Israelis' Dose of Unreality

Times Staff Writer

For young Israelis wedged between war and adulthood, it's a chance to escape the struggle of their homeland -- and to be unapologetically young for the first and last time.

Once mandatory army service is behind them, they flock overseas for a year, maybe two. Many head for Bolivia, Peru or Thailand. A few venture to Australia or New Zealand. But mostly, former soldiers go to India. On a journey that promises spiritual renewal and usually includes trips of the hallucinogenic sort, Israelis tramp off to the subcontinent in droves -- about 30,000 a year, so many it's become a generational cliche.

"Orit, for example. She hasn't been to India." That's how author Gadi Taub opened a recent magazine piece about twenty-something Israelis. "She doesn't have to go to India, she says. 'Let others go. I understand what it's all about without going there.' "

To understand why so many young Israelis flock to India -- and why they dope themselves into a daze upon arrival -- is to understand something about the peculiar mix of pressures and existential questions that bear down on the Jewish state. The rite has its dark side -- every year, hundreds of the Israeli tourists overdose on drugs and have to be rescued from India.

The India phenomenon was born as Israel wrestled through its invasion of Lebanon and the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in the 1980s. The trend has grown stronger during the current, 3-year-old Palestinian uprising, a wrenching and controversial war that has cast the Jewish state into ceaseless bloodshed and ideological uncertainty.

"The vital center, the ideological center, has collapsed, and people have started questioning," Taub said on a recent afternoon, perched at a sidewalk cafe in Tel Aviv. Before him, a stream of young, listless Israelis slinked along trendy Shenkin Street, clad in glittering halter tops and slumped jeans.

"There is this strange mood in Israel now," he said, "this intense anxiety coupled by a dreamlike apathy."

Young Israelis used to go to America or to Europe to study, intern and build careers. These days, though, they lose themselves in the developing world. Instead of self-improvement, many are looking for debauchery, escapism or some sort of New Age-style spiritual renewal.

In India, time doesn't mean very much, said Omri Frish. A reserve soldier and social worker, Frish recently joined Israeli officials for a government tour of India's popular drug hangouts. India, he decided, is "the antithesis of Israel, which is totalitarian."

Trekkers wander from village to village, and local entrepreneurs advertise their hostels and restaurants in Hebrew. There's liquid acid and opium, Ecstasy and lots of hashish.

Most of the Israeli tourists are young ex-soldiers like one 23-year-old woman who worked for two years after the army to sock away enough money for her ticket to the subcontinent.

"India hit me -- boom. Right in the face," said the lanky, tanned woman with intense blue eyes, bone-blond hair and a pierced nose.

"I'd completely forgotten about politics, about what was happening in Israel. It was amazing, absolutely amazing, to be all day long with friends and not do anything," she said. "We smoked ourselves silly morning and night. There weren't any limits or boundaries."

The woman, who did not want her name used, was camping on a beach when she felt the fear swell. She didn't sleep for two weeks.

"I started seeing faces in the clouds, in the bushes and on the sand, everywhere," she said. "I became very nervous. I thought I was going to drown. I was crying hysterically."

Even now, after months of medical and psychiatric treatment, she can't be sure of the sequence of events. Somebody called her parents, who called the Israeli government. Some friends got her back to Bombay, where an Israeli social worker and a former Israeli pilot accompanied her on a plane bound for Tel Aviv. In her head, the young woman was hearing the voices of her parents and siblings -- she thought they were there too.

"I must have tuned out, because it seemed perfectly normal," she said.

Upon return, she was tormented by delusions. She kept looking over her shoulder. She was terrified of Arabs, certain she was being stalked, obsessed with security.

The post-army India meltdown has become so common that the government is crafting a policy to respond. Weary of organizing teams to scoop the wayward soldiers out of backwoods hospitals, Israel is negotiating with the Indian government to install treatment outposts in popular hiking regions to keep an eye on the travelers.

"We Israelis have a militarized mentality," said Frish, who spearheaded the project. "That means you don't leave your injured countrymen in the field."

It sounds extreme, but this is a country that chartered a plane to ferry its citizens out of Bolivia when the government collapsed; a nation willing to release hundreds of Arab prisoners in trade for a lone Israeli captive who may or may not be alive.

To Israel, the thousands of young veterans who arrive home in need of psychological treatment are deemed a problem worthy of organized response.

"Drugs have a special influence on kids who are under the enormous pressure of Israel, with weight on their backs from terrorist attacks and economic pressures," says Isaac Herzog, a Labor lawmaker and former antidrug czar. "They tour the world, and they come back -- we call it scratched, totally scratched."

Like many of her fractured peers, the 23-year-old ex-soldier washed up in a sort of New Age treatment center called Kfar Izun, Hebrew for "Equilibrium Village." A quiet cluster of ramshackle cabins on a remote Mediterranean beach, this is the only psychiatric hospital in Israel devoted to helping overdosed trekkers find their way back to themselves.

It looks like a summer camp for wayward young adults who roam the grounds, barefoot and scruffy. "Trust in trance," one of the men has painted on the side of his cabin, alongside an oversized yin and yang. Pet dogs wander over the sea grass. The young patients go to group and individual therapy, yoga and crafts classes. They pay $1,500 a month, subsidized by Israel's socialist health-care system.

"It was born of frustration," said Frish, who founded the treatment village with a few army buddies. "These are not junkies. They're top-notch Israelis, reading the most serious literature. They're wonderful people."

Look what happens to Israeli youth, he said. Straight out of high school, they go immediately into the army, men and women alike. By the time they are allowed to make their own choices, they are in their early 20s, they have tasted war and fear, and have grappled with hard questions of conscience.

"They've been through so much they feel invincible and desensitized to danger," Frish said. "They've already lived through so much that they have to go much further to get a rush."

Frish says he helped pluck a young man from India who was babbling that God had ordered him to make peace on earth, but that he didn't know how. Another former soldier had become paranoid, convinced that his father had been killed in last year's attacks on Israeli targets in Mombasa, Kenya, but that nobody wanted to tell him.

They see ghosts. They believe they are inside a movie. They are tormented by blood-smeared memories and thoughts of their families.

"A lot of things float up in psychosis," Frish said. "It's a spiritual breakdown, an emergency. Your parameters for examining reality just go off."

If you ask Taub, the writer, the India overdoses are a symptom of "Israel's first post-romantic generation." As a group, he pointed out, the generation of Israelis now in their post-military years is more Americanized, more urban and more heavily bathed in secular pleasures like shopping malls and rap music.

It is also a group that fought for the Jewish state at a time when the support of their countrymen is far from unanimous. Israel is at war with itself over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's strategy in dealing with the Palestinians.

Many fear, and say so ever more openly, that harsh measures imposed on the Palestinians in the name of stifling terrorism will only end up stoking the hatred.

"Suddenly what the army is used for is not so clear," Taub said. "Think what that does to an 18-year-old."

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