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Explaining the Occupation

I’ve taught my children to love Israel. This summer, I tried to start a more complicated conversation.

Danielle Leshaw
October 24, 2012
(Andrea Tsurumi)
(Andrea Tsurumi)

For the past three summers, my husband and I have brought students to Israel from Ohio University, where he teaches English and I’m the director of the campus Hillel. Each year we bring our two children as well: Zev, 9, and Ruthie, 6. While my husband teaches at Tel Aviv University, the kids and I visit the beaches almost every day, a welcome change from the activities available to us in Athens, in the remote hills of southeastern Ohio, where we live the rest of the year. Sometimes we opt for north Tel Aviv, where the water is as calm as a lake and the children can drift out almost beyond sight; other days we head south with our boogie boards to the likes of Gordon or Frishman, eager to get pummeled by the waves and to challenge the lifeguards’ helicopter parenting.

This is our life for five weeks every summer. We rarely leave Tel Aviv, and if we do, it’s for a day trip to Jerusalem. Concentrated time and space in the Basel neighborhood, renting the same apartment each summer, is intentional. We arrange our lives as we do in Athens: The kids share a bedroom, we know our neighbors, we visit the same supermarket every few days. It’s not just that we love Israel. It’s that we want our children to see this land as their home. We want our children to grow up feeling this land is an extension of themselves.

In part to reflect the growing interests of some of my students, I left my kids and husband behind to spend one day this July in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv with J Street. We discussed the separation barrier, pored over maps, met with experts like Shaul Arieli and Amos Harel, along with representatives from Gisha, an Israeli nonprofit that works for greater freedom of movement for Palestinians. I returned home from this excursion and spent the evening deep inside my head.

When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I wasn’t willing to pretend to my children anymore that these issues didn’t exist. We had introduced them to Israel as though the country was a Jewish Disneyland, as though nobody here suffers, like we’re on a family Birthright tour and the whole country is nothing but love and sunshine and delicious food. I decided to paint a more complicated, and honest, picture.

That afternoon, I carried their boogie boards home from the beach for them so they could focus on what I was about to say. “Listen carefully,” I said. “There’s something I want to tell you. There’s this thing that I have to explain. And it’s called the occupation.”


I grew up learning about the Holocaust but don’t recall ever being taught about Israel. In fact, I barely knew that Israel even existed until I arrived at college and started to explore the larger Jewish landscape. I lived a fairly standard 1970s Jewish childhood: equal parts assimilation and apathy, equal parts fear and tribalism. My interest in rabbinical school stemmed from my desire to make sense of the complexities of my own upbringing and to foster Jewish growth in my own life. Naturally, rabbinical school allowed for all this and more.

I first lived in Israel when I was 24, spending a year and a half evenly divided between a secular kibbutz in the north and a women’s yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. I sat in a bomb shelter while rockets flew over the kibbutz from Lebanon. I studied all day with women who were preparing for a lifetime of marriage and Shabbat observance. Later, as a rabbinical student, I walked across Jerusalem from yeshiva to yeshiva, studying with Reform, Conservative, and Modern Orthodox teachers to develop a background as diverse as the college students I would eventually serve. I’ve seen Israel from a lot of different perspectives, and spending three recent summers in Tel Aviv has only brought me closer to the day-to-day life of Israelis, with all their opinions and arguments, their carefree café days and their nighttime political marches down Rothschild Boulevard.

Back in Ohio, my husband and I are responsible for our children’s entire Jewish education. Because of our area’s small Jewish population, there is no religious school, no day school; we have no grandparents nearby to light candles with us on Hanukkah. But, despite those disadvantages, one of the reasons I’ve placed myself in this corner of Ohio without a Jewish day school and without standard synagogue life is that I don’t trust anybody else to teach my kids about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In many ways, my husband and I are Jewish home-schoolers, because there are parts of our children’s Jewish education that we can’t just hand over to someone else. But lest you think I spend all day talking to my children about life in Gaza or water shortages in Palestinian villages, or keeping them from other Jewish families with their own opinions on how to live a Jewish life, know that on Rosh Hashanah they joined with other local Jewish kids and licked the plate of honey clean after finishing their apples, and last month they decorated the sukkah just like they do each fall. They’ll eat too much Hanukkah gelt in the winter and love Israel for the gifts it gives each summer.

Just because the stories are hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be told.

