Tablet parenting columnist Marjorie Ingall explains why she “can’t talk to her kids 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.
I’m a fan of Marjorie’s writings, and I was at the Forward when we brought her aboard to do her “East Village Mamele” column, but this piece reveals an intellectual laziness towards Israel that drives me nuts. No, “laziness” is unfair — I think American Jews like her have a hard time thinking about Israel not because they are lazy, but precisely (davke, as the Israelis say) because the subject is so fraught. You don’t need a psychologist to tell you that the things we have so much trouble articulating are those that hit closest to home.
For example, Marjorie has a hard time responding to this, her daughter’s challenging but ultimately simplistic analogy:
“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.”
Well, she might start by pointing out that Jews also had a seat on the bus, continuously for at least 2,000 years. And that while the bus did become more crowded — owing in part to Jewish enterprise, and in part to a terrible slaughter that made it necessary for Jews to board the bus – many good people have been trying to share the bus, and many bad people hate the idea of sharing the bus. And that there are good and bad people on both sides, which has made the sharing even more difficult.
I doubt she would have as hard a time explaining a challenging American narrative — say, how can we love America if we used to own slaves? How can we celebrate the Fourth of July if the land used to belong to the Indians? At some point, you have to introduce your kids to the notion of cognitive dissonance. You have to teach them about the messiness of the world — the idea that good people sometimes do bad things, that worthy institutions sometimes don’t live up to their ideals, that no country can claim an unblemished or unambiguous past.
Many liberal Jews seem able to assimilate every complex historical narrative except Israel’s. That’s not because they are “self-hating,” as some truly loathsome people would have it, but precisely the opposite. I think they are in love with a conception of Judaism as wise, warm, liberal, humane, bookish. They love, as do I, the Jew’s role as permanent outsider, the critic who stands at a remove from his or her society and is thus in a better position to see and judge it clearly.
And ultimately, they are in love with Jewish powerlessness — not that they prefer Jews as victims (although some might), but because so many of the traits they associate with Judaism flourished when Jews lacked power. It’s easy to be the world’s conscience when we lacked the means to hold power and exert it.
But in Israel, Jews are in charge — of themselves, of others, of their history. I would argue to my grave that considering their adversaries and the example set by so many other countries in similar circumstances, Jews have passed that test of power with flying colors. The record is hardly spotless, and many of us worry that unless it finds a way to move beyond the status quo Israel will be forced to adopt the ugly ethos of many of its neighbors and the sorts of policies that undermine its own morality. But we’ve seen the alternative to holding power: the destruction of a Jewish civilization.
Like Marjorie, I revel in Jewish identity as revealed “through ancient history, through food, through songs and prayers, through the story of American immigration.” But to revel in these things without including Israel in the picture is a distorted and nostalgic view of Jewish identity — the Jewish equivalent of the Texas textbook controversy, where “patriots” worry that by teaching about the ambiguous currents of American history we undermine a love of country.
At the same time, it is a huge injustice to discuss Israel only as a sum total of its faults — as if the only way to engage with it is to condemn it or apologize for it. She might start by teaching about the kinds of people who make up its citizenry — not just settlers and politicians but tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors who had nowhere else to go. Millions of Russian immigrants whose lives were made miserable under the Soviets. Mizrachi Jews who were kicked out of their own countries and given a haven in Israel. Some two million Arab citizens who both contribute to Israeli society and are struggling to come to terms with it.
I bring those examples not only to “justify” Israel’s existence as a haven for the Jews, but to give a sense of the multiplicity of Israeli society. Too many critiques of Israel treat it as an “idea,” a 19th-century nationalist “construct” whose time has passed. But Marjorie’s kids ought to know that there are millions of Israeli citizens who live there, work there, struggle not only with the “Matzav” (and they do — it’s important to remind the kids that they do) but with the everyday decisions and dilemmas we all face. These are seven million people who aren’t going anywhere. We owe them their realness — their actuality. Ppeople who treat Israel as an “idea” are often the same people who prefer to talk about “Zionists” rather than “Israelis,” because it easier to argue against an idea than real people, or harder to acknowledge the suffering on both sides.
You don’t have to start teaching your kids about Israel by focusing on the Matsav, anymore than you have to teach them about baseball by starting with the color line. They’ll learn about it soon enough, and it may challenge the things they came to cherish about the subject, but you can at least start by giving them an appreciation of the game.
In Israel’s case, that means showing them the country through the eyes of its citizenry. Not just the tourist stuff — the Western Wall doesn’t tell you any more about what it means to be Israeli than Mt. Rushmore reveals the everyday lives of Americans — but the things they eat, the schools they attend, the ways they have fun, the ways they celebrate and mourn.
Eventually that will lead to its politics and its intractable challenges, and maybe at that point they’ll appreciate the complexity of the situation and what — this is important — has made it so difficult for Israelis and Palestinians to solve their problems. They’ll appreciate that the solution rests on both sides finding the security and dignity they deserve.
Marjorie complains that the major Jewish organizations demand “blind fealty” to the Israeli government. To the degree that’s true, she and parents like her have to learn to say, “to hell with them,” and engage with Israel on their own terms. I don”t have to tell this to a parenting columnist: There comes a point where you have to take responsibility for yourself (and your own kids) and stop blaming your elders. The inspiring, messy, complex, genuine, uplifting, disheartening, sad and funny Israel is there for the taking — and teaching. You don’t need permission from anybody, and you don’t have to apologize to anybody.