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Commentary and Analysis

Future Imperfect

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

July 21, 2002|AMY WILENTZ | Amy Wilentz is the author, most recently, of "Martyrs' Crossing: A Novel."

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.

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