Confessions of a Summer Camp Terror Tot

by Jacob Levich

The Israel Defense Forces this week cynically capitalized on an earlier public relations coup, releasing yet another snapshot of a Palestinian toddler posed with weapons. The photograph, purportedly seized during a military operation in Hebron, is reminiscent of last month’s notorious "Terror in Diapers" photo, which showed a Gaza child decked out as a suicide bomber.

The latest picture is of course a boon to pro-Israel flacks, who had been so desperate to keep the kiddie terrorist story alive that they resorted to recycling year-old snaps of a militaristic kindergarten pageant in Gaza, falsely implying that the stale images were fresh. (See, for example, "Palestinian Kindergartners Being Schooled in Hate," an Anti-Defamation League press release dated June 27, 2002, or "Gaza Toddlers Taught Hatred, Martyrdom and Jihad," a June 28, 2002 story in <Israelinsider.com>, where weasel words are used to sell the old news as a hot item about a "recent" ceremony. A little digging revealed the same information and identical photos, clearly dated May 27, 2001, on the Israeli Prime Minister’s web site.)

Whatever their provenance, all of these alarming images were widely circulated in print and electronic media, where they were offered as evidence that Palestinians are heartless monsters who would snatch their own kids from the cradle and train them in terror.

But as I watched Zionist spinmeisters drawing ugly conclusions on CNN, I couldn’t help flashing back to fond memories of dear old Camp Milldale, where — to borrow a phrase from the ADL — I myself was "schooled in hate" during the summer of 1967.

Milldale is a suburban day camp located some miles outside of Baltimore, Md., birthplace of its sponsoring organization, the Jewish Community Center Association (JCC). Originally an educational and civic institution for poor Jewish immigrants, the JCC redirected its energies toward middle-class "schuls with pools" following WWII, and began aggressively promoting Zionism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.

Which is why, as a seven-year-old camper, I found myself manufacturing cardboard daggers and machine guns during arts-and-crafts period. These were to be used as props for Camp Milldale’s end-of-summer pageant, which featured a highly stylized re-enactment of episodes from Israeli history, interspersed with songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Emmis.

We first-graders were entrusted with recreating 1948. Some of us got to play Jewish militia; others — probably not the counselors’ favorites — had to be Arabs. We took to the stage bristling with toy weapons. Pint-sized Irgunists raised the Israeli flag, declared independence, and were immediately attacked by shrieking hordes of simulated Palestinians. After a brief melee, the Arabs all clutched their chests and fell down. Then everyone stood and sang "Hatikvah." Curtain; wild applause.

You could look at this perversely funny little performance as a harmless assertion of solidarity with Israel. Or you might see it as a callous exploitation of innocent minds. Either way, my fellow campers and I were certainly not being trained as terrorists. Nor, I suppose, were we literally being "schooled in hate," except in the abstract sense in which all such nationalist rituals are aimed at turning children into unthinking chauvinists.

Yet somewhere in Baltimore there’s undoubtedly an album filled with lurid snapshots of Milldale’s 1967 summer pageant, and it would be simple enough to deploy them on a web page or press release with the headline: "At Jewish Summer Camp, Kids are Taught to Re-Enact Deir Yassin Massacre." The resulting story would be close to literal truth, but its implications would be essentially false.

My point? Context is everything. Those photos of Palestinian "terror tots" might look very different if they were juxtaposed with shots of Jewish settlers training their children to handle Uzis. (You can find some of these on the web if you look hard enough; needless to say, they never appear on CNN.) The baby bomber pics might even teach us something important about the brutalizing effects of an endless colonial war — but only if they were presented in the context of daily life in occupied Palestine, where violence, humiliation, and poverty are an inescapable part of growing up.

Plucked out of context, however, these photos teach nothing but hatred. They are intended to elicit rage and horror while stifling thought and compassion. The obvious message is that Palestinians are incorrigibly criminal, and therefore deserve nothing better than lifelong confinement in the gigantic prison camps that Israel has made of Gaza and the West Bank. The deeper implication is that all Palestinian children are actual or potential terrorists, making them legitimate targets of Israeli military operations.

Just as I wouldn’t excuse a parent who dresses up an innocent kid as a suicide bomber, I can’t forgive a propagandist so reckless as to encourage violence against children. Preying on the weak is a sin. Ironically, that’s one of the things I was taught at Camp Milldale.

Jacob Levich is a writer and editor living in Queens, N.Y. He can be reached at: jlevich@earthlink.net

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