We tend to introduce Jewish topics according to a host of factors: current Jewish holiday, current political environment, current topic at the kids’ elementary school. When our son came home from public school last spring discussing the Ohio state flag, it signaled the moment when he would get a history lesson on the Israeli flag. In the meantime, the destruction of the Temple, the Maccabean revolt, the expulsion from Spain—somehow we’ve talked about it all. They love those stories. Drama and destruction and sadness and loss from a long, long time ago. But the recent stories are trickier. We celebrated the release of Gilad Shalit this past spring—the children saw his face all over Tel Aviv the previous summer—even though I had a really hard time answering all the questions the kids asked about how he spent his time for five years. (He was all by himself? He never saw his family?) But just because the stories are hard doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be told.

On the day I mentioned the occupation, the walk home from Gordon Beach was tough. It takes a long time to get back to our apartment, even without the serious conversation involving new vocabulary words such as annexation, territories, extremism, suicide bombings. Scooters whizzed by us on the sidewalks at impossible speeds. The sun beat down. I knew I only had a few blocks before they started negotiating for a lemonade. In the meantime, the 9-year-old quickly jumped in to demand hard facts: How long ago did this happen? Why did it happen? And when is this wall going to come down?

I employed all sorts of exaggerated metaphors. I told them to conjure up the image of their elementary-school principal’s office. I then “occupied” that office, pushing Mr. Denny Boger and his Christmas ties and his messy desk into the corner, disconnecting his phone line, hauling in my own sleek gunmetal-gray desk, with my electronics and their 3G capabilities, and instead of his snarky secretary, I installed three sullen college students guarding the door and the hallway and checking everyone’s backpacks as they walked to the cafeteria.

They didn’t know if they should like this story. They giggled at the image of me in the principal’s office, with him shoved into the corner, and laughed when I took the fish tank off his desk and put it on my own. There, I said. These are my fish now. I will even rename them. And if they become a bother, I will dispose of them. The 6-year-old stopped laughing.

Our 9-year-old demanded to know if people are angry. “Yes,” said his younger sister, the one who prefers to suck her thumb and tuck behind my leg and quietly observe the world. “They’re mad. But they’re also sad.” She paused and looked up at me. “Right, Mama?”

We walked by their favorite smoothie shop on Dizengoff, but they didn’t even seem to notice because my son was making big sweeping statements about the injustice of people being moved around from place to place without their consent: Aren’t there Palestinians and Israelis who want to make their own decisions? And go where they want to go? And work where they want to work? Doesn’t this wall keep people from moving around? In his world, people go where they want to go. Those checkpoints with their long lines—well, he said, they should be dismantled. He tried that new word out several times. Dismantled. There. Wouldn’t that be better? He asked to see this separation wall with his own eyes, and I promised him that he would. Maybe next year.

If the kids were older, they might have pushed back at me with questions from the Israelis’ perspective, trying to see the other side of the issue, but for now, the injustices I laid out are the injustices they wanted to right. People sometimes ask me: If you’re going to talk about the occupation, why start with the Palestinians? You should be starting with us.

I want my kids to grow up believing that they can dismantle that damn separation wall.

This is my biggest problem. Us. Them. Us. Them. I don’t want my kids starting their Jewish lives with Us and Them. Or worse, not even knowing about the existence of them. Believing that the land of Israel is our sole birthright and nobody else has ever laid claim to these sacred spaces. Am I crazy for thinking that the key to all of this is how we raise the next generation of Jews? And Palestinians? But since I’m not raising two Palestinian kids, I’m raising Jewish kids, I can only hope to do my part. I want my kids to grow up believing that they can dismantle that damn separation wall. I want my kids to believe that it will be in their lifetime that Jerusalem becomes a city of shared pleasure instead of shared conflict. I want them to have the language now—yes, as a 6-year-old and a 9-year-old—to fight this fight that isn’t getting any easier and will likely last well into their adulthood.

The evening after we discussed the occupation, they asked to take one of their favorite nighttime walks, down Ibn G’virol to Rabin Square, to say hello to the fish in the new pond; they’re so docile that the 9-year-old can catch them in his hands. His sister bent over him and laughed as he’d catch and release, catch and release. Last year, each time we came here, my son would stop in front of the Rabin memorial and ask about the square with the jagged rocks and the tiny tea lights and why people are always clustered there taking pictures. Intimidated by the effort it would take to explain, I ignored his questions until he stopped asking.

That was last year. This year, our walk that night took us by the Rabin memorial once again, and this time I paused there and thought that with all this new language—occupation, suicide bombings, annexation—maybe next summer, there’ll be a way to start to tell this story, too, if not all the others.


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Danielle Leshaw is a rabbi and Executive Director of Hillel at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Sections of her novel-in-progress, The Most Beautiful Alone, earned her the 2014 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for fiction.

Danielle Leshaw is a rabbi and Executive Director of Hillel at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Sections of her novel-in-progress, The Most Beautiful Alone, earned her the 2014 Moment Magazine-Karma Foundation Prize for fiction.