This is the first of a series of blogs I will be releasing this year in the lead-up to the publication of my first book, 21 Elephants, in the second half of 2016. While the content is not from the book, these articles are a further unpacking of some of the ideas it explores.
We arrived in Tel Aviv just before 5am. Our flight was due at 11pm the day before but a snowstorm in Istanbul almost shut down the airport as planes had to be de-iced for hours before they could take off safely. With the night all but gone we decided it wasn’t worth checking into our accommodation and got straight on the train to our final destination at Tiberias on Lake Galilee in the north.
I had almost drifted off when Anna nudged me awake and gestured inconspicuously to someone or something behind me. I turned around and looked across the aisle where a girl no older than 19 sat playing candy crush on her phone and listening to what sounded like Jay Z or Kanye.
It was a normal picture of a teenager back home except for the military uniform and the assault rifle on her lap. I’d seen plenty of armed people before on previous travels but most of them were crewcut men in their thirties or forties with expressionless faces and locked limbs standing straight at their posts. The idea that this girl, no older than many of the young people we have worked with over the past few years at Zeal, would casually go about all the usual marks of adolescence with a lethal weapon poised on her lap was profoundly disturbing.
As we wound our way toward Haifa more young people stepped on at different stations with similar weapons, hugging each other, talking about the latest movies they’d seen and who liked who. It wasn’t until an hour or two later that I remembered something chilling...
These kids were on their way to school.
Israel has a policy of two years of compulsory military service for school-leavers much like Singapore. They are trained for a few months and then sent out to maintain the security of the Israeli State, as well as to occupy illegal territory in Palestine. These are the military who are sent to patrol checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. These are the kids who are cutting down other kids because they throw stones at them. My teenage years are a blur of text-messages, hormones, late night ten-pin bowling, movies and sleepovers. Theirs are the same, but infiltrated and hijacked by the military agenda of extremists.
A few days later while in Hebron I would walk through the checkpoint to the Ibrahimi Mosque where in 1994 an Israeli extremist opened fire on killing 29 Muslims during prayer. Again I saw teenagers manning the checkpoint, three of them all with lollipops in their mouths and automatic weapons at their sides. The juxtaposition so exaggerated and so cliche that I can barely believe it as I write it. I wouldn’t blame you for not believing me.
Recently we had watched the second season of Fargo, one of our favourite shows. Referring to the war in Vietnam one of the characters says profoundly, ‘I sometimes wonder if those men didn’t bring the war back home with them.’
And that’s the problem isn’t it? We think violence can be contained and controlled. We think that it can be measured and harnessed, but all history has shown us is that violence begets more violence and that the future generations we hope to protect ultimately end up wielding weapons when we forget why we picked them up in the first place. When our missiles no longer find an enemy to lock on to they turn upon our homes, dividing those who were once unified because many of us don’t even know who we are anymore unless we have an enemy. It’s true on battle fields, true in work places, true in schools and true in our hearts.
Part II to follow shortly...