The 12-year-old girl was seated on the couch across from me, clinging to her mother, her posture helpless and afraid. She’s what they really mean when they say the words “Arab-Israeli conflict,” I thought to myself, trying to maintain a professional mien as I nodded authoritatively, jotted down a few notes, and pretended that I wasn’t about to burst into tears.
For it’s one thing to read about Kassam rockets shot into places like Sderot and Ashkelon, in Israel’s south, and quite another to actually sit in the homes of families who come face to face with these implements of destruction.
Take this girl, for example.
The Grad rocket that fell in the courtyard of her family’s apartment, damaging their building but causing no bodily harm, was like a giant silver bullet that pierced straight through her young heart. Because ever since that moment, over four years ago, she is but a shell of the girl she once was.
“All the joy has left her,” her mother told me, wiping away a few tears as her daughter, clinging like a limp noodle, remained comatose throughout the entire visit.
Once a vibrant and happy child with a large circle of friends, she has retreated somewhere deep inside herself and shows no sign of emerging. The doctors keep her on a steady stream of sedatives because the slightest noise sends her into paroxysms of fear. She still goes to school but she takes nothing in and instead gazes out the window all day. She cannot bear to be away from her mother or to leave the apartment. At night, she wears diapers.
Sadly, tragically, she might never recover. And just as tragically, she is far from alone.
Israel is full of people not only wounded but scarred by terror. Because the psychological impact of living on the cusp of death is the suicide bomber that keeps on bombing.
“I can’t sleep at night because what if a terrorist breaks in and murders us?” an 11-year-old boy said to me. That very day he had left school early and rushed home because a child in another classroom had rapped a bit too loudly with a toy.
“I thought it was another bomb,” he said.
On the surface this boy is faring much better than the girl I had met. He laughed easily and engaged with visitors. But beneath it all he is a wreck.
What becomes of children like these — children whose worlds are no longer safe? And what becomes of the nation these children will one day inherit?
“Now you can show the world just how terrible the Palestinians are who traumatize innocent children!” an American friend said after listening to me boo-hoo in his ear about how hard it was for me to hear these children’s stories for a project I worked on.
But why in the world would I want to continue this intractable and seemingly endless conflict with roots so deep and so emotional that I can’t for the life of me see a “solution?”
All I see are people whose lives are devastated because of senseless hatred. So for this I need to bring more hatred into the mix?
“I feel like I’ve been living in a bubble,” I confessed to an Israeli friend.
In the two years since I left Chicago for Israel, except for the bombing near the Central Bus Station that just shattered our false sense of calm, my only reminder that violence lurks is having my bags searched and being surrounded by armed soldiers and civilians.
And except for the fact that I’m immersed in a hot-tempered, vibrant, Middle Eastern locale, my life here is really not that much different than it was back in Chicago.
So how crazy is it that just miles away, other Israelis are living in a war zone?
It reminded me of a snippet of conversation from “My Dinner With Andre,” when Wallace Shawn asks what would happen if he were to confront the fact that he is “sharing the stage” with a starving person in Africa. How would that feel? “So naturally I just blot all those people right out of my perception. So, of course, of course, I’m ignoring a whole section of the real world!” he says.
So it is with my reality here in Jerusalem.
“But only a few years ago Jerusalem was like this,” a friend reminded me, pointing towards Café Hillel as we passed by, which was bombed in 2003, killing seven and wounding over 50.
“Back in 2002 and 2003, you just couldn’t ride the buses,” he went on, “it was so frightening. People did not want to leave their homes. The whole city was gripped with fear.”
“So now it’s Sderot and Ashkelon but tomorrow it could be Tel Aviv,” he reminded me.
Shrugging, he said we’d better hurry if we were going to make the movie on time. An Italian film playing at the Cinematheque. Critics loved it.
Abigail Pickus’ column appears the first week of the month.