How Do We Talk to Our Children About Israel?


By Sarah Wildman

Published August 17, 2011, issue of August 26, 2011.
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When I was a kid, starting from about the age of 7, I imagined that I would move to Israel. Obviously, I didn’t fully understand what “aliyah” really meant; I was just obsessed with the idea of the Jewish state. I plotted and planned, wrote short stories about an alter ego named Tamar who lived in Ramat Gan (the real-life suburb where my cousins lived). The year I turned 9, my grandparents promised to take me to Israel, then reneged. I was devastated. Determined to go on my own, I saved money, read Exodus with the zeal of the proverbial convert, and said the Hebrew alphabet over and over to myself as I fell asleep at night.

I’m not even sure how the obsession began. Though I went to Camp Ramah (which is secondarily, though vigorously, Zionist), I didn’t go to Hebrew day school. My parents were casual Zionists — the summer of ’68 in Israel, a handful of other visits, nothing out of the ordinary.

They did have Israeli friends, though, and everyone around us, it seemed, believed in Israel. In fact it took years before I realized there was more to the story. But by the time I understood the realities of modern Israel I was 15, 19, 20. I had already felt, intensely, the idea, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” and no revised-origin story of the state could shake it.

Today, as my partner, Ian, and I contemplate what relationship our daughter, Orli, will have with Israel, I find myself wondering whether kids who grow up in primarily secular environments still look to Israel the way I did.

As the community fragments and bickers around the relationship of American Jews to Israel, and the future of the Jewish state, what will Orli absorb? The land of milk and honey, or Israel’s current political weaknesses? The unrelentingly difficult relationship to the Arab minority? To the settlements? A Knesset boycott law? Or the desert blooming?

After two intifadas and endless failed rounds of peace talks, how do we talk to our children about Israel now? Especially younger kids, for whom black is black and white is white?

“If I have to choose my poison of love, identification and solidarity and then, later, have to go back and say: ‘It’s more complicated. There are moral issues’ — well, I’d rather have that problem than raise my children and say Israel is no different than Spain,” Peter Beinart, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, said to me by telephone recently. Beinart, with whom I worked at The New Republic, recently found himself at the front of a debate about young American Jewish disaffection with Israel in the current political climate. His essay on the subject, for The New York Review of Books, highlighted his own conversion to a critical position around Israel. Beinart has become the poster child for the critical son, and yet, with his own kids, he is careful to build a relationship to Israel.

But is it easier to be straightforward with children who are young, like Beinart’s? What about when they are older?

Jeffrey Goldberg, author of the 2006 book “Prisoners: A Muslim & a Jew Across the Middle East Divide” (and a father), thinks the question itself is ill considered. “I tend to think people in the media probably make too much of what we think of as ‘broad dissatisfaction,’” he said. “I don’t treat Israel’s current government as the entire representation of Israel. I tell [my kids] to love America, and I try to teach love of America, but I don’t teach them, ‘If you don’t like the president, then you don’t love America.’ This is where it breaks down for me with hyper-whiney critics: If you are Jewish and deal with Jewishness, you have to deal with the fact that half the world’s Jews live in Israel and there is something called peoplehood. It is particularistic, and it is territorial. It is a story of a group of people with a relationship to a certain place, and you have a relationship to that place.”

Goldberg recently had an online scuffle with a Village Voice film critic named Allison Benedikt, who wrote a story about her own disenchantment with Israel, her coming of age with a husband who is intensely critical of the state and a sister who lives in Tel Aviv. In an increasingly bitter Twitter back-and-forth, Benedikt announced that she had cut the wicked child out of the four questions of the Seder because she was rewriting her own history.

“Sometimes I think it is sort of a pose, the level of distress that people express,” Goldberg mused. “I despair sometimes about Israeli government policies. But that’s got nothing to do with my relationship to the land of the people who live there.

“And that’s what I teach [my kids]: You are a member of a people, dispersed around the world. Its center was originally Israel and once again is Israel. It is a place that I want you to feel belongs to you. I want you to go there and if you don’t like something about it, argue against it, but don’t abandon it.… It is a spiritual and emotional and historical relationship — not a political relationship.”

Goldberg calls the anti-Zionist narrative “potent” but “devoid of morality.” He explained: “I think you have responsibilities when you are born Jewish. You get to criticize and struggle and fight, but you don’t get to walk away. That’s the lesson of the wicked son in the Haggadah. That’s what I believe.”

I found myself hoping Goldberg gets to be around Orli, from time to time. I want her, too, to feel as I did when I left Jerusalem the first time — that I missed the city like a person, that it was a part of me. And I want her, too, to know how painful I find the modern realities of the post-Oslo era. And I want her to care, with all her heart, all her soul, all her mind.

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and for Politics Daily.

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