A couple of weeks ago I was in Israel, where I was born and where much of my family still lives. I was sitting in the living room of my great aunt, where I’ve sat hundreds of times, listening to the same speech I’ve heard hundreds of times. My family is Sephardic, working class and not, shall we say, progressive. None of them needed to be convinced on the wisdom of building the Great Wall to separate Israel from various West Bank territories. They would die before they voted for anyone in the Labor party, or gave a penny to Peace Now.
Every time I visit they feel the need to give their naïve, lefty, American relative (me) a refresher course on the dangers of the Arab mind. After a few minutes I tuned them out, as I always do, and idly flipped through channels. I paused for a moment when I got to a show featuring an oversized Mickey Mouse character with a helium-voice bouncing around on dry desert land. My children weren’t with me on this trip and I missed them. How cute, I thought. Next time they come with me I’ll have something to show them. My Arabic is pretty rusty, so I couldn’t really understand what he was saying, and neither would they. But who could resist an overstuffed, bobblehead Mouse in baggy white gloves?
If you follow the foreign news you know where this is going. When I got back to the U.S. my in-box was filled with the tragic headlines about Middle Eastern Mickey, whose real name is Farfour. Since I’d seen him, Farfour, the star of a children’s program called “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” had died. To be accurate, he’d been killed, murdered really. Or in the words of the anchor who delivered the news – a six year old girl, same age as my daughter, dressed in a peach headscarf – “martyred at the hands of criminals, the murderers, the murderers of innocent children.” She was sitting somber faced at a desk, and the wall behind her was covered in one of those cheerful foam puzzles kids usually have on their playroom floors.
On the show, the girl’s announcement is preceded by Farfour being interrogated by a shady Israeli official, one of the “filthy, criminal plundering Jews,” as Farfour likes to call them. The Israeli, who is black, speaks perfect Arabic and is dressed like a seventies porn mogul, beats the mouse in the head and neck and presumably would waterboard him if he could find big enough straps. Here it is: It has to be seen to be believed.
“Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” which runs on a Hamas affiliated station, is not some nutcase cable access show. It’s “educational television,” the Hamas equivalent of Sesame Street or Baby Einstein, the kind of show that appeals to parents who think kids today spend too much time with their Game Boys. In some episodes Farfour tells kids to study hard for their exams and drink their milk. In other episodes he shows them how to hold an AK-47 and launch a hand grenade.
This is the hardest thing to get your head around. Martyr culture is not just for the hopeless youth of refugee camps. I remember once visiting a West bank school that was the Fatah-affiliated equivalent of Maret- a tony outpost for the children of professors and accountants. Even there the most prominent space was reserved for the Martyr’s Wall, a collection of photos and bloody mementos of neighborhood kids who’d been killed while fighting the enemy. No youthful aspirations exist outside the context of the noble death wish. For a fourteen-year-old, to aspire to be just an accountant is shameful, a betrayal. To be a martyr is the ultimate goal.
We are once again in one of those moments when some American official is gamely setting out to tackle the Middle East peace process (in this case Condi Rice) But if anyone has one spark of hope for the success of such a process, the Martyred Mouse will kill it off. Even the most willfully blinkered lefty Israeli (such as myself) just has to throw up her hands at a preschool program that includes among its vocabulary phrases “murderers of innocent children” and “criminal plundering Jews.” This seems only one step short of the child soldiers of Uganda, kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army. ” “We will annihilate the Jews,” one young female caller told Farfour.”I will commit martyrdom.”
One bit of good news: ” Israel’s Education Ministry announced Sunday that it had approved a textbook for use in the state’s Arab schools that for the first time described Israel’s 1948 war of independence as a ‘catastrophe’ for the Arab population,” the New York Times reports. Hardly a radical concession, but still very controversial in Israel. The Education Minister, my relatives would point out with disgust, is of course a longtime, loyal Laborite.
Hanna Rosin is a contributing writer and editor to The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly and Slate.com.