Kids’ Hero in the Tunnels of Hamas

Children’s games during and following a war reflect both their innermost fears and the pervasive social climate of the time.

At a cinema summer camp in the center of the country they announced the final assignment last week: a film that the children would produce on their own. The 12-year-olds were divided into two groups and asked to write scripts based on film genres. One group decided to write a script inspired by science fiction films, and the second to draw from the tradition of Westerns. The next morning the children in each group were secluded in separate groups and began to write. At the end of the day they met and presented their results. And surprise, surprise: Both groups wrote scripts in which tunnels played a central role. In one, children fell into a pit that turned into a time tunnel. In the other story, cowboys on horses stopped riding, tied their horses and descended into subterranean tunnels. Cut.

Apparently the discovery of the tunnels in the south – a phenomenon that provided material for endless reports and discussions during the war in Gaza, which caused anxiety and nightmares but also was the subject of jokes and parodies – fired children’s imagination too.

A war provides strong and clear images of death and destruction. In the era of mega-media and technology it is almost impossible to escape those images – the columns of smoke, the ruins, the wounded, the rows of dead, the refugees. And in the background sounds of explosions with the landing of shells or rockets, the whistling of bullets, air raid sirens and ambulance sirens, which were broadcast repeatedly and reinforced the war experience.

There has probably been no other war in Israel like the campaign in Gaza, in which these sights and sounds were so accessible to children. Even the parental urge to protect their children from the evil in the world was not sufficient. If in the past, during periods of war or terror attacks, the worry and tension were filtered via parents’ worried looks, whispering above the children’s heads, today every child connected to Facebook can attain the facts on his own, unfiltered, without being dependent on parents or teachers – and in doing so formulate their own understanding of the situation.

War images from bygone days. Photo by Haim Grossman Collection

Playing is the natural channel of expression for children. Within two weeks of the firing of missiles and the operation of the Iron Dome missile defense system, you could find ball games called Iron Dome, a game of tag turned into a game of catching soldiers, or soldiers and Hamas. Another reaction that typifies the present war: Children who let off steam by imitating sirens as they walk down the streets in groups.

Was there a time when children were less exposed to war, which usually was waged far from them? Did adults protect them more than at present? Did they react during the war or only afterwards? And in general, is the mediation of adults important for fostering fortitude and preventing trauma, or perhaps on the contrary: If we don’t hide anything and everything is out in the open, you can also talk about everything and release the pressure.

“Vacation” in the middle of the year

In the 1950s and 1960s children’s magazines assumed the task of explaining the war to youngsters and mobilizing them to understand the just nature of the war. At least at the beginning, there were children who felt that they were part of the experience. In his autobiographical book “A Tale of Love and Darkness” Amoz Oz tells how he would move the flags on the map of Israel in his room according to the progress of the forces.

But in later years war seems to have gone over children’s heads. Anyone who was a child of elementary school age in the 1960s and 1970s – in the center of the country and not in border areas – actually has pleasant memories of the war periods. What’s wrong with time off from school in the middle of the year, even if it’s in a bomb shelter, with children of the same age? And even if the adults listened to the radio with worried expressions, the children were not really impressed by that.

In days gone by, children's toys were decorated by warlike images. Photo by Haim Grossman Collection

Dr. Orit Rozin, a Tel Aviv University historian who grew up in Kfar Maas, has fond memories of the Six-Day War period, when she was 8 years old. “I remember that I came home from school in the middle of the day, because war had broken out. The father of a boy from my class came to pick him up, and I was happy to join,” she laughed.

She also recalls that “there were lots of games in the bomb shelter. We got a one-week “summer vacation.” Every night we would hear the reverberations of the exploding shells from Netanya. My mother put me to bed, and there was nothing as unusual as that in the yekke (German Jewish) household I grew up in. She said that I shouldn’t worry and that everything was fine, and only then did I know at once that everything was not fine.”

Prof. Na’ama Sheffi of Sapir Academic College near Sderot remembers well how the Six-Day War was translated into the world of childhood. “I was at the end of first grade during the war,” she says. “For at least a year we would dig trenches and hide inside them, with pine needles on top serving as camouflage.”

During the war the image of bunkers was a central one, she explains, because that was how people defended themselves. Bunkers also appeared in the songs of the period, “Ammunition Hill,” for example. “In our school there weren’t enough protected spaces and they dug trenches for us. So we experienced the war physically. Those are things that filter down.”

