This week I went to my friend Fatima's house to visit her and see her new baby. It was the first time in three weeks, and the second time in two months, that I'd been there. Before the violence started, I was popping in about once a week or so, and Fatima would stop at my house for coffee and a chat.
Since the violence, Fatima hasn't been coming to visit. She stopped working because of the pregnancy, but still might have come to visit if it hadn't been for the big boulders set in the road to block the way from her village to our town. A few times she called, or I called her, and we'd arrange a time to meet by the boulders -- she in her car, me in mine. We'd park on our respective sides, then she would clamber over the rocks to sit in my car, or I'd clamber over and sit in hers, and we'd talk.
I wasn't comfortable going into the village, so I put off her invitations, made excuses about the kids, my husband, the army. One day she asked me to come, and so, impetuously, I just went. I drove around the roadblock, following her in her little car. I had my baby with me but wasn't worried about our safety. Once I got into the village, I could see that everything was normal and friendly, just as it had always been.
But everything wasn't the same. Talking with Fatima and her family, I learned that her oldest daughter, in her last year of high school, has had trouble getting to school, and switched to a different school that was easier to get to. She still ends up missing a lot of days because every time there's a Palestinian “martyr's” funeral, the PA cancels school so everyone can go to the funeral and riot afterwards. Fatima doesn't allow her children to participate in such things so they spend a lot of time at home.
That's where I saw things were different. Fatima's kids have always watched what seems to me to be a lot of television -- several hours a day. Her husband, who doesn't work, watches pretty much all day. Usually when my kids and I visited, there'd be some silly soap opera on, all the kids glued to the screen. But for the past few months, it was all "news." I put it in quotation marks because it's not really news. It's propaganda. To my college-educated, Western eyes, it's the most blatant, offensive, obvious kind of junk -- bad actors and bad commentators reading from gory scripts of the most inflammatory kind, plainly seeking to inflame the senses of anyone watching.
At first I thought, "No one pays attention to it, it doesn't mean anything" -- even though I was bothered by the one-sided, negativity and falsehood of it all. But what I've seen is that it does have an effect on those who watch it. I can't even blame the viewers: They were seeing it for so many hours, and with no alternative point of view, how could they know enough to question it, let alone criticize or recognize it for what it was?
Fatima called me in a panic one night, saying they had just heard that Jewish residents of our neighborhood near Jerusalem were marching on their villages and shooting everyone. I looked out the window, saw nothing, then sent my husband up the street to check things out. It was perfectly quiet and peaceful, not a soul in sight, not a sound to be heard. I told her then that she should not believe everything on Palestinian TV and radio, that they lied in order to get people upset and angry.
Even as I told her, I could sense her skepticism: "Oh, sure, Sue. You don't know anything more than I do, and of course you don't want to believe that your neighbors would shoot us!"
It was when I spoke with her daughter that same night that I realized the extent of the damage those lies on television had caused. I have known Shiruk for years, ever since she was 11. She is now nearly 18. We have hiked together, cooked, danced and sang together. She taught my daughter Arabic every week for a couple of months. She is a beautiful, bright, talented girl who hopes to go to college. To put that ambition in perspective, Fatima can barely read Arabic, and in her village few girls finish high school.
Whenever the subject of politics came up, which it inevitably did over the years, Shiruk would wave a hand dismissively at all politicians, Arabs and Israelis alike. They were all the same, she'd say, interested only in putting money in their own pockets instead of serving the people. It wasn't a subject we pursued for very long. We would voice our opinion on areas we could agree on, and let the rest drop.
But the night that Fatima called, I could hear Shiruk shouting in the background. Fatima kept telling her what I was saying, then Shiruk would argue with her mother, saying, "But they're showing it on TV right now! They're cutting off his head!" Finally, Fatima put Shiruk on the phone. I told her, "Listen to me. It is not true. I am here in our town and there is nothing like that going on. Turn off the TV and stop watching that!" She replied, "But I want to watch and be with my people."
Never before, in the years I had known her, had I heard Shiruk identify with "her people." Her people had always meant her family, her relatives, her village -- in that order, with loyalties sharply dropping for each category. Now she wants to be with "her people," the ones who are making Molotov cocktails, the ones who teach small children to throw rocks and fire guns.
If anyone could be immune to political propaganda, I would have thought it was Shiruk. She has spent a lot of time with Jews. After all, she has eaten in our home, been to our parties and synagogue, held our babies. She has a good head on her shoulders, knows English, reads books. But it seems that even the brightest mind is susceptible to hate-mongering, given enough exposure to it.
Kept out of school, Shiruk spends many, many hours watching television. She has seen dramatized, studio-fabricated decapitations, gang rapes, and children being maimed and murdered -- all at the hands of "Israeli soldiers." Her younger siblings watch, too, and I imagine that this is the norm in most homes in hundreds of villages throughout the West Bank.
What will the future bring?