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Never Never Land

I can’t talk to my kids about Israel

Marjorie Ingall
May 24, 2010
(Boston Public Library)
(Boston Public Library)

I’ve written a column about Jewish parenting for eight years, first at the Forward and for the last year at Tablet Magazine. In that time, I’ve written 11 pieces about Jewish children’s books, nine about the High Holidays, seven about Passover, six about the Jewish female body, four about summer camp, three about Sukkot, and two each about vaccines, organ donation, and Tu B’Shevat. I am painfully aware that I have never, not once, written about Israel.

That’s because I am deeply ambivalent about Israel. Modern-day Israel, as opposed to historical Israel, is a subject I avoid with my children. Yes, of course I believe the state should exist, but the word “Zionist” makes me skittish. (I understand that I may be the Jewish equivalent of all the twentysomething women I want to smack for saying, “I’m not a feminist, but I believe in equal rights.”) I shy away from conversations about Israeli politics. I feel no stirring in my heart when I see the Israeli flag. I would no sooner attend an Israel Day parade than a Justin Bieber concert. Neither Abe Foxman nor AIPAC speaks for me. I am a liberal, and I am deeply troubled by the Matzav, Israeli shorthand for tension with the Palestinians, and I do not have answers, and I do not know what to do about it, and I do not know what to tell my children.

So, it was with a huge sense of identification and relief that I read Peter Beinart’s controversial essay in the New York Review of Books last week. As you no doubt know, Beinart, an associate professor of journalism and political science at CUNY and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wrote that leading Jewish institutions viscerally reject opposition to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and of the country’s Arab citizens, and this has made younger non-Orthodox Jews like me—who are deeply committed to human rights around the world, who reject being told what to think and do without the airing of all points of view, who have issues with military force—turn away from Jewish communal organizations and refrain from even thinking about, let alone identifying with, the state of Israel.

“Having kids definitely played a role” in his writing of this essay, Beinart told Tablet’s Marc Tracy. “I think it made me think about not just my Zionist identity, but what kind of Zionism was available to them. And the more I thought about that, the more I began to worry.” In the piece, he mentioned that he could imagine his children, who attend an Orthodox shul, winding up either among the apathetic college students identified in a recent survey who don’t identify at all with Zionism, or among the right-wingers who boo when the notion of Palestinian suffering is even mentioned at an Israel solidarity rally. “Either prospect fills me with dread,” he writes.

Oh, dude. I can relate.

When I wrote recently about the attempt in Canada to censor a children’s book depicting a Palestinian perspective on the Matzav, I had a teetering stack of middle-grade and young adult novels and non-fiction about the conflict on my desk. Josie, my 8 year old, wandered into my office and asked if she could read one. “Sure,” I gulped. She wound up choosing Samir and Yonatan, a poetic, elliptical novel about a Palestinian boy and a Jewish boy in an Israeli hospital. When she returned the book to me, I asked, “What did you think?”

“I’m not sure I understood it,” she said. “Can you explain it a little bit?”

I stumbled desperately through an explanation of why two peoples feel they have a legitimate claim to the same land.

“But having land is like having a seat on a bus,” Josie replied. “You can’t just push someone out of their seat, and you can’t just leave your seat and then come back to it after a long time and just expect the person who is sitting there now to give it to you.”

My panicked reaction to her words surprised me. I found myself trying to convince her that Israel did have that right. But that’s not what I believe. But I’m not sure what I believe. I want my children to love Israel, but I don’t want them to identify with bullies. I was spinning in my own head like the desperate, overwhelmed woman in the Calgon commercial: J Street, take me away!

But Josie’s bus-bully analogy resonated. Baby-boomer Jews seem wedded to a sepia-toned image of Jews as victims—in the shtetl, in the Holocaust, in Israel’s early wars. But in real life, victims can turn into bullies. Perhaps being the parent to girls, rather than boys, helps me see this—in Mean Girl dynamics, the power shifts back and forth almost every day. We want a bright clear line, but heroes and villains in the real world are much fuzzier.

Until now, I’ve taught my children about Jewish identity through ancient history, through food, through songs and prayers, through the story of American immigration. I’ve left any Israel talk to their teachers. When someone said of the camp Josie will attend this summer, “Oh, that’s a very Zionist camp!” I felt a stab of unexamined, visceral panic. I’ve always known I’d take my kids to visit Israel one day, and I figure they’ll go on a teen tour or do a study program there just as I did. But putting it off till tomorrow, like a Jewish Scarlett O’Hara, isn’t a good long-term strategy.

So, exactly how should liberal parents who want to foster Jewish identity, but who see Zionism as the conversational equivalent of an Alar-coated apple, teach their children about Israel? “You have to expose children to a multiplicity of authors and positions, then they can synthesize their own ideas,” says Alex Sinclair, lead researcher at Makom, the Israel Engagement Network of the Jewish Agency. “When we tell kids what to think, we forbid those kinds of critical, evaluative moves.”

In a 2007 piece in the Jerusalem Report, Sinclair wrote, “Educational thinkers since Socrates have known that one of the soundest ways in which to get people to feel committed to and invested in a given issue is to ask them to take a stand on it: to debate. In good schools, from the earliest grades, children are asked to collate evidence, analyze data and evaluate positions. Indeed, ‘evaluation’ is the highest order of thinking, according to Bloom’s now classic taxonomy of the cognitive domain. Yet, in Israel education, we seem to want to prevent Jewish children (to say nothing of adults) from aspiring to that level.”

Furthermore, Sinclair tells me, teaching American kids about Israel should be a lesson in teaching pluralism. “It’s about seeing Israel as non-monolithic, containing a variety of voices, without saying ‘you have to follow a particular party line,’ ” he says. “There are other debates beside the Israeli-Palestinian ones. There are discussions to be had about living in a diverse culture, about religion’s role in the state. I’d love for American kids to be exposed to young Russian and Ethiopian Jews as well as to Palestinians.”

He makes a funny analogy: “You have little girls, right?” he asks me. “And they love horses, right? There are American organizations that let you sponsor a horse, give money to the horse, you get pictures of the horse, and maybe one day you meet the horse. We need something similar to foster one-on-one connections between American and Israeli kids. And what they should wind up with is ‘If what I think is different from what some political parties think, that’s great.’ You have to allow kids to have that space.”

And all this means we can’t expect blind fealty. Right now, the big American Jewish communal organizations measure the success of their youth outreach initiatives in “Do the kids wind up supporting the Israeli government?” Maybe instead we should encourage kids to be able to engage in informed debate and be able to appreciate Israel’s history while also feeling empowered to urge its government—and ours—to take positions we think are right.

When you’re an American Jewish parent, ambivalence and sorrow about the state of Israel aren’t necessarily bad. Disengagement is. What I need to fight in myself is the tendency to tune out when I’m confused and upset. When I tune out, I can’t learn, and I can’t teach my own kids. Disagreement with Israel doesn’t mean not loving Israel, just as being upset with your own children doesn’t mean you don’t love them. But I need to engage with what frightens me, and my failure to do so is why it’s taken eight years to write this column.

Marjorie Ingall is a columnist for Tablet Magazine, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.