Hundreds of teenage boys and girls from a number of different schools gather in a closed space to watch an emotionally charged play that includes staged scenes of violence that look utterly realistic. Not in a film, but right in front of their disbelieving eyes. For youngsters who have yet to develop mature cultural and psychological filters, the subject – the Holocaust, a ghetto – is difficult to process.
The conflicts that arise in the play "Ghetto" by Yehoshua Sobol are cruel and impossible in any setting: life and death, how to maintain life under the threat of extermination, whom to sacrifice in order to save the rest. For young adults, these conflicts are even more difficult to process – so it is not surprising that some of them reacted by laughing during the performance and goading on the Nazi character.
There is another aspect to this incident that is particularly characteristic of our time – authority that has weakened almost to the point of collapse. For many young adults, the only authoritative figure they have ever encountered is the voice of "Big Brother" on the reality television program (in which an anonymous voice directs contestants' actions). Add to this the fact that mainstream culture today demands little or no intellectual effort, aiming mainly for the emotions – and the result is a huge embarrassment.
These teens don't know how to handle such powerful emotions. That is why many of them experience a reversal of the process described by Henri Bergson in his essay "Laughter." The laughter in this instance served as a dam, to regulate the flood of emotion.
Another characteristic of today's culture, especially at that impressionable age, is the desire to identify with the strong character, who is successful and handsome. It is nearly the single most dominant principle of a mass culture in which you would be hard pressed to find any kind of empathy for the weak. And what teen wants to identify with the weak guy? At that age, herd mentality rules – so if the most popular kid laughs, many others laugh as well, just to avoid being different and to be "one of the gang."
Then those same kids go to the army and suddenly grow up. When they go back and see this play after their mandatory military service, I can guarantee that they won't laugh; they will be serious and responsible. To anyone who maintains that military service turns them into ruthless soldiers who subjugate Palestinians I will say this: The "occupation" is merely a concept that has invaded our consciousness when we lack something else on which to blame our educational shortcomings.