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I told my dad I’m not a zionist. Now my mom wants me to apologize.

From its start in 1906, A Bintel Brief was a pillar of the Forward, helping generations of Jewish immigrants learn how to be American. Now our columnists are helping people navigate the complexities of being Jewish in 2021. Send questions to [email protected].

Dear Bintel,

My father is a kind and very loving man, who I respect deeply. He’s also just fun and cool. I often borrow his clothes, and we watch movies together all the time. All my friends love him. My whole family, in general, has a genuinely close relationship and I feel very lucky. We’re really on the same page about most things.

But oh my God, mention Israel and I feel like everything goes right off the rails! My father, who is generally a normal, liberal, cares-about-people kind of guy, goes into a very hard place whenever you mention politicians he decides are anti-Israel. There is no redeeming them. Anything that suggests being anti-Israel is immediately seen as very bad. Our conversations about this are never really angry — he will listen to what I have to say, or at least not interrupt me, but then he throws a thousand questions at me that sound like far-right talking points. I’ll talk about something terrible happening with Palestinian villages, and he’ll ask if I care about women being oppressed in Saudi Arabia, or that Hamas is anti-gay, as if that has anything to do with anything.

As you might imagine, our conversations about this last series of attacks have gone nowhere. I genuinely do not know what to do. I told him I don’t know if I can identify as Zionist, and he said some nasty things. My mother told me he’s been heartbroken about it. Well, I’m heartbroken about what many self-identifying Zionists have been saying in recent weeks! I have two sisters who are 12 and 14 years older than me, and they mostly agree with me but say it is easier to just not talk about it with my dad. Is that what I should do?

His birthday is next week and I feel like I need to address it before then. I can’t imagine writing a card without this being discussed! What can I do?

No Peace

Dear Peace,

You have a few options. The first would be to say nothing and pretend this never happened. That’s a bad option. Even if things go back to feeling normal, it sets a terrible precedent for how the two of you handle and navigate difficult conversations, which is especially tragic in the context of such a close relationship. The older you get, and the more tricky life situations come your way, the more you will benefit from having a template for how to discuss hard things with your dad.

The second option is to tell your dad you are sorry the conversation ended on such a heated note, and that you love him but do not want to address Israel any further. In other words, address the fight but not the issue.

The third option is to revisit the conversation with your father.

Right now, I’d go with a hybrid of options two and three. Say you’re sorry and offer to talk down the road. You can call, send an email, or catch your father sometime he is relaxed, and say something such as:

Dad, I’ve been thinking a lot about our last conversation. It was hard to realize we are on such different sides of an issue that is so important to both of us. I also think a lot might have gotten lost in translation. If you are open to it, I’d like to find some time to sit down and talk through our positions.

I know this will be a hard conversation, but I think when the topic comes up organically, we get really emotional, and that makes it hard to have a real conversation. It might be worth sitting down and seriously discussing our views more intentionally. Of course, I love you and this might just be an issue we do best to avoid. But it feels strange to be on different sides of this topic, and I’d like to better understand each other’s perspectives, even if we disagree. I’m sorry for how the last conversation ended.

The goal here is to acknowledge that this is not a conversation the two of you can have lightly, even if most of your interactions are easy. By taking it seriously, you set yourself up to not be caught off guard by the gulf between you and your father on such an important matter.

Hopefully, he’ll apologize for his reaction too and that will bring you back into a place where you can celebrate his birthday, but not feel you’ve compromised on your own position.

dove flies through broken heart

Image by Liana finck

As for what to do next…

One part of that question is how to engage your dad on Israel politics in a way that feels productive, not just accusatory. The other is how to understand and relate to this man who you love deeply and respect deeply yet who seems to be acting contrary to the moral compassion you expect from him.

I want to start with that second question.

I don’t know how old your father is, though it sounds like he’s somewhere in his 60s, if not older. In general, many Jews of that generation formed their relationship to Israel during the six day war, in June 1967. For six days, this new, tiny country was on the brink of total destruction and annihilation. And then it emerged victorious. Israel was the newborn who made it, against all odds, and bound itself to the hearts of many as the perpetual underdog whose survival is not a given.

Your father, in some way, might love Israel the way it sounds like he loves his children: fiercely, unconditionally, protectively.

Imagine how your dad would respond if you did something terrible. Barring some particularly heinous acts, he would likely stay in your corner and denounce those who suggested you deserved to die or ascribed to you the worst possible motives. Even when it seemed unlikely, I imagine he would always read your acts in the most generous light.

I don’t know how old you are, but it sounds like you are in your 20s, if not younger. For a lot of Jews of this generation, their relationship to Israel is more like a person to their spouse; we were raised to love Israel, but within limits. A spouse, after all, can act in a way that makes their partner want a divorce. When their acts become inexcusable, you can fall out of love.

I don’t mean to suggest that your father is reacting irrationally and that you are acting rationally. You both are responding to real threats and actions on the ground. But you are reacting to the Israel on which you were raised — strong, powerful, its existence a given — and that is not the only Israel your father knows. He knows a world where it is possible that Israel is destroyed, and I bet that ever-living fear is inspiring a lot of his initial reactions to these events.

I offer that as one way to understand why the two of you seem so inexplicably on different sides. For you, to be a Zionist might have a very specific, narrow definition to which you do not subscribe. To your dad, to say you are not a Zionist might mean that you’ve joined with those who want to see Israel, and the Jews who live in it, destroyed. This interpretation might feel tiresome and unnecessary to you, depending on what discourse you are immersed in, but it won’t help your cause to assume that you and your dad are working from the same set of definitions and assumptions.

If you are looking to have a more fruitful conversation, then expect it to be slow and sometimes frustrating. Bring all of your warmth and patience and good faith. You have a lot of evidence that your dad is a good, decent person. Use that. Ask questions and listen, and when he asks questions, don’t assume they are asked in bad faith (and don’t conflate his questions with other groups who ask similar questions, even if they sound like “right wing talking points” — he, presumably, really wants an answer, and this is your time to explain your position).

It is also okay to not know something. The goal is not to win. If he points out a flaw in your argument, you can say “That’s a good point, let me write that down and look into it.” Be gentle. Be loving. Don’t back down, and when you find yourself getting defensive, acknowledge the feeling. You can say, “I hear your point. I want to think more about it,” or “I’m not sure if that’s what I said, but it is not what I believe.”

If you can, try not to get caught up in semantics or ascribing positions to one another that the other rejects. Stick with what you each really say and believe. Come to the conversation with a willingness to listen too. There are likely hard truths you have also not fully faced.

I advocate for this route simply because this man is your father, and the parent-child relationship is at the core of Jewish life. The last verses of the prophetic biblical book of Malachi describe the end of the world, a time when God promises: “Then I will send to all of you the prophet Elijah, before the coming of the great and wondrous day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of fathers back to their children, and the heart of children back to their fathers — lest I come and strike the land with utter destruction” (Malachi 3:23-24).

When the hearts of parents and children are turned away from each other, we are vulnerable to destruction. Fight your fight, do your work and don’t feel obligated to engage as gently with every person you meet. But this is your dad.

Shira Telushkin lives in Brooklyn, where she writes on religion, fashion, and culture for a variety of publications. She is currently finishing a book on monastic intrigue in modern America. Got a question? Send it to [email protected].


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