Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Blessed be the children: Tough questions for tough times

For many years, the world-wide Jewish community has been using the youth of suicide bombers and other Palestinian "militants" to make a negative point about Palestinian culture.

"What kind of sickness is rotting them," we ask, "if instead of teaching their children to become productive members of society, they teach their kids that if they don't attain their political aims, that if they must grow up without their own state, that it is better not to grow up at all?"

Since the start of the anti-disengagement movement, I've been uneasy about the preponderance of young people -- teenagers and even children -- who have been involved in anti-pullout activities, including the peaceful ones.

First there were the teenagers who helped to block roads. My friends (many of whom have very small children) and I wondered out loud: If we had a child of 15, 16, 17 years, would we allow them to go and block roads as part of a civil disobedience movement?

On one hand, isn't it important for teens to be aware of their political environment? Is it not important to teach children to get involved in their world, to stand up for their convictions?

On the other hand, how many of these kids truly understand all the issues? How many do what they do because they really get it, and how many get involved to be with their friends or because they have picked up a fiery, though not-well-substantiated, passion from their parents and teachers? How many might become more left-leaning later in life (as I did myself) when they come to have a more nuanced view of their geopolitical environment? Does any of that matter, if they are doing now what they believe to be correct, for whatever reason?

What is more important, to teach our kids to get involved, or to teach them not to break laws, not to try to get arrested? (During that time I spent Shabbat with a family who had teens, and the kids were talking about their friends' efforts to get arrested.)

Then came the day, during the road blocking era, that I saw a group of kids and what seemed to be their teacher or one of their parents, burning a tire and other trash just over the curb at a busy intersection -- that is, they were burning it on the street, just inches away from where cars were stopping for red lights.

This was really dangerous and marked a turning point for me. It was the first time I thought "the Israeli adults are using the kids." It's one thing for 13-year-olds to stand by the side of a highway handing out orange ribbons and a smile. It's another thing to mix cars and lapping flames.

Then started the waves of people moving into Gaza, before Gaza became a restricted military zone. It was unclear what would happen to those people or how violent their situation might become. (In hindsight, it's been non-violent so far, but there was no way to know that then . . . and we're not done yet, either.) A friend told me that her neighbors, whom I have met on many occassions, had moved with their small children to Gush Katif and were living there in a tent.

I asked my friend what she thinks about the idea of bringing small children into a potentially traumatic situation, and she sighed and said "I don't know. I don't know."

There were the pictures that made international news, of Israeli soldiers packing West Bank settlers, who had entered Gaza, onto buses to send them home, and the kerchief-clad mother with an adorable red-headed child, sadly looking out of a bus window as she was forced to leave.

Excellent PR for the protesters, I thought. The world is seeing that the IDF is pushing around mothers and babies. Jewish mothers and babies.

But what kind of mother brings her baby into a situation that will, by definition, almost certainly involve soldiers?

Lehavdil (that is, I'm not making a direct comparison), when a Palestinian child is shot by the IDF, we blame the terrorists. We say "it's not our fault. That is what happens when terrorists hide behind children. The children get shot sometimes."

If that is the case . . . if bringing children into a potentially violent or otherwise traumatic situation indicates negligence of the children . . . then why are there so many children involved in the anti-disengagement movement? The movement so far has been relatively peaceful (for which I sincerely applaud its leaders), but everyone knows it takes only a few crazy people and some guns to turn a peaceful rally into a riot.

If, God forbid, any children get hurt in Ofakim tonight, or at any time during the Gaza pullout, whose fault will it be? That of the IDF? or of the parents who didn't tell their under-age children to stay home and do their homework? Any Israeli who says the former while blaming Palestinians for the deaths of their own kids is being a hypocrite.

Today I read this, for me the last straw. Teenage residents of Gaza threatening to drown themselves if they are evacuated.

What disease is rotting our culture if teens are allowed to believe that if they can't live in the part of Israel of their choice, that if they will be forced to grow up in some other area of Israel, that it is better not to grow up at all?

If we want to continue seeing ourselves as "better" than our Palestinian neighbors, this blatant using of, and in some cases psychological negligence or abuse of, our young people must stop. I would like to believe that if my kid were threatening to kill himself -- possibly because he sees that I, too, am extremely depressed -- that I would pull myself together fast and remove my family from the situation before it was too late. The question of leaving Gaza is extremely important, and the Jews who live there are undergoing a traumatic and crucial period of their lives. But is Gaza more important than the lives of our children?

If so, can we then blame the Palestinians for believing that a state of their own is more important than their children, or our children?

In a democratic society, the adults should be free to express themselves and fight non-violently for their convictions. But before getting kids involved, we adults should ask ourselves: What messages are the kids really getting? What are we really teaching them?

[Update: for those of you who have arrived at this post by following a link from another blog . . . welcome! And, please note that the next two posts on my blog are also on the topic of children and the disengagement. Please read those next two posts before commenting, especially if you were about to write a comment to the effect that I'm a horrible, self-hating, uber-liberal terrorist-lover. Thanks!]

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