“It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”
Slightly older (which I guess includes me) readers may remember that sentence as a classic moment in the Clinton impeachment investigation.  But more than its relevance to that unique moment in history, this has always stuck in my head as actually a helpful reminder that you can take nothing for granted and always need to make sure you understand the basics.  Even as basic as the word “is.”
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My aim with this post is to present what I think some of the starting assumptions are and how to begin unpacking these with our kids.
[/pullquote]The debate over the Netanyahu speech to Congress, ostensibly about Iran, has pushed me to return instead to fundamentals on the U.S.-Israel relationship itself.  Specifically, I am using it as a moment to assess what Israel means to me and our community, and by extension, what it really means about the conversations my wife and I have with our kids about Israel.
My aim with this post is to present what I think some of the starting assumptions are and how to begin unpacking these with our kids.

The Assumptions

So, to follow President Clinton’s formulation and some of the things I think my boys have learned in school and from the broader Jewish community to take for granted about Israel, there are these sentences:

  • Israel “is” important to Jews.
  • The relationship between Israel and the United States “is” strong.
  • This strong relationship is important because Israel “is” threatened.

No doubt there are plenty of others, and I would be interested to hear from readers what they think our community overall — and especially our community’s kids — take for granted when it comes to Israel.  As we think about speaking to our kids about (i) Israel and Palestine, (ii) Israel and the United States, or (iii) Israel and anyone else, I think we need to keep these sentences in mind as the entry points.

The Challenges to Challenging the Assumptions

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You can get lost saying “Well, it’s complicated.”
[/pullquote]The challenge comes for those who may disagree, or even more so for those of us who agree but whose take on these sentences is outside the mainstream.  Put another way, it can be much easier just to put a “not” somewhere in those sentences and set yourself up entirely in opposition to the assumptions.
It is far more challenging for those who would channel President Clinton and suggest that “is” might not mean what the average community member thinks it means, or what those outside our community think. I put myself in this latter camp, and I will admit that it can be hard to even get started speaking to my kids as a result about Israel, because of how quickly you can get lost saying “Well, it’s complicated.”
My boys may only be 8 and 10, but there are so many elements of the assumption sentences above already ingrained that it results in a kind of “parent block” for me.  It very much is complicated to convey the nuance of “is” without losing them, or without going too far in the other direction and just saying that the assumptions are entirely wrong.  So more often than not, I start talking to them about whether our favorite sports teams won last night or if they like a new album I just bought.

Getting Past Parents’ Block

So, let me try to add a few lines of sample language after each assumption sentence that can provide some conversational building blocks with our kids.  To be clear, I have not yet “tried this at home,” so these are feelings about what could work more than experiences.   I would be grateful to hear from readers how they have moved through these basics to more difficult discussions about Israel.

Assumption: Israel “is” important to Jews.

“This means different things for different people.  For some people, it is a religious feeling rooted in our history.  For others, it is a feeling that relates to being a part of a community and culture.  Jews in the United States and around the world are minorities, but we are a majority in Israel, which makes us drawn there.  Yet even in Israel, there are many kinds of Jewish practices and communities.  That means every Jewish person should understand what Judaism and Israel means for them, and how and why they are important.”

Assumption: The relationship between Israel and the United States “is” strong.

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“Strength does not mean always agreeing.  Just like you do not always agree with your friends or your family, but your bond is strong.”
[/pullquote]“Israel and the United States are countries with their own governments.  At times, we come close to forgetting this because there have been so many issues or things in the world in the last few decades that our governments have agreed on.   But sometimes, we as people or as a community disagree with our own government or the government of another country, including Israel.  As Jews, we must be glad that the relationship is strong, but strength does not mean always agreeing.  Just like you do not always agree with your friends or your family, but your bond is strong.”

Assumption: This strong relationship “is” important because Israel “is” threatened.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to Congress because it is his view that Israel faces great danger from Iran. This is a widely accepted view in Israel and other countries.  But there are people who disagree with him and think the danger is not as great, or that it should be solved through negotiations. The same is true for the threat Israel faces from the Palestinians and groups like Hamas. That is, Prime Minister Netanyahu and many others think there are real threats to Israel, and others disagree.  You have to learn more about these issues, including about the people involved, and decide for yourself. Like any friendship, you should understand that disagreements on issues like this can happen between friends and that if you take a different view than Prime Minister Netanyahu, you are not a bad friend.”
People will be spending a lot of time analyzing the Netanyahu speech and what it means for the future of the Iran negotiations.  For me, it represents a time to take something new from President Clinton’s deflection and take stock of where we really are, and how we to talk to our kids about our assumptions of this place in time.