International Youth Day

The reality of safe spaces for Israeli youth.

Israelis run for shelter as a siren sounds during a rocket attack at the southern city of Sderot July 14, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Israelis run for shelter as a siren sounds during a rocket attack at the southern city of Sderot July 14, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Ears are constantly alert for a siren that cues 15 seconds to safety. Eyes are wide as feet slap the ground running a familiar path toward a small cement room. Bodies are cramped in a literal, physical safe space. This is part of day-to-day life for a significant number of Israeli youth. Yet, the “Hollywood” version of children hiding from bombs in bunkers does not touch on the reality of the situation.
Those realities include lessons in safety coupled with math and spelling, constant vigilance on the playground, the life-or-death severity of knowing where to access the nearest shelter if that siren goes off, and the seemingly mundane but traumatic truths of growing up surrounded by terrorism and conflict. It is not simply those 15 seconds running to the shelter. It is a childhood of terror, indignities, and day-to-day nuisances that are shaping the youth of Israel.
The United Nations has designated August 12 International Youth Day, a day to celebrate and promote young people around the world who bring so much promise to this world. This year, the UN has chosen the theme “Safe Spaces for Youth.” The UN suggests safe spaces “ensure the dignity and safety of youth.” And while this may be true for some, for most young people living in Israel, the mention of a safe space will likely invoke an image of hiding in a reinforced, secure room in their home, a bunker in their community, or a security shelter.
Over time, the sirens, bunkers, unpredictable days, and sights of destruction wear on the morale of those who live in such conflict zones – one in 10 children, according to the UN. In order to celebrate these youths, we must make an effort to understand the impact of safe spaces in their lives.
From the home to the playground, spaces are modified to provide added security. Homes and apartments often have secure rooms made of reinforced concrete and airtight steel doors. In southern cities like Sderot, where projectiles can be launched multiple times a day by Hamas, the terrorist organization in control of Gaza, there are attempts to keep normalcy in children’s routine by building secure schools and protected parks with structures made entirely out of reinforced concrete.
Yet, each time dinner or school or sleep is interrupted and these children are required to recall where to go hide from another attack, there is inescapable damage being done psychologically and emotionally. Each time they walk outside and see a crater torn in the ground from a missile where they threw a ball with their friend just an hour or a day before, a ripple of fear runs through them.
So when there is no siren and the skies are clear, these safe spaces remain just as detrimental, yet just as necessary for the youth of Israel. As we consider this year’s theme, we must be mindful that the safety of our children must be all-encompassing. We must seek to create safe spaces which can provide for them physically, emotionally and mentally – not just when times are dark, but when they are bright as well.
As we celebrate International Youth Day, it is paramount to recognize the children in Israel for their resilience and strength as they lead Israel into the future.
Ambassador Yitzhak Eldan spent 41 years as a career diplomat, including seven years as chief of protocol for the Foreign Affairs Ministry. He is the head of the Israeli School for Young Ambassadors and the founder and president of the Ambassadors’ Club of Israel. Darby Howard is a senior at Vanderbilt University studying political science and Jewish studies. She is president of Israel affairs at Vanderbilt Hillel and a former intern at the Ambassador’s Club of Israel.