Summer in the Shadow of War: Israeli Teens Tell Their Stories

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

This wasn’t the summer they had planned on. When school let out in June, these young Israelis had imagined spending the next two months doing what most kids do during the long school break: going to camp, catching waves at the beach, playing ball, finding odd jobs, watching late-night movies, and hanging out with friends at the local ice-cream parlor.

Little did they know they would spend the better part of their long-awaited vacation, in some cases, running in and out of bomb shelters. Nor could they have anticipated that their fathers, siblings, relatives and neighbors might suddenly be called up for combat duty in Operation Protective Edge.

For young pre-army Israelis, it’s been a tense and sad summer. With many camps and other organized programs canceled out of safety considerations, there was less opportunity to socialize with friends and peers. Participating in outdoor activities became a challenge when every excursion required locating the nearest bomb shelter beforehand. Even sitting home and watching television did not provide the usual relaxation when programs were constantly disrupted by news bulletins providing updates on the latest casualty figures.

How did events of this summer affect Israeli teens' plans and influence their mind set? Haaretz asked a group of them to share some of their experiences and thoughts on politics and their own future army service. Here’s what they had to say:

Osher Assulin, 16, from Netivot

A 16-year-old from the southern town of Netivot, Osher Assulin had originally planned on hanging out with friends this summer at the local pool. Instead, he ended up devoting himself to volunteer work.

“I was sitting at home with nothing to do, and I said to myself that I should be giving something of myself to others,” recounts Osher, who attends a religious high school outside his hometown, which is located halfway between Be'er Sheva and the Gaza Strip.

Through the local community center, he helped organize activities in bomb shelters for local children so that they wouldn’t have to be bored and cooped up at home all day. In the evenings, he and his friends would prepare food and deliver it to soldiers stationed at the border, bringing some of them back to their homes in Netivot afterward so they could shower. Osher has a cousin in the Golani infantry brigade who participated in the ground incursion in Gaza. But when it comes to his own military service, he has “slightly higher ambitions,” he says. “I want to join one of the elite special forces, and that’s why I’m doing a special prep course now.”

Describing himself as “on the right” politically, Osher has little patience for leftists, who he says “got on my nerves” during the war, and explains: “Soldiers were getting killed, and they allow themselves to talk about war crimes.”

Hodaya Fantahun, 12.5, from Bat Yam

Born in Ethiopia, Hodaya Fantahun immigrated to Israel with her parents and two older brothers when she was 4 years old. The 12-and-a-half year old, who likes running and making short movies, had planned on spending the summer visiting relatives in the north of the country. “I’m too old for camp,” she explains. But after rockets started landing near her home in Bat Yam, just outside Tel Aviv, her mother insisted she stay close by. “All the sirens and rockets made her very panicky,” she relates.

Hodaya, who attends a religious school in Tel Aviv, spent most of the summer hanging out at the park near her home for lack of anything more exciting to do. Even television, she says, didn’t provide the usual escape.

“I tend to watch a lot of TV, but it was hard for me to hear all the time about people being killed and injured, so I just kind of tuned out," she says.

Although many religious girls do not join the army, Hodaya says it’s an option she is definitely considering. “Even though I wasn’t born here, this is my country, and I feel I should defend it,” she says. Her political leanings? “I don’t really have any,” she responds. “Politics doesn’t interest me.”

Yoav Holtsman, 16, from Tel Mond

It was in the middle of a trip to Canada that 16-year-old Yoav Holtsman learned Israel was at war in Gaza again this summer. This time he was particularly concerned because three members of his family – his dad, his brother and his sister – were all involved. While his father and sister did not see action, his 19-year-old brother, who serves in an elite unit, took part in the ground incursion into Gaza.

“The war definitely changed the mood of my whole trip,” says Yoav, who lives in the town of Tel Mond, not far from Netanya. His father, a retired career officer, volunteered for reserve duty during the war at Israel Defense Forces' headquarters in Tel Aviv, while his sister was serving in the West Bank.

Yoav says his main form of recreation these days is working out in a gym, though his goal in not necessarily to get into an elite unit like his brother. “On the one hand, this war turned me off to serving in a combat unit, because you see soldiers getting killed,” he says. “On the other, I know that if you want to defend and serve your country, that’s the way.”

Politically, Yoav describes himself as “in the center,” though he notes that the war “pushed me a little to the right, but it didn’t make me extreme in any way.”

Omar Jabareen, 17, from Umm al-Fahm

Omar Jabareen, a 17-year-old Israeli Arab who spends much of his time in the company of Jews, says he’s had an especially challenging summer. One of four children, he hails from the large Arab town of Umm al-Fahm, where he is captain of the local youth soccer team. But for the past several years, he’s been attending the Kfar Hayarok boarding school outside of Tel Aviv.

“I wanted to study art, but where I come from there are no art programs,” he explains, adding that he plans to study architecture after he graduates high school next year.

Omar was participating in a Jewish-Arab coexistence program in the United States when war broke out back home. When he returned to Israel, he began working as a housekeeper at the Kfar Hayarok school, which doubles as a hotel during the summer, to earn some extra cash. His conversations with Jews became especially heated there, Omar says.