Hearing the two scholars one cannot help but wonder whether the tunnels will soon become a children’s game in the kindergarten playground. And maybe one day they’ll even become a computer game invented by young people who experienced the present war.

Children have always enjoyed identifying with military heroes. Photo by Haim Grossman Collection

The Six-Day War was apparently not so different from our era in terms of the media blitz, even if the means are now outdated. That is one of the reasons why “children experienced the war like adults,” without mediation, as Sheffi explains. “Within a few months the anxiety that was in the air during the period of waiting for the war made way for excitement about the occupation. The Six-Day War was an exceptional case where, because of the intensity of the experience – first the anxiety and then conquering the territories, which was seen as positive, and the euphoria. It was reflected [in everyday culture] very soon afterward.”

The culture of war, of which children were enthusiastic consumers, was blatant in the children’s magazines, in pictures of soldiers and a rich material culture of games, postcards and pictures. Even literature, which requires time to react, was mobilized. On Rosh Hashanah of that year (half a year after the end of the war), says Sheffi, there was already reference to the war in the children’s press, such as quizzes about the occupied areas. Major corporations such as Shemen distributed key chains with pictures of the new celebrities: Israel Defense Forces generals in uniforms decorated with the symbols of the army units. There were also militaristic books for children, such as “Azit the Paratrooper Dog.”

Israeli patriotism is a phenomenon, and children are the target for absorbing the messages. “A soldier became the most popular image already after the founding of the state,” says Dr. Haim Grossman, a researcher of popular culture. “But after the Six-Day War until the Yom Kippur War, there’s an abundance of soldiers everywhere. The number of board games, cutouts, postcards, notebooks with the symbols of army units etc. is endless.”

This phenomenon dwindled over time, he notes. “During the Yom Kippur War, and later in the [first] Lebanon War, the consensus was broken. It’s not that we no longer love soldiers, but the consensus surrounding the leaders, those who activate the soldier, was broken.”

Who is allowed to be afraid

A huge difference between past wars and today’s stems from the attitude toward the emotional lives of children. As opposed to the open attitude today – perhaps too open, some will say – to the effect that it is legitimate to be afraid, in the patriotic society of the past there was no room for fears and they were suppressed.

War images from bygone days. Photo by Haim Grossman Collection

Rozin, who is now involved in a study of fear and fortitude in kibbutz society in the 1950s and 1960s, says that “in societal terms, the only ones who are allowed to be afraid are children. Women are allowed to a lesser degree, and for men there is absolutely no legitimacy for giving in to fear. The question that preoccupied them at the time was what are we as adults doing in order to contain the children’s fear, to moderate and contain it.

“The kibbutzim developed organized habits: There’s a ritual of going to the bomb shelters, they turn it into fun. There are games and activities, rituals and repetition. It’s very clear that the adults convey fortitude. My feeling is that even the strongest kibbutznikim were afraid, but they conveyed the messages in a way that was legitimate at the time.”

If until 1973 fear is treated in children’s literature as something unmanly that typifies women and girls and the enemy, after the Yom Kippur War we already see explanations of the fact that fear is a natural feeling. “In the Danidin book [a series of popular children’s adventure stories with an invisible hero] that was published after the Six-Day War, the Arabs are the ones who are scared,” notes Yael Teff-Seker, a researcher at the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Tolerance in School Education. “On the other hand, Uri Orlev’s book ‘The Thing in the Dark,’ which was published after 1973, is a book whose subject is bereavement and is also connected to fears. The book tells about a boy whose father was killed in the war who’s afraid of the monster under his bed. With time he learns to love it and connects it to his father.”

The explanation for the change is that the Yom Kippur War led to “seclusion, licking wounds, a sense of uncertainty,” she says.

Tanks and kids go hand-in-hand. Photo by Haim Grossman Collection

Is Azit coming back?

Is it possible to foresee that the present war, with its fanning of fears on the one hand and ultranationalist sentiments on the other, including giving free rein to belligerence and racism against Arabs, will cause a regression and be reflected in patriotic content in books, films and television programs for children?

Prof. Sheffi is not optimistic. She says there is a very worrisome rehashing of messages that were common during the Six-Day War. “My feeling is that we are totally rehashing with this wave of ultranationalism,” she says. “It’s happening because the functions of the battlefront and the home front are somewhat confused. It’s a very threatening wave.”

Haim Grossman Collection