Children and the conflict

In this digital age, even geographically distant conflict can feel proximate, touching children who have never personally experienced violence.

October 28, 2015 21:49
4 minute read.

‘AMERICAN JEWISH children certainly understand that they are not in Israel, but they still feel part of Israel'. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The horrors of this month are the stuff of children’s nightmares: stabbings, intentional car rammings, rock throwing. For children in Israel, this frightening reality looms at every bus stop. In the United States, Jewish children are physically removed from harm’s way. But don’t mistake geographic separation for emotional distance.

As a social scientist who studies American Jewish youth, I have spent the past several years following a group of Jewish kids in the US to find out what they know and how they feel about Israel.

After speaking with dozens of children from a range of denominational and ethnic Jewish backgrounds, I have learned that – in both good times and in hard times like these – American Jewish children are watching from afar and worrying.

The good news here is that many American Jewish children view themselves as connected to Israel and to Israelis. The bad news is that – precisely because they care so deeply about Israel – they, too, are beginning to show signs that they carry some of the psychological burden of this terrible conflict. Here is what the world looks like through their eyes: For children of the digital age, even violence-at-a-distance can be incredibly frightening.

Today’s children are growing up in a world in which connective technologies collapse distance between home and homeland. In the age of the smartphone, American Jewish children need merely to glance over a parent’s shoulder to see a video of the latest stabbing attack or graphic photos from the most recent rock-throwing incident.

American Jewish children have “remote access” to the conflict, often in real time. As one child explained, “Every time my mom gets an alert on her phone, I know something bad is going on.”

In this digital age, even geographically distant conflict can feel proximate, touching children who have never personally experienced violence. Certainly no one would suggest that watching through a screen is equivalent to the trauma of personally experiencing a terror attack, or knowing that it has occurred in your neighborhood or to your loved ones. Even so, researchers of children’s mental health warn that violent conflict viewed only from afar can still be incredibly traumatic for young children. And American Jewish children are certainly experiencing – albiet from a physically safe distance – the psychological effects of this conflict.

The older American Jewish children get, the more their thoughts of Israel are tinged with worry, anxiety and fear.

Watching children grow over time, the most striking thing I have noticed is that the older they get, the more American Jewish children worry about Israel and Israelis. When five-year-old American Jewish children express feelings about Israel, they are unfailingly positive.

“Israel makes me feel happy,” they report. Or they say, “I feel proud when I think about Israel.” But by the age of seven or eight – and at times even earlier – American Jewish children’s emotional responses to Israel begin to change.

They start to say things like “Israel makes me feel a mixture of happy and sad” or “when I think about Israel, I feel proud, but mostly I feel worried.”

Worry, anxiety, and fear are common descriptors that American Jewish children use when talking about Israel – even in good times – and these feelings become more and more prevalent as children age.

American Jewish children certainly understand that they are not in Israel, but they still feel part of Israel. As one child explained, “Israel is thousands of miles from where I live, but I always feel Israel is right near me.” And, at times of increased violence, when Israel feels near, it can feel very scary. American Jewish children’s fear is not the fear of personal harm, but it is a fear nonetheless: a fear for the Jewish people, for Israel, for a faraway place that feels nearby.

When the stuff of children’s nightmares becomes the terrible reality, it sends shock waves well beyond the locale of an attack. In these difficult times, children in Israel bear the physical and psychological scars of violence.

And, from a physically safe distance, American Jewish children feel the ripples.

The bad news is that American Jewish children are starting to show their own psychological scars from this violence. The good news is that their difficult emotions reveal how deeply they care about Israel and Israelis. As events of the past weeks reverberate across the ocean, American Jewish children continue to bind themselves to the Jewish collective and to the Jewish state.

The author is assistant professor of education at American Jewish University and an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center of Brandeis University. She directs the Teaching Israel Fellowship (AJU) and the Children’s Learning About Israel Project (Brandeis).

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