A somber Israeli graduation

I seem to have missed all of my baby brother Mishy's life transitions. Thirteen years my junior, he has been secretly growing up as I have been away. When he marched into his first day of kindergarten I was away in the army. When he came home from his first day at grade school I was away at college. When he began high school I was away starting my life as a young adult.

This month Mishy is graduating from high school and going into his three years of mandatory military service. And I came home to see him off.

"The prize for the best biology student this year is named for Naaman Friedman, who died in combat and who loved biology," announces his principal as she stands on the rickety auditorium stage and hands out the graduation ceremony awards. "And the prize for the best Arabic language student," she continues, "is named for Jeremy Karp, who died during his military service and who excelled in the study of Arabic." And so it went. On and on. 120 prizes in all. 120 young graduates of the school with shiny plaques in the foyer engraved with their names and yearly graduation awards to commemorate their young, lost lives.

"It's not easy to live in this country ... especially today," says the principal, giving out the last award and facing her students. "There are winds of war brewing and we are anxious. We hang between war and peace and we are sending you off to that unknown."

As if this is not somber enough for a moment of supposed celebration, the PTA representative gets up and starts to cry. "When we first sent you to high school it was a time of hope," she begins, calmly at first. "Six months later [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin was killed, and the shock we felt then accompanies us to this day." Tears begin running down her cheeks and she can barely continue. "We are parents of children being forced into adulthood before their time.... We pray for you, day in and day out."

Her son, sitting on the edge of the stage in jeans and a white starched shirt, adjusts his glasses and looks down, embarrassed, maybe, by his emotional mother, or pained, perhaps, to hear her fears and see her sorrow. The audience is silent. My grandmother holds my hand.

The typical Israeli sense of confidence that "everything is going to be fine" seems to have faded away this past year. While there have certainly been hard periods in the past, this time around, coming as it does after a period of hope, nonetheless feels different. Everyone is tired of the fight. "We bought into a false peace process," says Ben Guiron University international relations professor Joel Peters, trying to put his finger on the collective depression, "and when it shattered we lost our compass."

"Don't go to the movies," "Don't go to the disco," "Don't take the bus," "Don't go to crowded restaurants," "Don't go to the market," come the various instructions from my panicked parents. "I'm going crazy," admits Mishy. So he says - and yet does not argue. The malls are quiet, hotels deserted, cafes half empty. Young people talk of moving away from it all - of going to study abroad, or taking a long trip, or finding work somewhere "normal." Passive TV-watching at home, as Chemi Shalev, a respected political commentator put it, has become the national pastime - with families glued to screens offering daily images of fear, hatred, hysteria, death, and confusion.

When my other brother Oren graduated from the same high school 10 years ago, he sat on stage besides his best friend Chaim, chewing gum and giggling, much to my mother's despair. A year later, on a sunny Saturday morning, mom shuffled into Oren's bedroom to tell him his friend had been killed in a military training accident in Lebanon. A notorious heavy sleeper, Oren lay still when she whispered the news. We thought he had not heard. "My Chaim?" he then said, clenching his eyes closed. "My Chaim?"

I look up at Mishy on the stage. His curly brown long locks pulled back into a ponytail, the tie he has borrowed from my father for the occasion slightly off center, the girl he likes beside him leaning in to whisper a secret in his ear. And I hold back my own tears, proud of my little-brother-turned-man, scared for him, and wishing him peace.

Danna Harman is the Monitor's Africa correspondent.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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