As summer vacation drew to a close, one afternoon I found myself sitting with my eight-year-old son, watching cartoons and taking a break from playing outside. I have no idea what cartoon he was watching, and admittedly was not paying much attention to it, checking emails instead, but my son was paying close attention, and I learned a lot from this.
“That kid’s stupid, right Abba?” he asked.
With him being the sixth kid, we are also beyond the “stupid is not a nice word” age, so rather than focusing on his language, I was puzzled. “What kid are you talking about,” I asked, thinking he was referring to a real person. “Where?” “That one, on TV,” he answered without hesitation.
For an instant I thought he might have been suffering from too much heat, talking about a cartoon character on TV and assessing it to be stupid.
“What do you mean? Why is he stupid?” I asked, curious and puzzled.
“He opened that box,” my son said, using the Hebrew phrase for “suspicious object.” “If it were a bomb he could have been killed.”
Immediately I understood what my son was talking about. He had learned something just by living in Israel, something I never remember teaching him: Any abandoned object could be a bomb.
Israelis know this intuitively. There has been no shortage of such incidents, especially before suicide bombers began using their own bodies as “suspicious objects.” Explosives have been concealed in things as large as duffel bags near a bus station, and as small as a soda can on the street.
The Israeli reaction upon finding an owner-less object is to call the bomb squad, who arrive immediately, cordon off the area and use various hi-tech means to assess the nature of the object, detonating it if needed.
What my son had learned and shared with me, albeit indirectly, is the idea that one never explores a suspicious object independently. In his mind, from his worldview, to do so was stupid. Hard to argue with.
Although the cartoon he was watching was dubbed in Hebrew, it was American. I tried to explain to him that in America, people don’t think about suspicious objects as we do in Israel. I’m not sure he understood, but it seemed to satisfy him for the moment. Mostly, I was proud that he knows what a suspicious object is, and what to do if he encounters one.
This is the same son who, two years earlier, came home from school after a national earthquake drill to share with me the difference between what one does in case of an earthquake, a rocket attack, or a terrorist attack on the school.
I’d never thought I’d raise kids to be so sophisticated so young, but am glad that they are prepared ( as much as one can be prepared) should any of these incidents occur.
It’s one of the mixed blessings about living in Israel. With very real threats around us, our children need to be aware of their environment in a way that’s very different from most other children in the world.
I remember on my year in Israel in the ’80s no shortage of road closures, buses evacuated, and bags being checked going into grocery stores. Even toy dolls, in the wrong place at the wrong time, became suspect. In that era, terrorists also sabotaged Israeli exports not only to harm people, but to terrorize countries that imported Israeli products.
While the advent of suicide terrorists changed the dynamic in untold ways, leaving over 1,600 Israelis killed in a decade, the attitude toward suspicious objects still permeates Israeli society. Mostly this causes mere inconvenience, like the times I’ve sat in traffic for hours waiting for sappers to clear an area. We still have our bags checked while walking into grocery stores, malls and the like, and our cars checked driving into most public parking areas.
I’ll never forget the story of the woman I helped to a bus in the north to come to Jerusalem. She forgot to retrieve her small suitcase from the cargo space beneath the bus, so it was treated as a suspicious object and blown up.
But sometimes these suspicious objects are actually dangerous. Like the suitcase that exploded outside a crowded bus stop in Jerusalem a few years ago, killing a Christian tourist from Britain and injuring many others.
This year, on the second day of school, I was dropping off my kids and noticed a lot of traffic and security people leaving my neighborhood. I didn’t give it a second thought. Police often help out directing traffic and making sure that kids arrive safely the first week of school.
But coming back into my neighborhood traffic was worse than ever. The mayor was outside informing people in all the vehicles waiting that a suspicious object had been found in the school at the corner. My daughter’s school. The one at which I had dropped her off 10 minutes earlier.
My heart skipped a beat and I knew it was one of those “Only in Israel” moments. I knew that authorities had everything in control, kids were outside waiting patiently under supervision of teachers, administrators and army and police. But still, it was unsettling to think of a school being targeted.
An hour later, an automated message went out to all the residents of our neighborhood, on our cell phones and house phones. All clear. I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Part of living among neighbors who don’t accept our right to be here, and who sanctify death over life, is an ongoing apprehension that a forgotten backpack in a school yard on the second day of classes could be a bomb. We are also aware that any event, related to us or not, in any of our neighboring countries, can potentially threaten Israeli lives.
But the alternative is not to live here, or not to live, period, and these are not acceptable. So, we will continue to live here, teach our kids to be aware of their environment, learn with them from these lessons, and always choose and sanctify life.
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