'There's a war going on out there'

Violence among the young is reaching shocking proportions.

violence 88 (photo credit: )
violence 88
(photo credit: )
* Members of the Israeli Teachers' Union and the Association of Secondary School Teachers in Israel went on strike for the first hour of school one day a year ago to protest the assault on an Ashkelon high school teacher by a student who had been expelled from school. The teacher required hospitalization. * Students on a high school trip seriously wounded a hotel security guard in Tiberias and caused extensive damage to the hotel. The trip was cut short and the students were sent home after smashing mirrors and destroying furniture, detaching air conditioning units, and burning linen and carpets with cigarettes. The hotel's deputy manager was quoted as saying, "They went completely wild. It was a pogrom." * Seven children aged 12 to 16 were arrested in mid-October for allegedly beating and sexually abusing an 11-year-old boy in Lod for more than a year. The children are accused of sodomizing the boy, forcing him to perform oral sex, and beating him when he refused to cooperate. The abuse also included tying him to trees, beating him with thorns, and threatening him with knives. Police say the boy's parents knew that their son was being beaten up frequently but were unaware of the extent of the problem. The boy's teachers noticed nothing amiss. The boy finally told a neighborhood girl, who informed a social volunteer, who notified the police. The girl told police that she, too, has been threatened with violence for her involvement in the case. "We cannot understand how 12- and 13-year-olds could be capable of such a level of abuse," a police officer told reporters. A growing awareness of the problem of youth violence is permeating Israeli society via the media or, in many parents' case, from close experience when a child is bullied at school. Many immigrants with children - especially from English-speaking countries - say that violence in schools and the poor response from teachers and school administrators are among the most difficult aspects of life to adjust to in Israel. Yet youth violence - both in and out of school - has long been with us. The phenomenon began to loom large in public awareness toward the end of the 1990s as reports of violent incidents became more frequent, and the level of violence rose as the age of its perpetrators descended to include elementary school children. Israelis were shocked by an epidemic of youth violence at the end of the decade. In the space of a few weeks, the media reported that a 15-year-old boy died following a fist fight at a yeshiva in the Lahish region; a 16-year-old Jerusalem youth was stabbed to death by a 19-year-old acquaintance who had been angered by a verbal insult; an 18-year-old boy lay comatose in hospital after being severely beaten about the head by one of his schoolmates; and a group of six teenage boys in Upper Nazareth surrounded a 15-year-old schoolmate, pounded him with brass knuckles, slit his throat with a kitchen knife, and crushed his skull with an aluminum baseball bat as he tried to crawl away. The boys were reported to have calmly walked away while their victim died. A World Health Organization report that surveyed 28 countries revealed that Israel ranked eighth in school violence and 11th in youth hooliganism. Some 25% of Israeli boys and 6% of Israeli girls were found to routinely carry some sort of weapon to school - whether knife, club, brass knuckles, tear gas, or gun - for protection against their schoolmates. In another study by Rami Benvenisti and Anat Zeira of the Hebrew University and Ron Astor of the University of Michigan, 16,000 fourth to 12th graders were surveyed. Slightly more than half the students claimed to have been bullied during the previous term, while 43% acknowledged bullying others. Some 20% of teachers and 10% of principals said they felt helpless in dealing with school violence. Yet another study, conducted by Bar-Ilan University, found that more than 60% of students surveyed had either been involved in violent bullying during the previous 12 months or had been victims of violence themselves. And 15% of all high school students surveyed reported that they needed medical care after being hurt in violent confrontations. These studies, along with the seemingly constant escalation in youth violence, has led to a predictable amount of hand wringing, breast beating, soul searching, committee forming, report drafting, editorial writing, talk show debating, and political speechmaking. Yet the problem of Israeli youth violence refuses to go away. The police reported that the overall number of juvenile delinquency cases in Israel rose by 10% over a 12-month period between 2003 and 2004. These include incidents involving violence, drug abuse, and theft. Meanwhile, cases of violence in schools rose by almost 20%. The percentage increase is expected to rise again when complete figures for 2005 become available. Psychologist Batya Ludman agrees that the crisis is worsening. "I think schools are aware now that there is a problem, but I don't think they've done enough to intervene. No one seems to be taking responsibility. The school blames the home, home blames the school, and I don't think there's enough talking back and forth between the two." Ludman does not agree with the usual rationalization that violence among Israeli youth merely reflects overall violence in society. While acknowledging factors that contribute to violence - cramped living spaces, overcrowding, and the pressures of living in a country that is repeatedly at war - she says, "It's very easy