thing. Therapists encourage people to build a sanctuary for themselves, an island of calm in the storm.

"People are losing faith and thinking there is no light at the end of the tunnel," said Yehudit Yovel-Rekanati, a psychotherapist with the Natal organization, which specializes in war-related trauma and runs a hotline for victims, survivors and the troubled. "It has an effect on morale, and on the strength that people can find in themselves to cope with yet another event or terror attack."

A far larger number of Palestinians have been killed and wounded in this uprising, but Israelis too have been subjected to ambushes, terror bombings and several especially heinous killings.

Liat Naveh, a 26-year-old engineering student from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Le Zion, also finds escape in Tel Aviv's seaside haunts, where she and her boyfriend, a soldier, go whenever time allows.

"This is not a beach," she said, as she lounged on the sand in violet-tinged glasses and crimson-tinged hair. "This is medicine for forgetting."

Thinking of Leaving the Country Altogether

Like many Israelis, the couple have seen their world narrow and their horizons darken. Roads that were once safe are avoided, they think twice about shopping at the mall. They've stopped going to the Arab-owned restaurants they once frequented, and in school, Naveh said she now looks at her lab partner, an Israeli Arab, differently. For a while, she couldn't bear to work with him.

A cease-fire now, tenuous and fragile, may reduce the level of violence, Naveh said, but it doesn't rid her mind of thoughts of leaving the country altogether.

"On the surface, things may get better," she said, "but not in people's hearts. That could take generations."

A poll last month by Gallup and the Maariv newspaper showed that while 67% of the Israeli Jewish public "fears at this time for the future of the State of Israel," only 17% admitted that they have discussed the possibility of leaving.

So for the majority there are other ways to escape, at least temporarily.

Foreign travel, always popular among Israelis, is up about 10%, according to the association representing travel agents. In a country surrounded by enemy nations, taking a vacation almost always means flying somewhere, and exotic locations such as India and Thailand are common. Amia Lieblich, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said she ran into so many Israelis in New York this Passover that she wondered if Israel had emptied out.

Attendance at the annual Hebrew Book Festival and at the monthlong Jerusalem Festival of opera, theater and dance was higher than expected this year.

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