War Eats at Soul of Israel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even in the worst of times, and these have been pretty awful times, Israelis pride themselves on their ability to reach into a deep repository of perseverance. A lifetime of wars in a nation of Holocaust survivors and immigrants has honed the survivor's instinct.

But today's crisis has been especially debilitating, particularly among younger generations. By now, the year 2001, things were supposed to have been better.

Nine months of Israeli-Palestinian clashes have taken an enormous psychological toll, even on the majority of Israelis, who have suffered little physical impact. To teeter on the brink of another war has led to some fundamental questioning about purpose and future.

And so Israelis have come up with a range of what shrinks call coping mechanisms.

Some Israelis resort to a cultural tradition: They say, "davka," to hell with it, I will do everything in my power to live a normal life. Others are looking for ways to escape.

More Israelis are traveling out of the country, and there's a lot more talk of leaving for good--though large numbers have yet to act on that. Use of sedatives is up. Tuning in to the news is down. Escapist television programming is suddenly the rage.

Newspapers publish "guides to escapism," listing the available alternatives, from New Age spirituality to after-hours nightclubs to the lottery. So prevalent is the notion that one columnist wondered about the correct word in Hebrew: eskapizm?

Haim Cohen is among those looking to escape. Cohen was sunning himself on a Tel Aviv beach recently, and thumbing a small publication called "Life's Little Instruction Book." He was dreaming of California, a place where he worked for 15 years as a landscaper. Maybe it's time to go back, he said.

"It's crazy," said Cohen, 43, wearing shades and stretched out on a beach blanket. "Israel is becoming like Bosnia. It's too much crisis. You hear it on TV every day, but it's every day, so you become aloof. But then you can't really be aloof."

Indeed. Six days later and three blocks away, a terrorist bombing at a seafront disco killed 21 young Israelis out for a good time--the deadliest attack in five years.

Too much escapism can be pathological, of course, plunging people into denial and a fantasy world. But a modicum can be a good thing. Therapists encourage people to build a sanctuary for themselves, an island of calm in the storm.

"People are losing faith and thinking there is no light at the end of the tunnel," said Yehudit Yovel-Rekanati, a psychotherapist with the Natal organization, which specializes in war-related trauma and runs a hotline for victims, survivors and the troubled. "It has an effect on morale, and on the strength that people can find in themselves to cope with yet another event or terror attack."

A far larger number of Palestinians have been killed and wounded in this uprising, but Israelis too have been subjected to ambushes, terror bombings and several especially heinous killings.

Liat Naveh, a 26-year-old engineering student from the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Le Zion, also finds escape in Tel Aviv's seaside haunts, where she and her boyfriend, a soldier, go whenever time allows.

"This is not a beach," she said, as she lounged on the sand in violet-tinged glasses and crimson-tinged hair. "This is medicine for forgetting."

Thinking of Leaving the Country Altogether

Like many Israelis, the couple have seen their world narrow and their horizons darken. Roads that were once safe are avoided, they think twice about shopping at the mall. They've stopped going to the Arab-owned restaurants they once frequented, and in school, Naveh said she now looks at her lab partner, an Israeli Arab, differently. For a while, she couldn't bear to work with him.

A cease-fire now, tenuous and fragile, may reduce the level of violence, Naveh said, but it doesn't rid her mind of thoughts of leaving the country altogether.

"On the surface, things may get better," she said, "but not in people's hearts. That could take generations."

A poll last month by Gallup and the Maariv newspaper showed that while 67% of the Israeli Jewish public "fears at this time for the future of the State of Israel," only 17% admitted that they have discussed the possibility of leaving.

So for the majority there are other ways to escape, at least temporarily.

Foreign travel, always popular among Israelis, is up about 10%, according to the association representing travel agents. In a country surrounded by enemy nations, taking a vacation almost always means flying somewhere, and exotic locations such as India and Thailand are common. Amia Lieblich, a professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, said she ran into so many Israelis in New York this Passover that she wondered if Israel had emptied out.

Attendance at the annual Hebrew Book Festival and at the monthlong Jerusalem Festival of opera, theater and dance was higher than expected this year.

As the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, put it: When the cannons are warring, the muses must sing.

"We need to keep on living," he said at the opening of the Jerusalem Festival. "I know it is not only surrealistic, but this is the time we have to strengthen these activities to broaden our lives. We don't stop living."

Book sales have been climbing steadily in Israel for many years and seem to spike during times of crisis. Eri Steimansky, chairman of Israel's largest bookstore chain, remembered that during the 1973 Yom Kippur War there was a "remarkable" increase of sales because people were afraid to leave their homes. It remains to be seen whether the trend will recur.

