“Dad, is that a Settlement? Um, well, It’s Complicated."

“Dad, is that a settlement?”
“Um, well, no.  Or kind of.  It’s complicated.”
During our family trip to Israel in January, my wife and I had as our overarching goal to share our love for this place with our kids and help them understand why it is so special to us and so many others, hoping they too would share our attachment.
We also wanted them to see and start to understand more immediately and intimately some of what we have talked about with them at home.  Essentially, that as special and important as this place is, it is not simple on any level.  Many people who live there are suffering, and it is our obligation to understand what everyone is experiencing, not just Israeli Jews.  And in fact, some who are suffering are Israeli Jews, others are suffering because of Israeli Jews.
For me personally, knowing that some Palestinians were suffering because of Israeli Jews is what helped me connect to Israel in the first place.  My attachment to Judaism and to Israel became much stronger after I lived in Ramallah for 3 months in 1997.  Although I had been to Israel twice before that, I began to see in later years that those earlier experiences were me going through the motions of what I thought a connection to Israel should feel like, based on what I had been told and heard from others.  Living among the stranger was my first honest, individual, and direct experience, and thus became the gateway for me back to myself and my own people.
In many ways, I so desperately wanted them to have that same experience and not have to wait until age 24 (or 42, for that matter).  So we showed them what we could of settlements, by-pass roads, and the concept of outposts and takeovers in and around the Old City.  We visited the Tent of Nations and felt the impact of settlement policies and IDF checkpoints and retaliatory acts immediately and directly (the picture for this blog comes from here, and I would recommend it highly to anyone who wants to visit and be a part of positive change in the West Bank; the image shows the nearby settlement of Neve Daniel through the lens of what Tent of Nations teaches).  We toured Hand in Hand in Jerusalem, so they could see what an education can look like when it really wrestles with all of these issues.
We talked about what it meant, how they thought they may feel if they lived in a Palestinian village, or a settlement.  We tried to engage with why people have such different experiences and emotions.  We started to see how some of the extremes on each side have more in common with each other than with their own people, i.e. some who live in extreme Jewish settlements (which are only some of the settlements) have views and actions that are more like extreme Palestinians (only some Palestinians have extreme views) than other Israeli Jews.
And at the end of just about every conversation like this, we came to some version of a question for which the answer was “It’s complicated.”  Just like the exchange at the start of this post, which began as my younger son asked a question near Latrun, well inside the Green Line, as he looked off at a hilltop community in the distance.
This is pre-1967 Israel, I started to explain but quickly wondered, maybe there was a Palestinian village there before 1948?  We had explained 1948 and 1967 to them but, well, they’re complicated.  And how to talk about unrecognized villages and the lives of Israeli Arabs, whose world is arguably more complicated than anyone else’s because they straddle both Israel and Palestine and as such are so often forgotten.
“It’s complicated” only got us so far because it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  For 11 and 9 year olds trying to understand the scope of history, especially such a contested one, everything can be complicated.  So what?  Can’t it be clearer?  Perhaps, but then isn’t it just propaganda?  Something continued to gnaw at me for not being able to get our discussions beyond this point.
Then 10 days after getting home, my wife and I went to see a remarkable 1-man play, Wrestling Jerusalem.  In several parts of the play, different voices being channeled by the lead actor come to that same point.  They end their monologues with a version of “it’s complicated.”  Whether Israeli Jews, Palestinians, or American Jews, almost all of them ended there.
And then it hit me like a ton of bricks — what gnawed at me was not that I had failed to give them a better answer.  But rather that, even in 2016, there still isn’t a better answer.
I realized that “it’s complicated” is both the only answer that can be accurate and at the same time is the most unsatisfying possible response.  Who cares if it’s complicated?  Of course it is. [pullquote align=left] So can’t we be clearer about what is right and wrong?  Do we need to root everything so far back that it becomes unclear, that we forget why we asked in the first place?
[/pullquote]  Do we need to contextualize and explain everything away, so that we lose the motivation that can come from truly feeling that something is wrong and must change?  Do “they” always need to be wrong in order for “us” to be right?
Maybe when we stop trying to trace everything back to some other point in history, stop trying to find that perfect balance in our speech, stop trying to make sure “our side” is right and show why the problems are someone else’s fault, we can face today’s conflict and the terrible pain and tragedy more directly, plainly, and honestly.
Not so far that we absolve our side, or the other side, but far enough so that it’s uncomfortable to be on any side other than one for peace.
And maybe then we can finally find a real way forward so that there is a better answer than “it’s complicated.”

One thought on ““Dad, is that a Settlement? Um, well, It’s Complicated."

  1. Hi – liked your article – we are trying to organize a group for day school parents in the DC area with a progressive orientation on Israel – contact me if you may be interested.

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