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Israelis' Dose of Unreality

India is a favored getaway for the Jewish state's many young army veterans seeking drug-filled escapes from the pressures of home.

November 10, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

SEDOT YAM, Israel — For young Israelis wedged between war and adulthood, it's a chance to escape the struggle of their homeland -- and to be unapologetically young for the first and last time.

Once mandatory army service is behind them, they flock overseas for a year, maybe two. Many head for Bolivia, Peru or Thailand. A few venture to Australia or New Zealand. But mostly, former soldiers go to India. On a journey that promises spiritual renewal and usually includes trips of the hallucinogenic sort, Israelis tramp off to the subcontinent in droves -- about 30,000 a year, so many it's become a generational cliche.

"Orit, for example. She hasn't been to India." That's how author Gadi Taub opened a recent magazine piece about twenty-something Israelis. "She doesn't have to go to India, she says. 'Let others go. I understand what it's all about without going there.' "

To understand why so many young Israelis flock to India -- and why they dope themselves into a daze upon arrival -- is to understand something about the peculiar mix of pressures and existential questions that bear down on the Jewish state. The rite has its dark side -- every year, hundreds of the Israeli tourists overdose on drugs and have to be rescued from India.

The India phenomenon was born as Israel wrestled through its invasion of Lebanon and the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s. The trend has grown stronger during the current, 3-year-old Palestinian uprising, a wrenching and controversial war that has cast the Jewish state into ceaseless bloodshed and ideological uncertainty.

"The vital center, the ideological center, has collapsed, and people have started questioning," Taub said on a recent afternoon, perched at a sidewalk cafe in Tel Aviv. Before him, a stream of young, listless Israelis slinked along trendy Shenkin Street, clad in glittering halter tops and slumped jeans.

"There is this strange mood in Israel now," he said, "this intense anxiety coupled by a dreamlike apathy."

Young Israelis used to go to America or to Europe to study, intern and build careers. These days, though, they lose themselves in the developing world. Instead of self-improvement, many are looking for debauchery, escapism or some sort of New Age-style spiritual renewal.

In India, time doesn't mean very much, said Omri Frish. A reserve soldier and social worker, Frish recently joined Israeli officials for a government tour of India's popular drug hangouts. India, he decided, is "the antithesis of Israel, which is totalitarian."

Trekkers wander from village to village, and local entrepreneurs advertise their hostels and restaurants in Hebrew. There's liquid acid and opium, Ecstasy and lots of hashish.

Most of the Israeli tourists are young ex-soldiers like one 23-year-old woman who worked for two years after the army to sock away enough money for her ticket to the subcontinent.

"India hit me -- boom. Right in the face," said the lanky, tanned woman with intense blue eyes, bone-blond hair and a pierced nose.

"I'd completely forgotten about politics, about what was happening in Israel. It was amazing, absolutely amazing, to be all day long with friends and not do anything," she said. "We smoked ourselves silly morning and night. There weren't any limits or boundaries."

The woman, who did not want her name used, was camping on a beach when she felt the fear swell. She didn't sleep for two weeks.

"I started seeing faces in the clouds, in the bushes and on the sand, everywhere," she said. "I became very nervous. I thought I was going to drown. I was crying hysterically."

Even now, after months of medical and psychiatric treatment, she can't be sure of the sequence of events. Somebody called her parents, who called the Israeli government. Some friends got her back to Bombay, where an Israeli social worker and a former Israeli pilot accompanied her on a plane bound for Tel Aviv. In her head, the young woman was hearing the voices of her parents and siblings -- she thought they were there too.

"I must have tuned out, because it seemed perfectly normal," she said.

Upon return, she was tormented by delusions. She kept looking over her shoulder. She was terrified of Arabs, certain she was being stalked, obsessed with security.

The post-army India meltdown has become so common that the government is crafting a policy to respond. Weary of organizing teams to scoop the wayward soldiers out of backwoods hospitals, Israel is negotiating with the Indian government to install treatment outposts in popular hiking regions to keep an eye on the travelers.

"We Israelis have a militarized mentality," said Frish, who spearheaded the project. "That means you don't leave your injured countrymen in the field."

It sounds extreme, but this is a country that chartered a plane to ferry its citizens out of Bolivia when the government collapsed; a nation willing to release hundreds of Arab prisoners in trade for a lone Israeli captive who may or may not be alive.

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