Terror is nothing new to Israelis. Neither are wars or missile attacks. Yet the latest spate of stabbings around the country has left many Israelis feeling more vulnerable than ever.
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And there’s good reason for that: Israelis don’t know what they should or shouldn’t be doing these days to avoid danger because, in contrast to similar situations in the past, nobody has bothered telling them. There are no public service announcements from the Home Front Command advising people how to act under threat of attack, nor is there any specific information about places and situations to avoid. At best, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior members of his cabinet have advised Israelis to stay alert when going about their daily business.
The growing sense of helplessness ordinary Israelis feel as a result, report mental health specialists, is taking its toll.
“We’ve witnessed a dramatic increase in calls to our hotline,” says Gila Sella, a specialist in post-traumatic-stress-disorder, who directs the help line at Natal – Israel Trauma Center for Victims of Terror and War. “People just don’t know what to do. Last summer, during the war, when there were sirens, you knew that you had to run to a safe room. As a result, people felt in control. Today, they don’t.”
Natal, she says, has mobilized its entire volunteer staff to handle the onslaught of calls from teens, parents and educators seeking advice in recent days on how to cope with a situation that has shaken up even normally cool-headed and crisis-weathered Israelis.
During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, Israelis knew to steer clear of the occupied territories to avoid stone-throwing protestors. During the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, many avoided crowded buses and cafes – those places considered most desirable by suicide bombers for carrying out attacks. During the Gulf wars, they were trained to carry around gas masks in case of a chemical weapon attack, and when missiles from Gaza rained down on them several years later, there were Iron Dome interceptors to protect them as they huddled together in safe rooms.
But for knife attacks, as they’ve discovered, there are no early warning systems or safe spaces.
There’s another reason for Israelis to feel extra jittery these days, explains clinical psychotherapist Amir Shefer. “These stabbing attacks are happening all over the country in different places,” he notes. “It’s not like previous rounds of violence where the incidents were concentrated in specific areas so that you knew that if you avoided those areas, you were relatively safe. Today you can’t know for sure.”
Based on his professional observations, Shefer, a specialist in cognitive behavioral therapy, concludes: “Anxiety levels in the country are up across the board.”
According to Sella, many of the calls received at Natal’s hotline in recent days have come from teachers and counselors seeking advice on how best to handle anxious school children. “Obviously, we have no magical formulas to share, but what we tell them is that it’s important to get the children to talk about how they’re feeling. And in this atmosphere of absolute chaos, the best advice we can give both parents and teachers is to stick to routines as much as possible.”
The Ministry of Education has been sharing similar recommendations with teachers, says Avital Taharlev, deputy director of its psychology department. “As much as we say that attention should be paid to children at times like these, it’s also important to monitor how the adults are interacting with them and make sure that they are putting out the right message. Panic and anxiety are contagious, and parents and teachers need to serve as role models at times like these and set the mood.”
The Education Ministry, says Taharlev, has encouraged teachers to discuss current events with their pupils but not overload them with information. “Too much information can hurt,” she notes.
And while it may not be possible to change the security situation, adds Taharlev, other factors affecting daily life are subject to control. “It is absolutely possible to help children develop their resilience at times like this.”
Dana Polak-Oren, a clinical psychologist based in Tel Aviv who specializes in anxieties disorders, says the security situation comes up in all her conversations with patients these days. “What’s most difficult for people,” she notes, “is the sporadic nature of the attacks. It’s not like it’s just happening in malls, in buses, or in restaurants. It’s happening everywhere, and it can’t be predicted, which is why fear is a very normal reaction.”
What parents and teachers need to keep an eye out for are fears that turn into anxieties. “That happens when people begin responding disproportionately to events and when they stop interpreting things correctly. For example, and this happened to me the other day, if you hear thunder, and you think it’s gunshots, that’s a sign of anxiety,” says Polak-Oren. “When people stop going out because every place feels threatening to them, that’s anxiety.”
To prevent it, Polak-Oren recommends that parents not expose their children to too much news “even though there is that temptation at 8 P.M. to turn on the television for the evening news bulletin.”
Despite the very real threats to personal safety these days, she notes that most Israelis who leave the house in the morning come home in one piece. “So, in fact, we still live in a pretty safe environment,” says Polak-Oren, “and that is a message that should be conveyed to children.”
It is also important that children be taught not to fear all Arabs, she notes. “Arabs make up roughly 20 percent of our population, and it is important that parents explain that most Arabs are good people with family and children like them. They are sending a very bad message if they jump when they see an Arab.”