Why I Don't Talk About Israel With My Stepdaughter – Kveller
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Why I Don’t Talk About Israel With My Stepdaughter

The author (c.) with her mother and aunt in Israel.


For the past three weeks, I’ve been quietly absorbing the news from Israel. I lit candles for the three missing boys on Shabbat. I was hopeful that they would be found alive, and inspired by the words of Rachelle Fraenkel. When their bodies were found, I felt a familiar horror and pain at the loss of more lives, which increased as the violence ramped up from the IDF, and from Hamas. These days, it seems like half of my Facebook friends are in Israel, spending hours of every day in bomb shelters. I’ve seen videos of weddings interrupted by sirens, pictures of children playing in grey stairwells, and last week I cried upon hearing this story about Jews going to try to pay their respects to the family of the Arab Israeli boy who was killed by Jewish extremists.

Normally, a news event this big in my life would be dinner table conversation. My stepdaughter, at 6, is more politically engaged than most adults I know. She has attended rallies in support of gun control laws, and went to a memorial for Trayvon Martin. She spent the night at Occupy Philadelphia when she was 4, and routinely protests fracking and cuts to Philadelphia public school funding. She knows about the war in Syria, and about Wendy Davis standing up for women’s rights in Texas. But I can’t bring myself to talk about this with her.

I am a product of 13 years of Jewish day school, and in that time I learned to love the State of Israel. I wore blue and white on Israel’s independence day every year, I sang “Hatikvah,” and I was carefully taught that the Arabs always wanted to kill us, and that despite this, we had been the victorious underdogs. Abba Eban’s famous words were used to explain all of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” We tried to help them, but they only wanted to kill us.

At home, my mother told stories of her semester abroad in Israel in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. She was living on a kibbutz, and along with another American girl her job was to jump on the bales of cotton to soften them up. Sometimes they would hear Jordanian or Syrian planes flying overhead, and they would quickly jump into the cotton. “I don’t know how we thought the cotton would protect us,” she would say, laughing. She also recalled navigating the kibbutz at night during blackouts. When the war finally ended and they were allowed to use lights again she got lost on her way back to her bunk, totally unused to finding her way around without a flashlight. War was an adventure, and she never spoke with me about fear, or about what she felt when she was on guard duty, a 21-year-old woman holding a gun, ready to kill anyone who came at her.

The author’s mother (l.) Israel in 1973.


There was a brief change of message when I was in fourth and fifth grade. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat signed a peace treaty in September of 1993. All of the children from my grade were ushered into one room to watch the ceremony on television. As Rabin gingerly shook Arafat’s hand, my teachers, many of whom were Israeli, wept with joy. This was repeated nearly a year later, when Rabin signed a treaty with Hussein I of Jordan. It felt, however briefly, like peace was at hand. But then Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated, and talk of peace faded away. The old rhetoric was back.

I had some teachers who were careful to explain that the Palestinians were not all bad. It was just that we were more right than they were. We had been promised the Land of Israel from God. We did not want to harm the Palestinians, but we had no choice. Each suicide bombing was noted at school, and we regularly prayed for the soldiers in the IDF. I felt my love for Israel in my chest, deep and strong. When I was a senior in high school, everyone from my grade was flown to Washington, D.C. from Chicago for a rally to support Israel.

At some point as a teenager, I had the distinct feeling that I was not getting the whole story. My father, a linguist with a PhD in Arabic, always seemed quietly horrified by the Israel advocacy I was learning at school. At one point, when I was in high school, I had a short conversation with him in which we discussed Israel’s targeted assassinations of terrorists, and the way they sometimes also ended up killing other people, even children. Well, I reasoned, those children would probably just grow up to become terrorists. My father looked at me, stricken and disgusted.

That conversation with my father is literally the only time in my childhood that I remember any conversation that was not first and foremost about the Israeli right to the land, and the Palestinians’ passion for terrorism. I wonder now if my parents worried about how to have a conversation that gave any nuance to the situation.

I don’t want my stepdaughter to grow up knowing only one side of this issue, even if I think it’s the right side (and I don’t always think that). But I also feel paralyzed. In many ways, my education made it so that I don’t feel like I can have any kind of rational conversation about this issue, and as I watch her attend Jewish day school, I worry she’ll have the same problem. As a stepmom, I can safely back away from this topic for now and allow her parents to present their case. But I know that this is an evergreen issue. Every year–every few months, even–Jerusalem will be back on the front page of the newspaper that’s delivered to our doorstep. And I’ll still be lost for words.

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