Return to Never Never Land
Continuing the conversation on kids and Israel
So, my week was kinda crazy; how was yours?
I knew that my column last week about my ambivalence toward Israel would generate a lot of debate. I did not know I would be called a “vapid ignoramus,” a terrible mother, a “spoilt” consumerist, a “knucklehead,” and a “hypocrite” whose passivity helped cause the Holocaust. There were also repeated references to my Upper East Side, latte-swilling, Palestine-loving dinner parties, to which I did not respond because I was out buying caviar and berating my chauffeur.
Seriously: I was upset by the name-calling. But now that I’ve read and digested all the comments, I can see the makings of a genuine conversation amid the nuggets of abuse flung like monkey poo. I want to have a conversation. And so should the Jewish establishment, if its leaders are interested in keeping America’s non-Orthodox Jewish young people connected to Israel.
Here are some of the repeated threads that came up in comments, by email, and on Facebook last week, with my responses.
You think the Palestinians are blameless!
A lot of people were disgusted by my (or rather, my daughter’s) bus analogy, that Jews have no more of a right to Israel than someone who gives up his or her seat on a bus and comes back much later to reclaim the same seat. A commenter named Andy said a better analogy would be: I was thrown off my bus; for years I ran alongside the bus trying to get back on; I finally said I’d share my seat but the rest of the riders refused even that and attacked me; yet every time I push back, the world calls me a bully. Other readers said they got the impression I demonized Israelis and thought Palestinians were as guiltless as fluffy newborn kittens.
My response: I emphatically do not think the Palestinians (and, more importantly, their leaders and their neighbors) are blameless in this conflict. That would be naive. But I do think the story of contemporary Israel is not a story of simple victimization.
You didn’t mention that Zionism isn’t a monolith!
Several readers pointed out how diverse a movement Zionism has always been. Said Neal: “Ahad Ha’am, Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber, self-described spiritual Zionists, wrote thoughtfully about concerns about what nationalism would bring, especially when statehood would lead to displacement of an indigenous population. I have found it really helpful to read some of their writings, to understand that there was debate long before the establishment of the State.” Other readers mentioned their support for liberal Zionist organizations like the New Israel Fund , Americans for Peace Now, and J Street, as well as Israeli Jewish groups such as B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.
My response: I definitely should have mentioned the Israeli and American Jewish groups working toward a Zionism that embraces my values. Last week Carlo Strenger, a professor of psychology at Tel Aviv University, wrote an essay in Haaretz and pointed out that there have always been competing threads in Zionist thought and ideology. “There was Theodor Herzl’s liberal Zionism; Ahad Ha’am’s and Judah Magnes’ cultural Zionism,” he wrote. “Socialist Zionism initially carried the day, dominating Israeli politics for the country’s first three decades. In the remaining decades revisionist Zionism took over, fused with the messianic Zionism that gave religious significance to land and none to human rights.” My portrayal of Zionism was too reductive.
Here’s how to teach your kids!
These were my favorite comments. Linda said, “Rather than getting caught up in liberal/conservative politics, I’d like to reframe the question around teaching and learning. We all want our children to be critical thinkers, to question the ads they see on TV, the bias in newspapers and in the media, and what’s written on their cereal boxes. Critical thinking is a thoroughly Jewish trait. Avraham avinu models it for us when he gives God a hard time on the Sodom/Gomorrah destruction. Our texts call us B’nai Yisrael, the descendants of the one who wrestled with God. God, Torah, and Israel–the big three of Jewish philosophy. Why should the subject of the Jewish state be exempt from scrutiny, unlike the other two elements of the triad?” Indeed, if I’ve been religious (and I have) about teaching my kids media literacy and critical reasoning, why can’t I encourage them to grapple with Israel?
Other readers pointed out that I could tell my kids that loving Israel doesn’t mean endorsing all its leaders and actions; most used the United States as an example. A reader named Vicki pointed out, “You can most definitely love the State of Israel without loving the government of Israel, just as you can love Kentucky without loving Rand Paul.” Malka added, “What do you tell your kids about Sarah Palin, Dick Cheney or Arizona’s new immigration law? Good countries often do bad things. Good people live in those countries.” Her suggestion: Befriend liberal Israelis and visit liberal cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, where I might meet mothers who belong to Mahsom Watch (a movement of Israeli women peace activists), and Orthodox feminists.
