The Devil's Playgrounds

On a Friday night in Gedera, with little else to do, kids as young as 10 are drinking and fighting. The members of the 'parents squad' seem to be the only ones who are willing to do something about it

If I were a boy of 10 living in the town of Gedera today, I would find myself at midnight between Friday and Saturday at the Gozlan Center in new Gedera. The Gozlan Center is a dim, open-air shopping mall, where a feeble light shines only in a small kiosk. I'd probably be busy there fleeing from someone who had drunk too much, or chasing him, or yelling for no reason, or dying of boredom.

If I were a boy of 10 from Gedera who wanted to spend time with his friends, I would have no alternative but to hang out at Gozlan where, in the faint illumination of shop windows, I would be running around with 30 or 40 others of my age, and older, trying to dispel the tedium.

Gedera parents squad Oren Izreel
Oren Izreel

On Friday two weeks ago, a bit after midnight, I witnessed a big fight at Gozlan. I saw a boy of 14, in a plaid shirt, protect his face with his two hands, trying to avoid a threatening onslaught by another boy. There was a ruckus around them. The attacker: "Ethiopian." The boy under attack: "totally drunk."

That diagnosis came from Galit Daniel, coordinator of the "parents squad" that broke up the fight between the two boys. The Gedera squad, like the United Nations forces in Sarajevo in the day, is not expected to prevent violence, but rather to keep it on a low flame.

Four other members of the patrol, in phosphorescent green shirts, tried to help Daniel. They were swallowed up into the knot of excited boys, flinging arms and threatening fists. One of the parents staunchly defended an open box of cookies she intended to offer anyone who was willing to take a break from the melee. In the end the attacker disappeared into one of the shopping center's dark halls.

At 12:45 A.M., a powerful-looking man, in shorts and a knit shirt, climbed the steps of the shopping center. He was the father of the boy in the plaid shirt, and he was barefoot. It seemed he was called out urgently. His footsteps were quick and determined, and boded ill. He went up to the boy and led him to his car, clasping his son's neck gently between thumb and forefinger. Tempers abated a bit. The children sat down in groups to talk about the events of the evening.

Daniel said it had been "an unusual incident," and that it had been an "especially bad" night. Two hours earlier I had been in "veteran Gedera," where the "Ethiopians" live. The main drag, Weizmann Street, is broad, well-lit and empty. Only Ethiopian youngsters are out on the street. A small group of children watches me inquisitively. Then they shake my hand, wish me a "Shabbat Shalom," and vanish into the dimness of the adjacent public park. A moment later the sounds of breaking bottles and shouts come from the park.

The cookie war

At Beit Hakashish (the senior center ) adjacent to Weizmann Street the members of the parent patrol prepare for their nocturnal mission. In Gedera the squad numbers 78 volunteers: parents who establish a presence in the places where the local youngsters gather and roam on weekend nights between 11 P.M. and 3 A.M.

Last Friday, 10 parents, aged 35 to 45, showed up for a patrol shift. Among them were high-tech people, an industrial designer, a court stenographer and housewives. All of them have children in their teens. All wore knit shirts with the logo "parents squad."

Their aim is simple: "Being there." They do not scold and they do not preach. They are prepared to admit to "social drinking" from time to time, but the term "blind drunk" disgusts them. They too used to get blind drunk. But not on beer and they weren't 11 years old at the time. All of them agree, "The kids have nothing to do on a Friday night," and they console themselves that, "in Tel Aviv and in Rishon Letzion it's the same." But Tel Aviv, a 45-minute drive on a Friday night, seems further away than ever.

In small locales like Gedera, most people stay home. The big carousers in the small-time town congregate at the Zan Nadir (Rare Breed ) Cafe. The really wild folks hang out until the wee hours at the local bar, Alma. But neither the cafe nor the bar are intended for children. They roam the streets or the parks. Five of them chip in to buy a bottle of vodka for NIS 30, they add to this a bottle of orange juice and thus, for NIS 6 or NIS 7 each, they can get plastered. For the kids who find Gedera too small, the big metropolis and partying center is nearby Rehovot.

"On Herzl Street in Rehovot you can find hundreds of drunken kids," Police Commissioner David Cohen told Haaretz two years ago. "That's their culture. There's nothing I can do about the culture ... I see them at two o'clock in the morning, threatening one another with broken bottles."

Meanwhile at the senior citizens center, the parents are preparing to set out. On the table, boxes of cookies and bottles of water are stacked up. This is the ammunition that will help them grapple later with the imbibers of vodka. Patrollers have already seen rampages and destruction of property caused by intoxication.

The town's other parents, it emerges in conversations with squad members, are on the other side of the divide. The patrol participants seek to identify with the kids - not the parents. They try to calm down rioters and misbehavers; they do not educate. They also report back discreetly to the "system" - that is, the schools and welfare bureau - in the expectation that they will do the real work.

On the stairs outside the small hall where the patrol members are getting organized is a group of kids, aged 13 to 15. One is apparently a victim of "the system." A teacher, whose name he mentions, told him the patrol members had reported his drinking. He is angry. In the squad they are angry, too. Their relationship with the youngsters is built on discretion and cookies, and they will definitely have a word or two with that teacher. It's not just the teachers - you also can't rely on parents, it seems.