to say that this is a violent society, but that's a cop-out. We can't really blame the problem on that. The real issue is that there's not a whole lot of accountability in our educational system, especially among parents." Too many Israeli adults, Ludman observes, believe that they are exempt from society's rules, that rules are for everyone else - the neighbors, perhaps - but not for them. This leads to a breakdown of responsibility at home that sends children the message that they can behave any way they want. "I think the solution is that parents and school administrators have to sit down together and come up with clear, consistent rules that everyone knows about - that there will be zero tolerance for violent behavior and clear expectations of what we want from kids in terms of acceptable behavior and respect, especially for teachers," she says. How do we teach young people the need for rules and respect? "It's important to get the message to kids while they're still young," says Dr. David J. Portowicz, director of the Jaffa Institute, a non-profit organization serving more than 4,000 needy children in the slum neighborhoods of Jaffa and Bat Yam. "We begin our anti-violence intervention with kids in the third grade, before they've had a chance to absorb the kinds of violent behavior patterns we are seeing in the schools and on the streets in Israel today." As an immediate response to the upturn in youth violence at the end of the 1990s, the Jaffa Institute developed a violence prevention program for elementary school children that involves group discussions, games, group projects, role playing, and other learning activities designed to teach positive values, anger management skills, and alternatives to violent behavior. The program was developed with support and financial backing from the Jewish Agency. Despite the extent and severity of the youth violence problem, both Ludman and Portowicz are optimistic in the long term. Ludman believes that solving the problem has remained a low priority during the recent decades of war and terrorism. But as Israel becomes more integrated with the wider world through trade, diplomacy, and extensive contact with people in other countries, new and better behavior patterns will have to develop. Psychologist Tamara More, however, is not so sure. One of 20 volunteer women running a fledgling non-profit organization called L'meniat Alimut Noar ("For the Prevention of Youth Violence") or Le-an ("where to"), More paints a grim picture of where she thinks Israel is headed. "Youth violence reached an extreme level five years ago and has been increasing by 20% every year since. We expect that the problem will double itself every two years. Violent parents - some of whom have actually threatened to beat up our volunteers - are raising children who are even more violent. When these kids grow up and have children, those children will be a threat to all of us. It will no longer be possible to safely go to even a shopping mall. Even now, it seems that the whole country is crumbling. There's a war going on out there, and our volunteers are on the front line." Le-an volunteers are on call 24 hours a day. Spread thinly over an area from Haifa to Rehovot, they respond to telephone calls on an emergency hotline and race to the scenes of violent incidents, hoping to intervene on the spot. Woefully short-handed and seeking more volunteers - especially "good, strong guys" - Le-an hopes to establish a network of volunteers throughout Israel, each able to respond instantly to outbreaks of youth violence both in and out of school. The volunteers have already established a safe house in Herzliya to shelter children in immediate danger of violence or waiting to testify in court against their attackers. With no government support or funding from any source as yet, Le-an volunteers are renting and renovating the house with money from their own pockets. Volunteer carpenters are sorely needed. More acknowledges that additional safe houses are needed throughout the country. While Portowicz finds the solution to youth violence in the teaching of better values and attitudes, and Ludman advocates firm agreements about child behavior between parents and schools, More sees no cause for hope in either schools or parents: "The educational system is morally bankrupt, and parents today are as violent as their children. The problem is that there is no authority, no branch of government taking the initiative to correct the behavior of violent children below the age of 18." More sees the need for "a more aggressive punishment grid," along with stronger deterrence. She envisions future laws that will make it mandatory for young perpetrators of violent acts to spend several days, along with their parents, in a "punishment room," meeting with psychologists and child counselors, and attending seminars in non-violence. She also believes that the violent offender's family should be forced to compensate his/her victim financially for the physical and emotional recuperation. Many young victims, More says, actually feel ashamed, as though they are to blame for what happened to them. "This is what our government should be doing, but up to now it has done nothing. All the results of their studies, report after report, and all the recommendations have just gone into a desk drawer. Until the government takes responsibility and acts on the daily escalation of youth violence in our country, private people like us at Le-an can only struggle to do the best we can," says More. Meanwhile, the violence continues. To contact Le-an, call (03)629-2888; write P.O. Box 23100, Tel Aviv 61200; or visit israelnow@gmail.com