War not the only language Jews and Arabs speak, say students

Sarah Naveh had to laugh. Visiting the Bay Area last week, far from her native Israel, she found herself fighting an overwhelming impulse.

"I have this instinct to open my bags," she says. "Everywhere I go, everyone I meet, I'm thinking, 'Do you want to search my bags?' Fear is just part of my daily routine now."

Happily, during her two-week tour of America no one asked to search Naveh's bags, but the 24-year-old student from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Beersheva, knows this is only a temporary reprieve.

Soon she will be back home, where deadly serious bag-searches are commonplace, and every corner café is potentially on the front lines.

Naveh, along with Emil Elhanan, a medical student at Ben-Gurion, came to the Bay Area last week to meet with university supporters and donors on a fund-raising and morale-boosting effort. Their itinerary also took them to New York, Miami and Los Angeles.

In between Bay Area meetings, the two managed to squeeze in some sightseeing — checking out the Castro, the Golden Gate Bridge, Berkeley, Chinatown and North Beach.

All that is a far cry from the Negev region they call home.

Elhanan, 23, is in his second year of a five-year medical school program, while Naveh is finishing up her engineering studies.

This should be an exciting time in their lives, a time of looking forward to future happiness and success. But for young Israelis, it's not that simple.

Although Beersheva has been mostly spared from Israel's turmoil to the north, Elhanan and Naveh still feel vulnerable all the time.

In terrorist attacks prior to the current intifada, Naveh always made a point of remembering each one of the dead in her prayers. That was then.

"Now we're numb," she says. "You hear two died and you say, 'Oh that's not so bad.' You hear a rumor about an attack in Tel Aviv, and you right away think, 'Who do I know in Tel Aviv?' Friends call to see if you're alive. It's a ridiculous situation."

There is great fear of a megapeguah, the Hebrew term for a massive attack, along the same lines as Sept. 11 or worse, which would be carried out by Palestinian terrorists. Elhanan and Naveh see a megapeguah as a greater risk to Israel than the impending U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"It can happen," says Elhanan. "They stopped one not long ago. They think they make us feel better by publicizing that an attack was prevented, but it doesn't. It gives us a sense of panic."

After the Oslo accords, adds Naveh, "there was a period of good feeling, but it stopped all of a sudden. I lost a friend a month ago in the territories. You just can't make sense of it."

For such promising young people, this uncertainty seems an unfair burden.

Elhanan and his family immigrated to Israel in the early 1990s from his native Azerbaijan. Once settled in Haifa, he quickly adjusted to Israeli life, served a tour of duty in the army and is now studying to become a psychiatrist.

Born in Philadelphia, Naveh made aliyah with her family when she was a baby. Though majoring in engineering, she remains undecided about her career path.

For now, both remain true to their school. With a student population of 17,000, Ben-Gurion University offers a rich intellectual and social life, as well as a lot more interaction between Arabs and Jews than one might expect.

Elhanan proudly points out that the university recently graduated its first female Bedouin medial doctor, and he counts several Arabs among his friends, including his dorm-mate.

"We use a lot of humor," he says. "We laugh at each other's opinions, but it stays within the smile because it's easy to get angry about what's happening in Israel."

Both students note other pressing problems in society beyond the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their university is located in one of Israel's poorest neighborhoods, with recent emigres from South America, North Africa and the former Soviet Union facing unemployment, poverty and crime.

To do their part, Elhanan and Naveh volunteer their time. She teaches science and English to local Bedouin children and also works with handicapped kids.

He mentors a young Bedouin Israeli boy and also volunteers at the university's psychiatric hospital, often treating Israeli soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

"Two years ago, it wasn't like that," says Elhanan of his patients. "It's commonplace now. People need to talk because they're concerned for their lives. But if you think about it all the time, you go insane."

Walking down crowded Telegraph Avenue near the U.C. Berkeley campus last week, Naveh and Elhanan felt the strife of their homeland recede.

But that doesn't mean they're interested in changing addresses any time soon.

"I love Israel," says Naveh. "It's my home, and I don't want to live anywhere else. I just want things to be calmer."

Despite the storm clouds in Israel, youth and optimism still prevail.

Says Elhanan: "In the university, you see Arabs and Jews studying together as friends. War is not the only language we speak with each other. There is also a language of friendship."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.