ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 252

From left to right, high school seniors Yuval Meller, Inbar Carmi and Maayan Shalom, at Tichon Hamoshava high school in Zichron Yaakov, on January 16, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
From left to right, high school seniors Yuval Meller, Inbar Carmi and Maayan Shalom, at Tichon Hamoshava high school in Zichron Yaakov, on January 16, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)
Students say the war has educated them, for better and worse

‘Ready to do whatever it takes’: 12th-graders find a protective bubble popped by war

Four teenagers set to graduate from a Zichron Yaakov high school join a roundtable discussion with ToI to discuss Gaza, the IDF, antisemitism and what comes next for them

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

The school bell rang, the gate opened, and the crowd of high school students started spilling out of campus. It was a crisp and sunny winter day in the picturesque northern town of Zichron Yaakov, a prosperous mid-sized burg nestled into the foothills of the Carmel Range.

All seemed routine as the students made their way out of school, except for the large banner at the entrance, which displayed pictures of scores of Israelis held prisoner in Gaza.

A high percentage of Zichron Yaakov’s nearly 25,000 residents are tech workers, academics and artists, giving the town a largely liberal vibe.

The main high school, Tichon Hamoshava, is one of the largest in the country, with over 1,200 students. Part of Israel’s secular state education track, Tichon Hamoshava consistently ranks among the very top in terms of the percentage of students who enlist in the IDF.

Zichron, as the city is often called, is geographically distant from both Gaza and Israel’s restive northern border with Lebanon, but the twin conflicts were still very much on the minds of 12th-grade students who sat down with The Times of Israel last week to talk about the war, the state of the country and the future.

These students had spent much of their first years of high school over Zoom due to the coronavirus pandemic, notes Yaara Levinson-Dagan, who has been the cohort’s coordinator, activity and class organizer, and parent liaison for the last four years. Now they are facing the prospect of graduating under the shadow of war.

“Everything they have gone through has made them ready for life,” she says, walking across the sprawling campus to a quiet history classroom, the walls lined with images from the pre-state and World War II period, to meet the students.

The 12th graders have a lot of resilience and self-confidence and have been volunteering in various ways for months as part of the war effort. Many want to serve the IDF in combat units, says Keren Miller, a school counselor who was present for part of the discussion.

She would “gladly” place her life in their hands as “the leaders of the future” in the army or government, she declares.

Entrance to Tichon Hamoshava high school in Zichron Yaakov, with a banner showing Israeli hostages in Gaza, on January 16, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Participating in the roundtable were three female students, Inbar Carmi, Maayan Shalom, and Yuval Meller, and one male student, Shaked Hadar, who declined to be photographed for this article. All four 17-year-olds come from roughly similar backgrounds and had been chosen by the school to take part in the discussion. They all plan to graduate high school at the end of June.

The discussion, which took place in Hebrew, has been translated and edited for clarity and length.

The Times of Israel: How are you dealing with the situation in Israel? It’s not a normal year to finish high school.

Yuval Meller: It’s difficult. There are a lot of mental burdens together with the schoolwork, and it affects a lot of things.

Maayan Shalom: You have to have a sense of humor. In 9th and 10th grade we had the coronavirus pandemic, and then there were strikes, a political uprising, and now everything. I think in Zichron we experience [the war] differently than other places because we are in an area where there aren’t rocket alarms, we don’t really feel the war.

What about the future? What are your plans?

Inbar Carmi: I am doing a year of national [civilian] service.

Shaked Hadar: The war clarified the purpose of enlisting in the army. I already wanted to go into a combat unit, but now it’s as clear as it can be. The army isn’t just a phase of life, it’s something critical for the state and we are obligated to serve. I could enlist right away, but I am still going to do a year of national service first.

Maayan: I don’t exactly agree with Shaked. I think the war has shown me how the military solution, the militarism on both sides, isn’t the solution. We very much need to find a political solution, an educational solution. Yes, the IDF is important, and I will also enlist. I had questioned that. But where will I go, what will I do, what am I ready to do?

Inbar: I very much agree with Shaked. I want to go to a pre-army academy, but I am not enlisting in the army because of health reasons that just came up. I had intended to go into the army and this is one of the things that is very difficult for me, especially right now, because I wanted to join. I agree with Maayan also, about what the state needs to do in the long term, but still, protecting our citizens and our lives like the army does is more important than ever.

I want to do national service as a paramedic. This is what I intended to do in the army — there it would’ve been in combat, while for national service, it’s in [the emergency service] Magen David Adom.

Yuval: I want to join a combat unit. It always pulled me more than other positions — not that the others are bad. I hope to join the Navy and be part of a combat unit there. Even though the war creates a level of fear, it also makes you say: I won’t stand on the side. I won’t avoid my responsibility. I will come and do my part, I am part of this nation and its goals. But first I want to do a year either in a pre-army academy or national service.

