WIZO staff and students react to the recent and ongoing terror attacks, proving that in difficult times, WIZO tries to be an island of sanity.
Despite decreased press coverage or visibility, the “wave of terror,” as coined by Israeli government, which began in late September, has yet to fully abate. Although largely having moved from the center of the country and Jerusalem to the West Bank, attacks are still happening every day, and the restrictions placed on parts of Jerusalem are still in place. The spontaneous terror attacks (more than 70 in October), most often stabbing, shooting or vehicular, on streets and in busses, are being perpetrated by young Palestinians, un-connected with well-known terror groups or political movements and have already killed 10 Israelis and wounded dozens. For Israelis, who have survived campaigns of rockets and suicide bombings in the past, dealing with this new strain of terror has proven difficult and thrown them into a state of fear and insecurity. When a 13-year-old boy walking down a neighborhood street could potentially be a terrorist, an Israeli’s powers of prediction and coping mechanism are almost useless.
Three weeks ago, during the height of the attacks taking place within Israel, authorities did their best to try and deal with the terror that proved hard to anticipate and prevent; after an emergency cabinet meeting on Tuesday Oct. 13th roadblocks and checkpoints were erected in Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem and hundreds of police officers and soldiers were deployed on the streets and on public transportation. However, authorities were seemingly at a loss for a concrete, comprehensive response. Silvan Shalom, Minister of the Interior, commented “First, the goal is to calm people. After that, maybe to take more in-depth steps.” Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said in an interview with Channel 2 News, “There is no focused and definite military solution to a challenge of this kind…I believe that a solution to the problem will be found, but it will take time.”
How were staff and students at WIZO’s numerous projects dealing with the security threat and infectious fear that was spreading throughout the country as attackers popped up in places as unexpected as Ra’anana and Be’er Sheva? What precautions were being taken at WIZO establishments? What were the staff’s interactions with worried parents? Did the atmosphere at the schools, daycare centers and youth villages reflect the mood of the population as a whole?
When the violent attacks started gaining pace and taking form as what some feared would become a third intifada, World WIZO sent out an official set of rules and guidelines for dealing with the issue of security at its schools, daycare centers and youth villages around the country. Recommendations included raising awareness among staff, reducing outdoor activities, patrols, improvised extra security at parents’ expense, installation and operation of security cameras and putting troubled parents and/or children in touch with social workers and emotional support services. WIZO’s guidelines also addressed the calls of many parents to immediately fire or suspend all Arab staff members at its many establishments. WIZO stressed, in writing, that it is an organization that stringently screens its staff members, and moreover, is committed to equality both in its vision and its employment policies, and adheres to relevant Israeli laws.
WIZO, along with other leading organizations in Israel, sent an official request to the Ministry of Finance and individual municipalities, to have government subsidized security placed at all of its student housing and child daycare facilities.
But what was it really like for the students and staff, between the lines of WIZO’s official statements?
On The Ground
Things were looking bleak at the Gruss WIZO Community Center in the northern town of Afula, one week after a stabbing on Thursday October 8th, perpetrated by a 20-year-old Palestinian that left an IDF soldier injured. One day later, security forces shot an Arab woman after she brandished a knife and seemingly attempted to attack them at the local bus station. One week later, Arabs and Jews, neighboring populations in Afula and its environs, remained scared and hesitant; city streets were almost empty, and Itamar Vardi, manager of the youth club at the center, said, “The place has been especially empty this week. People aren’t leaving their houses.”
Kobi Hillel, Director of WIZO Beit HaKerem, a multi-faceted center that includes a boarding school, vocational school, day care center and more, described the complex situation at the eye of the storm, “The fact that we’re in Jerusalem means that Jews and Arabs mix on all levels, inside the premises as well as on the outside. Students, teachers, workers – we all live together. Whenever there are flare ups, tension increases and people bring a lot of issues and fears, both rational and irrational, from home. Parents have begun asking questions, ‘Who are the people working for you? Can we trust them?’ My job, and the job of my staff, is on the one hand to quell fears but also to explain that all of the people who work at WIZO Beit Hakerem are long-serving, trustworthy and the utmost professionals.”
Hillel, who has spent years dealing with Jerusalem’s and the center’s unique community fabric, added, “On the other side of the coin, we have many Arab staff members who are afraid to come to work, scared of checkpoints and being mistakenly identified. They feel like victims of unchecked public hysteria. Our Arab students, in a situation like this, are faced with deep dillemas – questions of identity, community and belonging in society. Some of them live in very difficult neighborhoods, involved in the violence, and yet come to class every day, crossing the green line from East Jerusalem.”
At the impressive facilities of WIZO Gan VeNof Youth Village (a boarding school which houses a biological laboratory, gym, computer center, swimming pool, amphitheatre and zoological center) Boarding School Director Nativ Rahamim and Galia Meron, school principal, had a more uplifting report to give.
“It’s business as usual,” Meron assured. “We’re doing everything necessary to ensure the children’s safety, at the school and in the dormitories. Our middle school students have actually just returned from a two-day trip up north. We upgraded security and doubled down on precautions, but we did it.”
When asked what is entailed in upgraded security, Rahamim joked, “I myself do improvised patrols around the youth village grounds, day and night,” belying a unique level of personal commitment that is thankfully common to many WIZO staff members.
On a more serious note, Rahamim added, “We are letting the kids know that it’s okay to be afraid. They’re allowed to be worried. On the other hand, we explain to them that we have excellent resources here and that they can be calm and continue as normal.”
One could immediately sense, from Rahamim’s assured demeanor and comforting tones, the sense of security that he was trying to pass on to the children under his care: a bubble, safe yet neither naive nor ignorant.
WIZO staff members around the country, during the ongoing crisis, seem to embody one of WIZO’s strongest values and techniques: to remain an island of sanity and continue doing life-changing work, even in the most difficult of times. In the words of Rahamim, “This country has already been through a few rough patches; we will deal with this crisis and come out on the other side.”