As Israel Perpetuates Occupation, Its Youth Sees Little Value in Peace and Freedom

Israeli youth grows up seeing a parliament that passes nationalist, often outright racist laws, hears a Prime Minister who keeps fanning fear of Israels imminent demise by Iranian attack, and is told the world hates Israel no matter what it does.

A recent survey of the political opinion of Israeli youth shows a significant move to the right. More than sixty percent of 15 to 18 year olds and 21 to 24 year olds define themselves as rightwing; 60 percent of the first group prefers strong leaders to the rule of law; an overwhelming majority of the respondents do not believe that negotiations will lead to peace with Palestinians and prefer the status quo. The picture that emerges is of a profoundly pessimistic group that sees little reason for optimism – a group that prefers power over freedom and whose values are nationalistic.

How can this be explained? The youngsters who participated in the poll have never experienced a homeland without the occupation; they are too young to remember the hopes for peace in the 1990s. But they have memories of the second intifada, and many of them are traumatized by the suicide bombings. Those living in the North of the country have lived through the virtual paralysis of life created by Hezbollahs rocket attack in 2006; those living in the South have lived through the attacks from the Gaza strip until 2009.

Rightist protest - Moti Milrod - Feb 28, 2011
Moti Milrod

They grow up seeing a parliament that passes ever more nationalist and often outright racist laws; they hear a Prime Minister who keeps fanning fear of Israels imminent demise through Iranian attack, and are being told that the world hates Israel no matter what it does. The atmosphere in Israel has led to the point where a politician who takes a positive view toward peaceful coexistence becomes well-nigh unelectable: he or she would be accused of being hopelessly naive, selling out to the enemy and not caring for Israels citizens.

A large proportion of those 21 to 24 years old have done part of their army service in the territories. The 15 to 18 year old know that they will soon be called to do the same. The impact of this service is rarely spoken about in Israeli public discourse, and the attempts of Shovrim Shtika to have Israelis face the realities of the occupation are met with great hostility. Yariv Horowitzs poignant documentary Aftershock shows why: the memories of these soldiers are difficult to live with since they are filled with guilt and shame.

The studies published by the Tami Steimetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University in the book 40 Years of Occupation: The effect on Israeli Society show a clear trend. The longer the occupation continues, the more Israeli society is in need for narratives that justify it.

No group can live in the long run with a negative self-image. Israel has been occupying the territories for more than two-thirds of its history. This is no longer an episode - it is an essential part of Israels history. My students at Tel Aviv University describe growing up in a school system that emphasizes nationalist values, and they are not taught critical analysis of what they see in the TV news and other media. They are taught that Ben-Gurion was the founder of the State of Israel; but nobody tells Israels youth that Ben-Gurion had flatly opposed occupying the West-Bank in 1948, and immediately after the Six-Day War, thought the occupation would lead to catastrophe.

These youngsters live in a society described poignantly by David Grossman in his book Death as a Way of Life: behind the deafening noise of fiery political rhetoric. Behind the endless media chatter about the latest scandal, there is a dark, silent place in the soul of most Israelis: the place that knows that all of this, two-thirds of Israels history, was defined by the tragic historical mistake of the occupation.

The last towering figure of Israels peace camp, Shimon Peres, is 87-years-old. He is one of the very few voices of the official Israel who is capable of seeing a positive horizon in the recent Arab uprisings. No figure of similar status has risen to continue Rabins and Peres legacy; Most of Israels politicians teach the young nothing but fear and nationalism. Ehud Barak, who pushed toward the catastrophic Camp David Summit in the year 2000, serves in a right-wing government and has shattered what is left of the Labor Party.

These youngsters live in a society that tries to shut down this dark silent place with all its might; to the point that recently an award ceremony at an Israeli hospital was cancelled because Amos Oz, an internationally acclaimed towering writer who has been shortlisted for the Nobel Prize time and again, would speak there. The reason? Oz had sent Marwan Barghouti, the jailed Fatah Leader, his novel A Tale of Love and Darkness with a personal dedication "This story is our story, and I hope you read it and understand us better. Hoping you will soon see peace and freedom."

Israeli politicians keep pointing out that Arab countries will have a hard time evolving into full-fledged democracies. But we must not forget that the same holds true for Israel: youngsters who are taught that the greatest writers of their nations should be silenced because they continue to believe in peace and freedom lose hope and belief in democracy.