It’s not hard to develop the perception that American teen-agers are vacuous, indolent degenerates so consumed by television, drugs, gangs and other distractions that they couldn’t find New Jersey on a map, let alone Israel.
So Amir Gal and Shany Bentulila Aron, two youth ambassadors from Israel who are on a speaking tour of the West Coast, had their doubts about the maturity and sophistication of their counterparts here.
Amir and Shany will be trading their textbooks for Israeli army automatic weapons in a couple of years, about the time their local peers might be trading the keys of the station wagon for the keys of the Camaro.
But at El Camino Real High School in West Hills this week, Amir and Shany spent an afternoon with two groups of students who left the visitors tired and impressed. The conversations were exuberant and surprisingly sophisticated. The political debate was intense, bringing flashes of emotion and pain from a far-off conflict to a tranquil corner of the Valley.
“Very, very small country,” was the refrain of the ambassadors’ presentation in accented but fluid English as they displayed a map of Israel superimposed onto Los Angeles County.
“We are surrounded by 21 Arab nations,” said Amir, 16, who is slender and poised and wears his hair in a fashionable tail down his back. “We have a peace treaty only with Egypt. . . . With the rest, we have a status of war.”
Amir and Shany, 17, belong to an elite group of 66 young people selected from 1,000 applicants. They are trained by the Israeli government to tour the world talking about what their lives are like in their country. They and officials involved in the project said their purpose is not strictly political. But their defense of Israel’s role in the Mideast conflict, particularly the Palestinian uprising, was polished and fervent.
“The media is interested in little Palestinian kids throwing stones,” Amir said. “What you see in the media is the Palestinian side. We are here to give you our point of view.”
The El Camino Real students were a classic American cross-section: Jewish, black, Asian, Latino, Iranian and your basic Southern California Anglo. Regardless of ethnicity, they favored the uniform of T-shirts and jeans. They engaged in a good deal of slouching, cheering and wisecracks. Their questions were pointed.
“You don’t have no gangs?” asked Kuan Nguyen. The visitors explained that nonpolitical turf war is not a problem where they come from, although it’s dangerous to walk in some areas depending on your religion.
Nguyen drew laughter, but it was apparent that to some kids, the question was no joke. You could see in the eyes of other kids that some issues were hitting home.
“As a Jew, I understand the Jewish side,” said senior Nathan Kahane. “I don’t understand why the Israelis don’t want the Palestinians to have a homeland. I want to hear your point of view.”
Amir responded that he believes Jordan should be considered a Palestinian state. He said he sees no reason to give Palestinians a second homeland.
“You can’t say we don’t want peace,” said Shany, who is tall and wore a pink sweat shirt. She said she has a friend in the army whose face was disfigured by a Molotov cocktail attack in the West Bank. “For 40 years, we tried to achieve peace.”
A big earnest student nicknamed Rob--he is an Afghan Muslim named Rohullaha--began firing questions with the zeal of a prosecutor during cross-examination.
“Why did you occupy Palestine?” he asked. “Why did you invade Lebanon, where you caused lots of damage, lots of death, for what?”
Amir drew a parallel to the U. S. invasion of Panama and talked about women and children slaughtered in Arab terrorist attacks. The exchange grew heated. Some students were fascinated. Others looked uncomfortable or sad. One boy buried his head in his arms.
“How much is a pair of Levi’s in Israel?” someone interrupted, returning the conversation abruptly to the universal teen-age realm. The hilarity continued when the visitors played part of a Hebrew rap song that had something to do with a man describing his wife’s mustache.
But these kids were incurably philosophical.
They talked about whether compulsory military service helps or hinders a career, whether it is appropriate to put monetary and political concerns above moral ones, what Israelis think of Jews in this country.
“I find you guys real intellectual compared to the juniors at our school,” senior Nathan told Amir and Shany, drawing loud boos from the juniors.
Humaira Malik, a petite, sweet-voiced junior whose family are Muslims from Pakistan, said afterward that she enjoyed the presentation. But she did not appear convinced by the answers to her questions about the Palestinian issue. And she said: “It was too prepared. I didn’t think all of it was their words.”
Shany and Rohullaha talked and smiled after class.
Shany has made a point of getting to know Arab students she meets in this country. “It’s not like, if you’re Arab, we hate you,” she said.
Sunday, the Israelis end their six-week visit to the United States. Sunday, they go back to a place where the divisions are stark, where the army will fast-forward them into adulthood.
“I want to be a lawyer,” Amir said. “If I make it.”
With the American kids, they leave behind memories, laughter and questions that adults have been trying to answer for centuries.