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BEHIND THE HEADLINES How Israelis deal with grief intensified by nation’s size

JERUSALEM, Feb. 11 (JTA) — Sixteen-year-old Shelley Ben-Yehuda did not know any of the 73 soldiers killed in last week’s helicopter crash, but that did not stop her from mourning. “I was affected by what happened, just like everyone else,” says the high school junior, who is looking toward her own induction into the army in two years. Recalling her initial reaction to the Feb. 4 accident, she says, “The first thing I worried about was who was on the helicopters. I checked every single person I could think of. I started making frantic phone calls and talked to their parents. “Some of the parents had to wait the whole night to hear that everything was okay. Some of them were really hysterical. At tough times like these, I just want to escape for a while, but I know you can’t escape your feelings.” According to many of the country’s experts on grief management, Ben-Yehuda’s response to the accident is typical of the way Israelis respond to national tragedies. Although Israel is certainly not the only nation to experience large-scale traumas, most professionals here concur that Israelis encounter more tragedy, and live with more stress, than citizens of other developed countries. The fact that the country is so small, and the people so close-knit, only adds to the suffering, they say. Israelis are “very integrated, so the impact of an event, whether good or bad, is much more dramatic than in most other countries,” says Shlomo Breznitz, a psychology professor at Haifa University. In a country of only 5.7 million citizens, Breznitz says, “the chances of knowing someone who knows someone are very, very high.” For this reason, Breznitz adds, “if something happens, it becomes extremely important to learn the [victims’] names. If you don’t know them personally, chances are you are close to someone who does.” Israelis have become experts in grief management because of the many wars, terrorist attacks and other traumas they have been subjected to over the years, according to crisis-intervention specialist Avigdor Klingman, also a professor at Haifa University. Klingman, who works closely with the Ministry of Education, maintains that Israel is uniquely equipped to handle large-scale crises. “Stress and grief management take place on the organizational level in Israel, so people know they don’t have to cope alone. We’ve developed a protocol, and it has been successful.” In addition to special emergency teams maintained by the Israel Defense Force and several civilian organizations, the Education Ministry is prepared to offer assistance almost as soon as an incident occurs. Working on the assumption that even the youngest children are affected by a national tragedy — either because their parents are upset, or because they have heard something on the radio or television — the Education Ministry urges teachers to encourage children to express their feelings. “It can be through drawings, play-acting, writing condolences to the bereaved families or the IDF,” says Klingman. “Children, like adults, need an outlet. What’s important is not to force it.” To help children, adults must first deal with their own feelings, he says. “We tell teachers to express their own reactions, but without exaggeration or dramatization. We also encourage teachers to explain the facts.” After last week’s air crash, teachers “stressed that it was an accident,” Klingman says. Klingman is reluctant to generalize about or quantify the population’s response to tragic events because “a lot depends on the person’s experiences and age.” But over the long-term, terrorist attacks are the most traumatic, he says. “There’s the feeling that it can happen to us at any moment. The result is that we’re less secure, feel more helpless. We become afraid to go out and get on with our lives.” In the case of an accident, “unless one’s family has been very personally affected, we can say `It happened, it’s over, and it probably won’t happen again. I can take precautions.’ ” Although united in mourning to a large degree, Israelis nonetheless disagree on best way to express grief. While many Israelis believed that the round-the-clock coverage of funerals was a proper memorial to the 73 young soldiers who died, others have their doubts. Professor Zehava Solomon, a Tel Aviv University expert on post-traumatic stress disorder, fears that the extensive media coverage of national tragedies may actually do more harm than good. “In my opinion, the media create a happening, and the most vulnerable segments of society are at risk. There are people for whom every event, regardless of what it is, reactivates their own fears, conflicts and memories.” While Solomon says she would not go back to the early days of the State, “when it was considered unmanly for soldiers to cry at funerals, the media can actually exacerbate anxiety and fear.” For young Israelis at least, shared grief can sometimes be cathartic. Just as there were numerous young people who became politically active after the November 1995 Rabin assassination, many teens have expressed an intense desire since the helicopter crash to become combat soldiers. This comes at a time when motivation to join the IDF is reportedly at an all-time low. “I’ve always wanted to be in a combat unit, and the crash just motivated me more,” says 17-year-old Gilad Israel, a high school senior who knew three of the helicopter victims. Israel, who will enlist this summer, even though he is permitted to wait until the winter to begin his army service, says that the days of national mourning were important. “I felt a need to feel a part of the society, a part of the army, even though I’m not yet a soldier. Watching the funerals on TV helped me feel connected to the families and to other Israelis.” Speaking of his plans to enlist, he adds, “I want to protect the country for my parents, for my brother and sister, and the children I hope to have one day. I don’t want them to live through wars.”