It seems that most of your class is doing that.

Maayan: There is a very large percentage who are going to go to a pre-army academy or do national service. A lot of people want to do this.

Inbar: It’s specifically because we live in Zichron. There are other areas where it’s not like that.

In 11th and 12th grade, the IDF is already testing you, checking you out, yes?

Inbar: Yes, very much so.

Shaked: The tests for combat ability are very competitive and stressful, but someone who really wants it will succeed in the end. It’s not pleasant, but it’s not supposed to be, because service is not for fun. The tests are designed to put you in extreme situations, and they see how you behave.

From left to right, high school seniors Yuval Meller, Inbar Carmi and Maayan Shalom, at Tichon Hamoshava high school in Zichron Yaakov, on January 16, 2024. (Gavriel Fiske/Times of Israel)

Inbar: The whole process with the army starts in the middle of 11th grade with a personal interview, psychometric exams and a health check. After that, there is a day of exams and according to the data you get a questionnaire [about different IDF tracks]. I got a lot of help from my cousins to understand it all.

Then you receive your scores. By 12th grade, with all these tests and results, and the applications to pre-army academies and national service, you get to know yourself really well.

Do you have family or older siblings who are in reserve duty? Or other people you know who are in combat?

Shaked: My brother is a naval officer, but is in an administrative position this year in IDF headquarters [in Tel Aviv]. He sees how stressful it is, and how the war caught them unprepared in the beginning, but now, they are a lot more in control. In the beginning, we saw how difficult it was for him.

Inbar: I have two older brothers. One is working with computers in a bunker. My other brother was also called up for reserve duty in 8200 [an intelligence unit]. They’re safe, but we know a lot of people from the classes above us who are in the army.

Maayan: One of the most frightening things for me was when they killed Benji [Needham], a graduate of our school. He was two years above us and I never met him, but suddenly I understood how close it can be. It puts things into perspective. That could be my friends in another year. That’s the reality.

Inbar: It showed that the war isn’t so far away. Even with how we don’t feel the war in Zichron in a way, when we suddenly receive a message like that, it returns us to reality.

Shaked: You see it but you can’t believe it. Someone who used to play soccer with you two years ago is now in the news for a terrible reason.

What are your thoughts about the future of Israel during this chaotic time? 

Yuval: It’s hard to think about the day after, because we are the day after. It’s a lot of responsibility, I think we all feel it. But it’s hard to think about it during the present moment because we are still inside it all and there is no certainty about when it will end or how. A lot of this will be on us, to understand what to do afterward.

Maayan: If you told me to take charge now, I would do it, but it’s not possible. We need people who will run the state with the understanding that we don’t have any other option except for education. We have to make certain it’s education for peace, for living together, for solving problems, and not education which brings more hate and more bloodshed, from both sides. In the end, like Nazi Germany, it took time and we are in a different situation, and maybe it will take 60 or 70 years, but we can come to some agreement if we invest in this idea of education.

Shaked: The war has changed a lot of people. I can say for myself that some of my more leftist positions have been swept away by the war. And it broke a bit my belief in the two-state solution. I think that the war is a disaster, a few years after the coronavirus, and after the revolt [against government plans to overhaul the judiciary] — all of this divided us but now we are in a place of togetherness. I hope this will continue and that the voices that are trying to divide us, inside the government and outside, are voices that won’t be listened to.

Demonstrators against the government’s judicial overhaul gather on Tel Aviv’s Kaplan Street, August 5, 2023 (Eitan Slonim)

Maayan: You see the unity during challenging times. Before the war, the divisions were very, very large. And then the war caused the nation to act differently, we saw that we are together in this. Enough with all the hate from our two sides, we are together and we are all enlisting and volunteering, and everyone is doing what they can toward our shared goal. If this will continue after [the war], it will be very good.

Yuval: Suddenly you see settlers and leftists doing things together, when before they weren’t speaking. The same can happen between our two nations [Israel and the Palestinians]. Clearly, it will take a lot of time. I don’t know, I am optimistic.

Inbar: I think before that, we have to safeguard our unity. As we said, [divisions] weakened us and it was a big problem. We are all together now. I hope we can continue in the same spirit because we have no choice. If we can’t do that, we can’t develop anything with other nations.

There is a stereotype that people in Zichron are all leftists. Are things different now?

Shaked: What can you do? You see people who were working for peace get murdered, people who helped the Gazans, who were working for a solution, but in the end the other side came and ended it in a moment. It breaks the faith you wanted to find in them. It’s something that will take time to weigh. I think this has affected a lot of people in Zichron, who say it’s much harder today to be on the left.