The only books that have stopped selling in these past months of conflict, he said, are guidebooks and volumes on art and archeology--all dependent on a domestic tourism industry that has nearly collapsed. Science fiction has achieved popularity here of late, perhaps because of its fantastical nature, or perhaps simply as a follow-up to the "Harry Potter" phenomenon. And thrillers are red hot.

Ram Oren, the king of Israeli bestsellers and prolific producer of suspense novels, said he writes for people who want to hide from everyday headlines and clashes.

"I write stories that are Israeli, but Israeli without the Palestinians," he said during a pause at an international book fair held in Jerusalem despite security fears. "If I write a thriller about the intifada, no one will read it.

"Israelis have the ability to go on living as usual, despite what's happening," Oren said, pointing to people seated nearby in a cafe, sipping cafe lattes and chatting. "People want to survive. You get used to wars, you get used to the intifada."

Soap Operas Gain Enthusiastic Following

Television, lately, has been going a step further. The summer lineup on Israeli commercial channels includes a program about Israeli magicians, another called "The Joker" featuring amateur stand-up comics, another dedicated to dress and hairstyle makeovers, and a spate of cooking shows.

But the hottest phenomenon may well be soap operas.

An all-soap-opera cable channel, Viva, launched two years ago has suddenly taken off. It is filled with more than 1,000 hours of imported Latin American telenovelas. And then, five months ago--and four months into the intifada--the "first Hebrew telenovela" hit the airwaves.

"Touch of Happiness" has had such meteoric success that its heretofore relatively unknown stars are mobbed these days when they appear at shopping malls. Their faces grace the covers of pop magazines.

The show's success, says Calev Ben-David, TV critic for the Jerusalem Post, is due to its being pure escapist entertainment. Military duty, bombings and terrorism are supplanted by adultery, rape, brain tumors, surrogate motherhood, rich scheming villains, pure-hearted poor damsels and May-December romance.

"What is really striking is there is almost no relevant reference to contemporary Israeli life," Ben-David said. "If it was dubbed in Spanish, you'd never know it was in Israel. It takes place in a never-never land. It is filled with traumas, but these are not Israeli traumas."

Liora Nir, who runs Viva and owns the company that produces "Touch of Happiness," deliberately scheduled its prime-time slot at 8:15, 15 minutes into the news broadcast on another channel, so that viewers can catch the headlines, then, as she put it, "run away."

"We decided to completely ignore the reality because we did not want to dilute the vicarious experience," she said. "We did not want to burst the bubble."

Yitzhak Mendelsohn, a clinical psychologist who works with trauma victims, said Israelis from the political left and the so-called peace camp have especially felt the need to "disconnect." The collapse of the peace process seems to have undermined everything they've worked for in the last several years; instead of reconciliation, all they see these days is a growing wave of hatred and intolerance. On the right and among Jewish settlers, he said, there is an ideological refuge that makes coping easier, even though the settlers, by living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, are more exposed to physical danger.

The disillusioned leftists tend to withdraw, the hardened rightists become more aggressive, and the implications for the larger society are disastrous because extremism wins the day, he said.

Mendelsohn says less, not more, discussion of politics may provide relief, at least for now. A favorite Israeli pastime of analyzing the situation only brings on feelings of helplessness.

"There are many ways of coping, Oriental, humanistic, using nature, finding cosmological energies," he said. "Others make rationalizations: The less they know, the better."

When the defense mechanisms begin to fail, people start asking fundamental questions, Mendelsohn said. The right and the religious can take solace in what they see as the ultimate fulfillment of the Zionist dream, dying for the land. Others become haunted by existential questions. Is it worth it to me and, most important, my children, the sacrifice of living here?

Mendelsohn says such questioning can be healthy, if it is understood and checked. But it is certainly controversial.

Note of Resignation Generates Furor

Amos Sahar learned just how sensitive the to-go-or-to-stay debate can be. Four days after the Tel Aviv disco bombing, the professional nature guide and father of a toddler posted a note on the Web site of Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest newspaper, saying he couldn't take it anymore and was leaving. By 5 p.m. that day, more than 500 responses--for and very much against--flooded the site, and the debate raged for days.

"I gave this country the best years of my life," he wrote, "but I don't love it anymore. I am willing to live for it, to die for it, under certain circumstances. In a war, for example. But not like this."

Describing himself as an eighth-generation Israeli, Sahar, from a northern coastal town, said he could no longer guarantee a safe future for his child. "I haven't decided where I'm going yet, but I know exactly what I'm looking for: a small peaceful place, even a bit boring, full of beautiful green views, where children aren't afraid to go to the movies or the park."

Many respondents agreed and said they'd be right behind him. But others answered with real anger and frustration.

"Yalla, leave your home, Amos. Shalom and thanks," wrote a journalist, Uri Orbach. "This is typical Israeli whining. . . . You shouldn't give up so fast on the only place in the world that is yours."

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