Close encounters of the 'coercive' kind
It’s a mission, I tell myself. But who in the hell sent me on it?
“This isn’t what the weather forecast predicted at the beginning of the week,” I said to my wife as I glanced out the window at the rainy morning. “What do you say?” “The kids will be really disappointed,” she replied, turning to look at the increasingly heavy rain. “Do whatever you want, but just don’t get stressed out. I myself won’t have the strength to go if you do.”
“Fine,” I said before we woke the kids for school. “Will you call to cancel?”
“Whatever you say,” she replied.
There was no choice, I tried to convince myself on the way to work. I really can’t drive up north with the kids in this rain. Driving in the rain always makes me uptight − not to mention driving in the rain with the kids. I will go alone to Kfar Vradim, I thought to myself. My talk there starts at 8 P.M., I’ll be done by 9:30, and if I’m lucky I’ll be able to start the drive back to Jerusalem at 10. It’ll take two-and-a-half hours to get back via the Trans-Israel, and I will stop at least once for a coffee and to refresh myself.
I can do it, I tried to persuade myself, it’ll be fine. The rain started to let up even before I got to the offices of the production company in Neveh Ilan. I started to feel guilty for canceling the B&B weekend with the kids.
“The rain is letting up,” I told my wife, on the phone. “What do you say?”
“Whatever you want,” she replied. “But I already called the B&B to cancel. They understood and were very nice about it.”
I wanted so badly to get out of the city for a bit, to escape from Jerusalem even for two days. I was totally wiped out and was convinced that a weekend with the kids would restore a little confidence to my life and to theirs. After all, the rain has let up, I thought to myself, and I really do need a rest ahead of the week that’s in store for me: writing for the new season and for the newspaper, and dealing with the other things I am working on. But most of all I need to rest before the meetings with people at events like the one I was going to at Kfar Vradim − events that are sometimes billed as lectures and in other cases as an encounter with a creative artist, a writer, a journalist. I had already had two like that this week; the Kfar Vradim event will be the third.
Most of the gatherings are held in libraries or cultural centers, in which case the work isn’t too hard. Ultimately, I meet with an audience of readers who know my work − the newspaper column, the books − and who really do come to ask questions and get to know me close-up. The tougher events are the ones I call “coercive encounters”: courses for army officers, talks to government officials. But hardest of all − and the reason I have to get away a little and recover − are the events with high-school students. Oh God, high-school students, why do I even bother? As though I don’t have enough work.
It’s a mission, I sometimes try to persuade myself, but who in the hell appointed me to be an emissary − who in the blazes is sending me? For some reason, I accept invitations to high schools. I know the meeting will be tough-to-terrible, but then I think that these youngsters will soon become soldiers and maybe despite everything they will hear me out, listen to me. Maybe I will be able to plant a small seed of doubt in a few of them, even one of them. Not the kind of doubt that will stop anyone from doing army service, heaven forbid, but the kind of doubt that will make them understand what they’re getting into. Doubt that will make them understand that they will be dealing with human beings.
“You’re all bloodthirsty,” one boy shouted at me that week, “a bloodthirsty gang that only wants to throw us into the sea.”
To talk to high-school students during a week of fighting in the south was especially hard. “The terrorists have been sending missiles at us since we left Gaza!” the students said.
Go explain to them that you don’t advocate violence, in order to soften them up before you explain to them that Gaza is one giant prison of refugees. Go explain to high-school students what it means to be a refugee without hope, who sees Israel as the cause of his plight.
Go explain to high-school students who have gone on one of those “Masa Yisraeli” heritage trips and learned about the UN Partition Plan that Israel is responsible for the situation of the refugees.
Oh God, I really need this break. All I want to do is turn off the phone and go to the B&B with my wife and the children.
“Reserve it again,” I told my wife. “We’re going.”
“And you won’t get stressed out?”
“I promise. I’m coming back home now.”
The kids were rapturous about being taken out of school. I drove slowly, very slowly. The rain was tolerable, but the palms of my hands were sweating and the winds sweeping across the Trans-Israel Highway freaked me out. But I am experienced by now and know how to breathe like a human being. The children fell asleep in the back seat with smiles on their faces; even the baby somehow sensed that we were on the way to a holiday.
“High-school students are a terrible breed,” I suddenly said somewhere near Yokne’am.
“Yes,” my wife replied. “I notice you got back shaken from the last encounter.”
“And that was considered a good high school, too,” I said. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to stand opposite kids who are convinced that the Arab-Israeli conflict is actually a cultural dispute, or a psychological one?”
“I really don’t understand why you do it,” she said.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s because I myself went to a Jewish high school, I don’t know,” I said, trying to explain. “It’s like I have an unsettled account with the high school I went to.”
“And what about our daughter?” she asked. I shifted my gaze from the road to the mirror for a moment. Our daughter was sleeping and had a smile of anticipation on her lips. What will it be like for her next year, I wondered, when she will be the only Arab in her grade, at the school she wanted to get into so much.
“It’ll be fine,” I replied.
“You think so?”