Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Paradise Lost

This isn’t supposed to happen here.

All of Israel was glued to the news this week as thousands of police and volunteers combed the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kyriat Yovel looking for 22-month-old Hodaya Kedem Pimstein who had gone missing from the front yard of her father’s house over the weekend. It was the top news story, pushing aside the local election coverage and the latest pronouncements from Al Qaeda.

By now, we know that it was Hodaya’s father who drowned her in a bathtub and buried her body in the woods between Moshavs Ora and Aminadav. Soon, I’m sure, we will be treated to his “explanations” and tearfully blurted-out blusters of regrets.

But for days now, the one thought on many a mind, one that we didn’t dare utter out loud, was: have child abductions by strangers now come to Israel?

When I first arrived in Israel in 1984, I remarked to myself that the country seemed to be pleasantly stuck in an idyllic suburban America 1950s bubble. Women could still walk through a park late at night alone and not fear from attack. The country was well known for its open, free environment; where kids of all ages walk could around safely, ride buses at ages as young as six, and where the plague of milk carton missing child photos had yet to become infectious.

Nearly 20 years later, this is still the case. Because Israelis, beneath their gruff exterior, are always looking after each other.

Dismissed as a joke, it's a truism for anyone who lives here that a child walking with his or her parents on a cold day and dressed too lightly will invite unsolicited comments from half a dozen sabras, all chastising the parents for unnecessarily exposing their child to a wide variety of potential calamities.

When Merav and Amir were younger, we were in the very large Park Ra’anana, and they became separated from us. We weren’t worried because we knew the rest of park was looking after them, and lo and behold, at one point, a grandmotherly type came trotting up to us asking, in an angry tone that we could see right through, “are these yours?”

We have never experienced the kind of fear that our friends in North America tell us about: constantly looking over your shoulder at the mall, in the supermarket or at the amusement park when out with the kids. I can’t imagine an Israeli tying his child to him with a kiddie leash as I once saw on a trip to California.

Lately, we have had plenty of fears for our children – those same buses that our six-year-olds rode with pride are now presumed guilty until proven otherwise. We avoid crowds and pizza parlors that don’t have armed guards stationed outside. But Amir, Merav and even little Aviv still wander the streets of Baka on their own, to karate lessons, to school, or to the nearby community center for story hour.

So the very whisper into our collective consciousnes that little Hodaya might have been abducted by a stranger was enough to throw the delicate balance we rely on way off-kilter. With everything that's going on around us, we need something left to feel safe about. I am not ready to accept that all of my 1950s paradise world has been lost. Not yet, not now.

These fears, of course, are mostly irrational. Even in America, child snatching is nothing compared to the public perception of it. I once heard an NPR report where people on the street were asked how many child abductions by strangers they thought there were in a year.

A million, suggested the first interviewee.

Hundreds of thousands, offered the next.

The actual number: less than 100. The rest were almost all victims of family disputes. So to think this would become an epidemic here if it isn’t even one in the truly wild West is just giving in to paranoia. But then we’re pretty good at that these days.

The case of missing Hodaya, along with Nur Abu-Tir, the six year old Arab girl from Umm Tuba in southeastern Jerusalem who also seems to have disappeared as a result of inter-family fighting, gripped the nation in some ways even more than a bus bombing. Maybe because we can still block out attacks of mass proportions. It’s possible – difficult, but still possible - to say “I wasn’t there. It’s over. I can take precautions.”

But from your front yard…that's just too close.

Some in the media speculated that maybe this was the latest terror tactic – that Hamas was now going to start abducting children when their parents aren’t looking.

But at least for now, this is not the case. Our kids can still walk around in relative long as they don’t congregate together.

Hodaya’s father should be locked away for life. While it's not the first such tragedy in Israel, I hope never to hear such disturbing news again. We have enough problems without our family killing its own.

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