Maayan: I think a lot of people have simply lost hope. The left, and the peace process, it’s very optimistic. And because of the shock… the period after October 7 shattered all the optimism. The moment you lose your optimism you lose your leftism. It happened to a lot of people in Zichron. Also, a lot of people who were on the right are now more on the right.

Illustrative: A view of the northern Israel city of Zichron Yaakov, January 28, 2016. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Yuval: It’s a time when everyone is changing their opinions.

Inbar: I think it’s fluctuating. During the first month after the war, I hoped that they would do terrible things to Gaza, so our soldiers wouldn’t die. But now I look back and think, how could I have said that? It’s a very complex time. Your opinion can change from day to day. The question is, what will the collective path be after the war?

A lot of people talk about the constant use of smartphones and the traumatic footage going around. You said Zichron Yaakov was a bubble, but you can see the war on your phone.

Inbar: Given the speed in which things are spread I am certain many have seen these things. About the videos, I can’t say, because I avoided seeing them from the beginning. Smartphones and social media channels give so much opportunity to spread opinions everywhere in an instant and to influence the opinion of others who perhaps don’t fully understand the situation. This spread of opinions is very influential. People believe everything they see on their phone, on Instagram or TikTok or wherever.

Do you read the regular news at all? Or is it all on TikTok and Instagram?

Shaked: We are less on social media. I don’t have Instagram or TikTok. Because… it makes the population stupid. Really! It’s easier to influence children. I see kids 12 years old — are they going to read articles? They see these kinds of videos and in the end, that’s what they believe and you have children with “TikTok knowledge.”

Inbar: I have two things to say about this. Because we are in Zichron, I think some of us here have terrible survivor’s guilt and used social media to assuage this in some way. At least in the beginning, some of us were using the videos to feel connected, to check the news every second to feel a part of things. In this kind of situation, even though it’s a small country, we were distant and so we were glued to screens and consumed this horrible material, to reduce our shame because everything here was okay.

The other thing is, our group specifically, we were on a trip together. We have friends in the United States but you could say we lost them.

[The students explain that last year the four of them were part of a two-week visit to New York City and Washington DC as part of an advanced history course. They were paired with a class of American students and became fast friends with some of them.]

At the start of the war, they were in touch asking “Whoa, are you ok? What’s going on? We are worried, stay safe,” nice things like that.

Little by little, they started to ask questions. I told them directly: I would rather you ask me questions than learn stuff from some dumb post that doesn’t mean anything. I answered their questions but at a certain point, I realized they weren’t paying attention to my answers at all. My best friend there told me that I needed to educate myself about my own country. Some of them went to pro-Palestinian demonstrations. They started talking about genocide.

Anti-Israel protesters march through the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, November 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

We had a [social media] group, Maayan and I, with some of them. During the first week, we saw a deeply rooted antisemitism that we weren’t aware of. It was very difficult, I was sure they were on our side but it turns out, not.

Maayan: I have a lot of criticism about the Jewish community in North America. I’ve been to Canada twice for a summer camp and have family in New Jersey. There are people from my camp, in my grade, there is someone with Israeli parents, and she still says that Israel is committing genocide.

Inbar: They love the word genocide. It’s always with the genocide.

Maayan: Everything that happens, the entire war in Gaza, Israel is always at fault. They want to cancel Israel. And I say, how? Where is this coming from? You are Israelis, you are Jews! Educate yourselves, see what happened here on October 7, and understand why we are doing what we are doing.

On October 7, people came into Israel and they murdered, they raped, they killed… they literally went into homes and shot children in their beds. How can you even condemn what Israel does after this? Yes, obviously we should examine what is happening, but how can it be that Jewish people who have family in Israel, who know what it is like, can think like that?

One of the most important things for me to say on this platform is that Jews must understand what’s happening here, as Jews. All these Jews who are saying things against Israel, it’s a thousand times stronger than if someone else were saying the same things. Jews in the Diaspora: You have a lot of power. You are physically in places that aren’t Israel. You can explain things.

Israel is doing the best that we can. If only no Palestinians needed to suffer. Just like it hurts when an Israeli Jewish mother, or a Druze mother, or anyone else who loses a son fighting in Gaza, or anyone who lost a loved one on October 7, it hurts me when a Palestinian mother in Gaza loses her son.

Shaked: Besides the terrorists!

Maayan: Besides them… I guess Hamas is a different situation.

Inbar: We love this place and we don’t want to leave. That’s why we are staying and we are going to do what it takes to rebuild. That’s really our point. We are ready to work hard, get out of our comfort zones, to be enlisted wherever is needed. We have a common goal.

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