The members of the patrol are all familiar with the remarks two years ago by Chief Superintendent Alon Grossman in the Knesset Committee on the Rights of the Child: "Twenty years ago I would summon a parent to take his child from the police station and I had to hold him back from hitting the child. Today I have to hold back the father to keep him from hitting the policeman who woke him up."

Parents, it seems, are the weak link in the system aimed at saving the children from themselves. Indeed, squad members say they think twice before they call and inform parents of a seriously inebriated child. The response - they know from experience - will range somewhere between, "You're just a fearmonger," through "That's not my kid," to "Why are you butting in, anyway?"

In a small place like Gedera, conflicts with parents don't play out only on the phone. After all, everyone knows everyone else and sees them the next day at the supermarket. All the patrollers mourn, in chorus, "the loss of parental authority." Everyone criticizes parents' desire to be "their children's friends" - or, at least, to be like them. Most everyone seems to have surrendered to this trend. One of the squad members, however, maintains a conservative view: "I provide them with food and clothing, no? So I have the right to demand that they are considerate of me." Others talk about being afraid of their children. Yes, says another man in the group, a parent now needs a lawyer at his side when he confronts his children.

Children whose parents are on the patrol have mixed feelings about this. Some are ashamed of them, others are proud. Presumably tough conversations about the parents take place at the water fountain in the school corridor, but the parents will never know their content.

An impenetrable wall seems to divide parents and children here, and every attempt on the part of the former "to be friends" with the latter is destined to shatter against that wall. A young woman of about 20 with whom I spoke had harsh criticism of "parents' getting involved in their children's lives." She compared the patrols in the parks to entering a child's room without warning, or to peeking at his computer screen over his shoulder.

Children who are aware of the consequences of heavy drinking ridicule the way the adults relate to it. "As though the kids don't know," writes one girl on an Internet site, "that after excessive drinking there is nausea and vomiting." Another girl criticizes the adults' use of horror stories to dissuade youngsters from drinking excessively: "It's like parents who refuse to let their kids learn about sex, and then their daughter finds herself pregnant because no one told her to use a condom."

On a website intended for alcohol-lovers, the proprietor declares, "As long as drinking alcohol is seen as a taboo that mustn't be discussed between parents and children, it will continue to look this way. Children will continue to throw up in clubs and the acts of violence will continue there."

Tamir Leon, an applied anthropologist who has studied youth culture, hears the term "education about drinking" and snorts scornfully. "You tell a child 'drink in moderation' and he interprets this to mean: Drink all the time and a lot. That's how children are."

Leon is absolutely convinced the message must be: Until the age of 18 there is no drinking, period. He has appeared before the Gedera squad, and the parents were very impressed by him. Alongside the boredom and the social pressure, which are known to be motivations for drinking among children, he mentions the "screen culture" as a major reason: The time children spend with the computer, the television and the mobile phone, in his opinion, neutralizes their intimate, interpersonal conversation skills. "They no longer know how to talk," he says. They have discovered that only a vodka bottle enables them to open up and talk to one another.

A dark park

From afar, Reut Park doesn't look like a place where heart-to-heart talks take place. Sometimes, says Galit Daniel, it's even dangerous here. Daniel and other patrollers are on the way to the most daring mission of the evening, in this park. Such parks are popular places for children in small communities to hang out, far from parents' eyes, under cover of the dim illumination of a streetlight. Exactly the place for the alcohol-fueled "intimate conversation" of which Leon spoke.

This year a law was passed that will supposedly restore places like Reut Park to their original purpose - that is, as a public park. Alarming statistics led to the legislation. Twenty percent of the 11-year-olds in Israel attest that they drink an alcoholic beverage at least once a week. Israel is second only to Ukraine in the age of youngsters who drink to intoxication, ahead of big alcohol powers like Russia and England.

Under the new law, a policeman is entitled to pour out, at any hour of the day, alcohol in the possession of minors in a public place. In Tel Aviv, at places where youngsters congregate, this policy has had a certain amount of success. South of there, in Gedera, it is creeping along at a snail's pace. The new dictate hasn't reached Reut Park.

It is 1 A.M. in that park. On the swings four 16-year-olds are going wild. They are loud and hoarse - evidence of recent adolescent voice changes. They aren't doing any harm, but they are boisterous. Three girls who aren't participating in the fun sit off to the side. They want to go home already. Squad members promise to accompany them and they nod their heads in thanks.

Uphill, in the darker part of the park, something is happening. Dark shadows are moving there in ominous silence. The patrol gathers its courage and decides to go up there, not before it is ascertained that there is backup support and an adequate cookie supply has been confirmed. Five Ethiopian youngsters are sitting there. The vodka is trembling in plastic glasses in their hands. Gedera, with an overall population of some 20,000, has about 2,000 immigrants from Ethiopia. Most of them are concentrated in the small town's northern section. Eight of the parents on the squad are Ethiopian.

Gedera's schools are integrated; the children from the newer part of town attend school with children from veteran Gedera, but at the Gozlan shopping center and at Reut Park, the segregation is evident. Each group hangs out separately; the Ethiopians are in the dark part. They are in their late teens and early 20s. The vodka encourages them to hold a lengthy discussion with the patient patrollers. Their voices are thickened from the drinking and their gestures are exaggerated. They talk about politics, about being young and about God. It's an empty, unfocused discussion. The alcohol does not make it more interesting.

"Yes, yes," one sharp Ethiopian youngster sums up, looking at his empty glass, "I have to admit, it's dead boring here in Gedera."