December 6, 2012 marked the 25th anniversary of the Free Soviet Jewry movement’s historic march on Washington in anticipation of Mikhail Gorbochev’s visit to the U.S. 250,000 people showed up to express their solidarity and to pressure the government of the USSR to “Let My People Go.”
I wasn’t at that rally. But by 1987, I had already lived in the US for 10 years and was a veteran of numerous local, similar events. I’d carried signs outside the Soviet consulate in San Francisco and on the sidewalk in front of theaters where Soviet actors or singers were performing. I’d almost gotten trampled by angry Asians at an event to condemn the USSR shooting down of a Korean jet-liner in 1983 and, because I was an adorably pig-tailed little immigrant girl who spoke good English (loudly) and didn’t appear to possess a shyness gene, I was paraded out to speak at rallies and fundraising events.
Let’s make one thing clear: I loved it. I loved the attention, I loved the chance to show off, I loved the charged excitement and energy of a heated political protest. It was all a big thrill, especially for a drama-craving kid like me.
But, did I understand what I was doing? I certainly thought I did. Just like I thought I knew what I was doing when my Jewish Day School attended marches for Israel and Greenpeace, once again, putting the cute, photogenic kids reading their poems about why clubbing defenseless seals was wrong, front and center.
My early exposure to activism spilled over into my college years, where, as president of my Hillel, I got to participate in a candlelight vigil protesting the fact that a local paper had accused Jewish students at San Francisco State University of being (to quote the headline) “Spies for Zion,” and monitoring the Palestinian students on campus, then sending that intel onto the FBI (no, I am not kidding. And neither were they. You can read the text of the entire thing here).
I am still politically active to this day. And so is my husband. But, would we get our kids involved?
It doesn’t feel right. Whether it’s thrusting a placard into a child’s hands knowing it will make a better photo op and thus help deliver news coverage, or having them man a table soliciting petition signatures (who can say no to a cute kid?) or even putting them in an “I (Heart) Name the Politician Or Issue of Your Choice” onesie, it all feels somehow wrong and exploitative Those are my pet issues, not theirs. Yes, as a parent, of course I try to pass on my values to my kids. But, this is a little bit more than values. This is borderline coercion (and an awful lot like back in the USSR, when all citizens, young and old, were driven out into the streets to wave giant, red flags and chant in unison about the glories of the state. Not that, at the time, I didn’t enjoy that, either).
I wholeheartedly understand those parents who believe that engaging their children in political and social action is something worthwhile for them to do as a family, that they are not only demonstrating their deep-held philosophies for their children, they are also proving their willingness to act on them. I would never, ever tell other parents how they should live their lives or bring up their children. I just know that it makes me, personally, feel uneasy (and kind of Stalin-ish).
A few years ago, my oldest son’s Hebrew School was working with Save Darfur to send postcards to President Obama urging him to take action. They asked the kids if they wanted to participate. (This was a key selling point for me, asking rather than unilaterally imposing. I have very, very big problems with schools that take kids to political events, whether I agree with the aim of the events or not.) My son volunteered and spent several weeks registering names. Was there a degree of coercion involved? Of course. It was a school-wide activity, after all, and some level of peer pressure was obviously present (not to mention prizes for who collected the most). But, in the end, it was his choice and his cause, and he had my complete support (down to me asking some of my friends to sign his postcards. I said I was against using cute kids as propaganda tools, not average-looking parents).
As it stands today, I don’t think the world is in imminent danger of running out of controversial laws and actions to protest (or march in favor of), human rights violations at home and abroad, or genocidal despots. I have spent a lifetime fighting various wars on different fronts. I intend to keep doing so for as long as I’m able.
But, I am committed to letting my kids identify–and fight–their own.