It was d ja vu all over again. Suddenly I was a teenager once more. The year is 1968, the place Chicago, my hometown. I am standing among throngs of people - most of them in their teens or 20s - at the site of the Democratic National Convention, where that party's candidate for president will be chosen. A massive protest against the war in Vietnam is in progress for a third straight day, and, although there is a kind of circus atmosphere among the demonstrators, tensions are running extremely high.
The huge crowd is chanting en masse, "1-2-3-4, we don't want your bloody war; 5-6-7-8, we don't want to escalate." Signs against politicians, the military-industrial complex and virtually every vestige of the establishment are everywhere.
Facing off against the crowd are "Chicago's Finest," a wall of mounted police in riot gear.
They are under strict orders by the Windy City's legendary, autocratic, mayor, Richard J. Daley, to hold back the crowd, to be brutal if necessary, but to show the protesters just who is "Boss" (Daley's nickname).
I can sense that, even from behind their plexiglass masks, the police - and the animals beneath them - are champing at the bit, waiting for the right opportunity to punish the "hippy-dippy flower children" for ruining what the mayor had hoped would be a grand opportunity to show off the Second City to the world. Now, the mayor watches in abject fury as his golden prize is severely tarnished.
All at once, the cops on horseback charge the crowd. With their metal-tipped batons swinging indiscriminately, they beat the defenseless protesters with Cossack-like ferocity, smashing skulls and breaking limbs.
The TV cameras roll with the punches, capturing the horrendous scenes in bloody, living color. By the time the smoke has cleared and the hundreds of wounded are removed to hospital, the vivid scene of Chicago at war has been indelibly imprinted upon the American psyche.
THE DEMOCRATIC Convention, along with the JFK assassination and Woodstock, would become the defining image of the tumultuous Sixties. It would shake the American political system - bringing down one president and leading to the impeachment of another - and would ultimately help to end the disastrous Vietnam debacle, leaving the heavily armed US gun-shy for more than two decades. In many ways, the kids came out on top.
All these scenes rushed back to me as I watched the confrontations at Amona. Again, idealistic young people stood on one side while armed, mounted policemen stood on the other.
To be sure, there were protesters who overstepped their bounds and acted disgracefully and violently toward government forces, just as some overzealous kids in '68 threw bags of human feces at the police and taunted them with shouts of "Here, piggy, piggy."
To be sure, there were hotheads and agitators among the Israeli throng, just as Abie Hoffman and Tom Hayden ("Mr. Jane Fonda") had egged on the Convention crowd. But, for the most part, the cruelty and brutality were heavily weighted on the part of the police, not the protesters. Numerous innocents were clubbed and beaten for no reason other than that they were there; the charge of the horses directly into the crowd did not distinguish between the peaceful and the provocateurs.
While there is plenty of blame on both sides, the playing field was not exactly even in Amona. After all, who should we expect to demonstrate more restraint and control in crisis conditions: a 15-year-old student, already hurt and frustrated by this summer's pullout from Gush Katif, or an adult in uniform, supposedly trained to carry out his job with precision and professionalism?
AS THE WORLD gleefully watched the Jew-vs-Jew violence, all the currency we had accumulated from the Gush Katif withdrawal - when soldiers accomplished their task with hugs and not head-breaking, where the tears far outnumbered truncheons - vanished into thin air. Something snapped that day; this country crossed a red and bloody line.
What is most distressing to me about all this is the sheer cruelty displayed by our police, the "over-the-top" zealousness which they displayed while beating young boys and girls, even after the kids had been rendered helpless and lay on the ground.
So extreme was their behavior that many protesters insisted these policemen could not be Jewish. Indeed, the Talmud says that "if you detect a strain of cruelty in a person, you can rightly question his Jewish lineage."
When had we ever seen this kind of gratuitous violence? What, exactly, fueled this behavior? Why didn't the police use another form of crowd control such as water hoses or even tear gas?
After all, these were not criminals or convicts on a rampage, drug addicts, or vandals out to do reckless vandalism. These were good kids from good homes who believe deeply in the sanctity of the land and are prepared to fight - and die, if necessary - in or out of uniform, to preserve the Jewish homeland. Surely they deserved better.
THE KNEE-JERK reaction of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, to whitewash the police's behavior and stonewall any investigation into its conduct, was absolutely Daleyesque. He, too, stood by his troops to a fault, refusing to acknowledge any malfeasance on their part and placing all the blame on the younger generation.
But youth must be served. Instinctively, our kids sense there is something amiss here. A society that first encourages settlement then retracts it, demonizing the pioneers and cavalierly abandoning them to their fate, rolling back sacred principles at will and redefining values always held dear is a society that must be confronted and challenged.
Thank God we have a younger generation that gives a damn, that has a cause, that cares deeply about what happens to this country. Rather than beat back that impulse, we have to address it, nurture it and treat it with the respect it deserves.
The writer is the director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana.
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