Sometimes, seeing the world through the eyes of our children gives us a deeper view of what we ourselves are feeling, but are working so hard to deny. By nature, most people strive towards optimism and hope. It’s better not to seem a certain way or say a certain thing, and so we deny or keep our silence. But when we see these emotions in our children, we often realize that they are a mirror of what we ourselves are experiencing. Looking at the fear in their eyes, I wonder what childhood they will remember.
We are a nation at war, on the verge of another war. We have become accustomed to a cycle of emotions that we experience with each new terrorist attack. Some attacks are worse than others, either because the human toll is high, because the victims were young, or because the timing or place was particularly barbaric. We’ve accepted that our buses will be targeted, that malls are fair game. But we cling to the idea that our homes are still sacred, our meals still a moment of isolation, our vacations outside Israel secure.
When terrorists go into a home, as they did in Metzer and Itamar and Elon Moreh, when they violate our meals, as they did on Passover in Netanya, and again on a quiet Sabbath eve in Otniel, they have crossed a red line we set for ourselves. With the attack in Kenya, we felt hunted. Even there, so far from it all, we weren’t safe.
We may soon be involved in a war that has nothing to do with us, yet we will suffer the missiles. We whisper quietly among ourselves about plastic sheeting, water rations and flashlights, extra bedding if Saddam again chooses to terrorize at night. Few Israelis, if any, are able to function on a daily basis without some thought or concession made to the war we are in, and the war we are about to enter. These are our adult thoughts and feelings, so how could we believe that our children were sheltered?
Yesterday, in the middle of a game of Scrabble, my daughter asked me how to spell SCUD. And last week, as I drove my son to school because he’d missed the bus, he began describing what he had learned from his teachers. Not math or science, not Torah or Gemara; he spoke of gas masks and the need for parents to put the masks on themselves first, and how he would be able to help us put the masks on the littler ones. In case of a chemical attack, with more details than I really want to know, he explained that you should douse your arm with flour, not water, as water will merely spread the chemicals further. He talked about inoculations, the symptoms that can be expected before and after giving yourself a shot.
I do not know when or where the next terrorist attack will take place, though I am relatively certain there will be another one soon. I don’t know when America will attack Iraq, or when Iraq will launch a missile against us. What I do know, or what I am slowly coming to realize, is that despite our attempts to shield them, deep down our children are experiencing the same feelings we have.
Our children are afraid. They are afraid that there will be a war and afraid of having to put on gas masks. They are afraid of chemicals raining down on them and of terrorists coming into their towns and villages and into their homes. Sometimes, they are afraid to get on a bus. They are especially afraid for us, nervous when we come home late, and upset when the phone beeps with a message. They are afraid when their regular television program gets interrupted by a man and a map and concerned for friends and teachers who might live near whatever city or town might have just been attacked.
Our children are angry. They are angry that people can come into their city and murder randomly. They are angry when they hear that the world has again condemned Israel, but somehow forgotten to condemn the terrorists. They are angry that Iraq wants to bomb us, when we aren’t even threatening them and that we are expected not to react. They are angry that a teacher has been shot, a friend of a friend, the parents of a child in another grade in their school. And they are angry when we cannot explain that which is beyond explanation, cannot ease their pain and take away their fears.
Our children are in mourning. They are mourning for the other children who are now orphans and for the children who have been injured in terrorist attacks. They mourn for the soldiers who died today and yesterday and the day before that. They mourn for the freedom they have lost, to be able to travel freely on buses without having the responsibility of calling parents who worry.
Our children are confused. They are confused that a nation strong enough to win so many wars, cannot protect them. They are confused when they learn that the world continues to send money and support to organizations that sponsor the people who come into our cities and homes with guns and bombs to kill us. They are confused by a war that might begin or might not, in which we might or might not be targeted, and in which chemical weapons might or might not be used.
Our children are resigned. Resigned to more attacks, more restrictions on their right to play, to travel, to relax. And, they are resigned to more deaths, more wounded, and more orphans. They are resigned to exploding buses, shooting attacks, suicide bombers in cafes and the army going in and out of Palestinian areas as part of an ebb and flow campaign that limits the ability of the terrorists to attack, until we are moderately successful. That is when the world steps in to condemn us and demand that we ease restrictions, and our children are resigned to this as well.
Fear, anger, mourning, confusion and resignation. These are all feelings that children should not have and the weight of these feelings is difficult for a parent to bear. And there is more. Beyond the feelings they do have, lost in these wars, are other feelings that most children should have, and yet more and more, our children do not and I wonder what impact it will have on the people they will someday be.
Our children are no longer shocked. They experience many emotions in the wake of a terrorist attack, but after two years of constant terror, they have lost the ability to be shocked. My daughter isn’t shocked that someone would go into a market and blow himself up in an attempt to kill hundreds and destroy any chance of ever achieving peace in this land. My 15-year-old isn’t shocked that another nation might send chemical weapons against us and that he might have to don a gas mask. My 12-year-old isn’t shocked that in the midst of eating soup, four young men would be shot to death. My 7-year-old isn’t even shocked to see the map on the television, indicating yet again, the site of the latest attack.
Our children do not have faith in the justice of the world. They do not believe that others value their existence. They say the world would react differently, if the victims were not Jews or settlers. They mimic our words and our feelings, but they are too young to have already lost the ability to believe in the ultimate good of man, that justice will triumph over evil, that murderers will pay for their crimes. International media reports on the murder of two settlers, but our children know that the victims were two parents and that there are now two orphans, or three, or six or nine. Our children do not believe in the goodness of man.
As we look into their eyes and their souls, it is up to us to give them the faith to overcome the fear and the anger. We must offer them a path through the confusion and the mourning. We have to let them go on buses and be outside with their friends because keeping them back is teaching them that fear is the correct and healthy path. We must make our children secure in the knowledge that we are doing our best to keep them informed and safe. We must listen and answer their questions, even though we ourselves remain tormented. We must tell them what might happen, what will be expected of them, and how we are preparing for all possible outcomes. And we must pray that it will be enough.
Hopefully, someday, they will again have the ability to be shocked by evil, to believe in goodness, and to have faith in people. Despite our own uncertainties, we must help them deal with their fear and their confusion. We must make them, as Anne Frank once said, “believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”