“I had a really good friend who began posting really offensive things on Facebook,” he reports. “He wrote that Israel should level Gaza. Things got so bad between us that we don’t talk to each other anymore. Many of my Jewish friends don’t understand that we are Palestinians and part of the same nation as the people in Gaza.”

However, if anything has changed his views this summer, Omar explains, it wasn’t the war, but rather his participation in a coexistence program. “I learned there that it’s important to try to understand the other side as well, and to be more calm and accepting,” he says.

Assaf Lowengart, 16, from Timorim

His big passion in life is baseball, and 16-year-old Assaf Lowengart had even considered applying for a special program in the army, which allows outstanding athletes to take time off during their service to play their sport.

Ever since the IDF operation began in Gaza, though, he’s been revisiting his plans.

“Now I’m leaning more toward doing combat duty and joining a special unit, maybe Shaldag [an elite air force commando unit],” he says.

The youngest of three children, Assaf lives with his family on Timorim, a moshav (cooperative farming community) in the south, not far from the town of Kiryat Malakhi. Aside from participating in a baseball trainer’s course, he spent the summer working in the nearby vineyards. “I like agriculture,” he says, “but I do it mainly for the money.”

During the last round of fighting in Gaza in November 2012, a rocket landed right near his neighbor’s home. This time, he says s, a few fell in open areas around the moshav. Assaf’s grandfather was killed in the 1967 Six-Day War, and the one person he knows who was killed in the latest round of fighting was Sgt. Shon Mondshine; they played on the same Tel Aviv baseball team. “It made the war more real for me,” Assaf says.

The war strengthened his right-wing views, he adds, and if he had to vote for a party right now, it would probably be one that’s “right-center, but nothing as extreme as Lieberman,” he says, referring to the Yisrael Beiteinu party, chaired by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Mishelle Rubinshtein, 15, from Holon

The daughter of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Mishelle Rubinshtein had just taken up figure skating this summer when she had to put her newly mastered snow-plow stop to the test. That was when a “red alert” siren signaled that Hamas rockets were on the way to her hometown of Holon, where the ice-skating rink happens to be. “There wasn’t really anywhere to run for cover except under the stairs,” she recounts.

The middle sister of three, Mishelle explains that aside from figure skating and roller blading, she didn’t do much else this summer. “The whole summer was trashed because of the war,” she says, adding that her older sister’s boyfriend is in the army, but fortunately did not serve in Gaza. “We were all very worried about him,” she confides.

When asked what her favorite subjects in school are, Mishelle responds that “I don’t have any favorite subjects – rather, I have subjects that are important, and those are math, English and Hebrew expression.”

She still hasn’t given it much thought, but says she “supposes” she will join the army when the time comes. As for whether the war has changed her political views, she says: “I don’t really think much about politics. All I could think about this summer was that I just wanted this to be over because all the sirens were really stressing me out.”

Tom Silberberg, 18, from Kfar Sava

As part of a gap-year program she begins later this month, 18-year-old Tom Silberberg was supposed to have spent the summer doing volunteer work in one of the disadvantaged communities down south most heavily targeted by Hamas rockets. To her great disappointment, her plans were called off because of safety concerns. The recent high-school graduate from Kfar Sava, who sings, writes music and plays the guitar, did enjoy a trip oversees this summer with her family, but that too was overshadowed by the war.

“We took a family 'roots' trip to Hungary and Slovakia, but we spent a lot of time worrying there about what was going on back here. Somehow, when you’re in the country, it’s easier to deal with because you know exactly what’s going on,” Tom explains.

There were some difficult discussions on the trip about the goings-on in Gaza, she says, noting that “even though my family tends to the left in their politics, it was hard to hold a conversation about what needs to be done so that things can be better here.”

Tom says she hopes to work on a Jewish-Arab coexistence project during her gap-year program, “but who knows if I’ll be able to recruit anyone now.” For the past few years, she’s been struggling with the question of whether to join the IDF because she considers herself a pacifist. “The war this summer made my dilemma even stronger,” she acknowledges.

Eden Spigelman, 14, from Tel Aviv

In past summers, Eden and her friends in Tel Aviv would spend almost every day at the beach. Not this vacation.

“I haven’t gone in a few weeks,” she says. “It’s not only that I’m afraid of the sirens going off, but also my friends’ parents don’t allow them to go.”

The oldest of three sisters, 14-year-old Eden spent some time in recent weeks in Acre, out of Hamas rocket range, where she participated in a Sea Scouts camp. Since she’s come home, however, the signs of war were more evident.

“It’s the little things, like if I go out with my friends in the evening to get a bite to eat, you can’t avoid the signs all over the place showing you where the nearest bomb shelter is,” she says. “And even if you try to escape for 10 minutes and go on Facebook or turn on the TV, it’s always there.”

Eden grew up in a family with a left-wing orientation, and that’s where she defines herself as well on the political spectrum. Asked if the war has changed her views, she responds: “It has made them stronger actually. I believe that people in Gaza are suffering more than I am, and it’s not necessarily all their fault. It’s more the fault of Hamas. I want them to live in peace with us.

"I’m against war," says Eden. "I don’t think anyone wins in a war. I’m just sad that people from Israel are dying and innocent people from Gaza are dying.”

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