Another reader, Elisheva, had many superb suggestions for liberal parents: “Read Yossi Sarid’s open letter at the dining room table and say why you agree with parts of it or disagree with other parts,” she offered. “Listen to Israeli pop music, which addresses emotional and political stances as varied as the spectrum of its listeners. Donate to organizations that help Israel grow into the aspects of itself you love most, and tell your kids about those causes. Now that Josie is 8 and the black-and-white years are receding, be comfortable expressing love alongside of ambivalence—even love alongside disapproval, sometimes—about Israel, just as you can tell your children, ‘I love you because you’re my child, even though I’m really mad at your awful behavior just this minute.’ ” I adored her conclusion: “If we tell our kids to love Israel because it’s perfect, they will fall out of love when they mature; but if we teach them to love Israel maturely, with all it’s imperfections, they can build lifelong relationship with Israel that will make us joyful instead of making us cringe.”
My response: Yes! I’ve talked to Josie and Maxine about Manifest Destiny and slavery in the United States, the beginnings of the labor movement, the fact that women didn’t always have the vote—why haven’t I talked about the disappointing side of Israel? Why can’t I ask their religious school to discuss Israel in a less jingoistic way? As one Facebook commenter said, “We need to totally revamp supplemental Jewish education for school-age children into a serious and integrative curriculum on Israel and a host of other areas of contemporary Jewish life.” Also right. As I said in the first piece, my big parental sin here has been topic-avoidance.
Well, there were too many of these sentiments to count, but a reader named JAF distilled the high points pretty well: “[S]omehow in your twisted and erratic liberal mind, the Jews never had the same right to return to their land that the Palestinians have to return to theirs?!! Never mind the fact that the Jews were butchered, tortured, and sold into slavery in Roman times. Or that the Palestinians willingly left the boundaries of the Jewish state in 1948 at the behest of their Arab leadership, or the fact that for 62 years the Jews are the ones making tangible sacrifices for peace. Can’t let actual facts and history get in the way of a nice liberal screed which endears you to the Black Panthers, International ANSWR [an umbrella group of leftist organizations, many fiercely critical of Israel], and the readership of the Nation on the Upper East Side! I eagerly anticipate your further articles on how as a liberal you can support Hamas throwing their political opponents off of tall buildings in Gaza; how the Iranians stone adulterous women to death (and hang enemies of the state); how Fatah has burned synagogues in the West Bank; how the Saudis beat men and women for holding hands in public; how Palestinians send their children to battle camps learning how to blow up civilian buses.”
My response: That covers most of the you-traitorous-bimbo bases. Thanks!
There were only a few of these, but they’re worth sharing: “I guess I must be a self-hating Jew because the truth is I am pretty steadfastly anti-Zionist and feel that Israel probably shouldn’t even exist,” wrote Miriam. “There, I said it. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think it should ever have been called ‘A Jewish State’ and I certainly don’t think there should be any country anywhere where laws codify a national religion.”
My response: Yikes. The United Nations proclaimed Israel’s right to exist; it’s a no-backsies kind of situation, to invoke playground rules. You don’t get to un-exist it. And remember, this land is, historically and not just mythically, where Jews came from. Finally, look at it in post-Holocaust historical perspective (yes, I just invoked the Holocaust, the perennial Jewish we-suffered-most trump card, but I swear I’m doing it in a historically illustrative way rather than in a conversation-ending, we-win way), when much of the world felt pretty cruddy about those piles of corpses and those ships of homeless Jews being shuttled from port to port, not being allowed to land. Perhaps fittingly, the Jewish state was born of guilt. But I’ll restate it: I absolutely believe in Israel’s right to exist, and I wish you did, too.
What this all adds up to: Despite the sneers about my naiveté, I still want to see equal rights in Israel. (If you will it, it is no dream! I heard that somewhere!) I do understand that having a Jewish state that is not a right-wing theocracy can seem like a hard-to-achieve balancing act. But as some readers reminded me, it hasn’t always been thus. We liberals shouldn’t give up, and we shouldn’t tune out. Sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and singing “la la la I can’t hear you” when uncomfortable subjects are raised is annoying when done by children and irresponsible when done by parents of any political persuasion.