Israelis Battling Their Own Indifference

By Noga Tarnopolsky

Published January 03, 2003, issue of January 03, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — It is by now a sad routine. Israel’s Friday newspapers report, on Page 3, that nine Palestinians, most of them armed, were killed in Israeli military actions the previous day. Sunday morning’s papers report on the Friday night shooting deaths of four Israelis, students at a paramilitary hesder yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Otniel.

For Israelis, the yeshiva students’ deaths are just the latest in a two-year parade of carnage that has left close to 700 Israelis dead. For Palestinians, the nine deaths Thursday were merely the climax to a week of death that began Monday, when two suspected terrorists were gunned down by Israeli undercover agents, and would continue into the weekend, with a nine-year-old girl shot outside her Gaza home in Khan Yunis on Saturday — caught in crossfire, army sources said — and an 11-year-old boy shot by troops Sunday while throwing stones in the West Bank city of Tulkarm.

In another year, or in another place, any one of those incidents would have been a topic for endless discussion in the press, on talk shows, in cafes and over dinner tables. But in today’s Israel they are just the latest in a numbing routine, and the Israeli public reacts — well, numbly.

This week, however, the routine was broken, if only for a moment, by an unusually harsh exchange between Prime Minister Sharon and Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein. Sharon, responding to the yeshiva students’ deaths, called for stepped up military action against terrorism, which was generally interpreted as a call for an increase in “targeted interceptions,” the controversial policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian terrorists. Rubinstein responded, in an angry and unprecedented admonition at Sunday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, that assassinations should be used only as “a last resort,” not a primary strategy. The exchange reportedly deteriorated into a shouting match.

Assassinations, like other facts of the intifada by now well into its third year, have become part of an anaesthetized routine for most Israelis. The vociferous protests and Supreme Court appeals that characterized the intifada’s early days are by now little more than a distant memory. The attorney general, who reportedly reaffirmed his view that the assassination of terrorism suspects is legal, caused a minor media sensation with his rebuke.

“It only took him two years,” grumbled Lior Yavne, spokesman for the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. And B’Tselem’s reaction to the prime minister’s alleged statement? “We published our opinion of targeted killings in January 2001. We don’t comment on each and every public announcement.”

The brouhaha caused by Rubinstein’s comments served to underscore the fact that Israel as a whole seems to be suffering from a sort of ennui. Boredom, indifference, hard-heartedness — the definitions vary, but few dispute that Israelis are less attuned, if at all, to “the situation” that has consumed them for more than two years.

Former military chief of staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, founder of the now defunct Center Party and once touted as a future prime minister, said he barely reads the newspapers these days. “It is not apathy, but a tiredness, and a getting used to it. I also see the news less, I focus less on daily events, what happened yesterday, today. All of reality is bad for Israel right now. Headlines about war in Iraq and what can happen here, the election, the economic reality. I think things need to change, but for now, no single event feels like the beginning of change, so daily events are less significant.”

“For now,” Shahak added, “people don’t see the possibility for change in the near future. Instead, we are talking about a hard reality in which we will have to live with this situation for a period significantly longer than a few months.”

A few months? More like 30 years, said Asa Kasher, Schwarz-Kipp Professor of Professional Ethics at Tel Aviv University’s department of philosophy and the author of the code of ethics used by the Israeli military.

“I can say one positive thing about the routine in relation to what is happening,” said Kasher, emitting what sounded like a resigned sigh. “We see a sort of adapting or stubbornness. What the other side wants is to tire us out, and after several hundred thousand are killed, to hope we will tell the government, ‘Give in. Let’s move.’ In this kind of war the most patient one wins, whoever can stick to the routine of life and not give up. So everyone continues to go live and work, but without the full sense of joy we once had.”

Is Israel depressed? “No, it’s not depression,” Kasher said. “But it’s not unbounded joy, either. That is gone. Anywhere you walk you say ‘that bomb blew up here’ or else ‘here it will blow up next.’”

Some say it is exhaustion, others resignation, apathy, numbness or just plain malaise.

One thing it is not is indifference, said social psychologist Saar Uzieli, clinical director of NATAL, the Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War, which treats both Jews and Arabs. “Indifference is descriptive, but it is not at the base of what we are seeing. It is not that people don’t care. The situation here is not normal. So you may have to react not normally. Emotional distance instead of overwhelming anxiety or deep depression is not all bad. Anxiety or depression may be more ‘emotional,’ but it is very one-dimensional. Other emotions are lost. I don’t think we have lost the ability to love or to see the other, but our hearts have become coarser toward the people who are seen as enemies. We are also more distanced from our own losses. It is a defense mechanism, and not a bad way to cope.”

Not everyone agrees. “It is indifference,” said David Ehrlich, the short-story writer who contributes accounts of the situation to America’s National Public Radio. “There is a limit to how much sorrow, pain and fear people can take. By now, we just can’t deal with talk of biological and nuclear threats. It doesn’t fit into our heads.”

Yavne of B’Tselem speaks to groups of soldiers or students two or three times a week. Usually, he said, they tune out. “I talk about human rights and their eyes glaze over. It is a hard sell these days. Basically, the only message I do manage to get across is that the Israeli army, which operates in our name, cannot function like a terrorist organization does. They open up a little then.”

It was that same message, offered by the attorney general to the prime minister, that woke the country up this week.

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