Israel

Throwing My Boys into Joseph’s Pit

BBR is a father of 7- and 10-year old boys living in DC who has been a supporter of Shovrim Shtika and the Refuser Solidarity Network.  This post originally published on DailyKos.
As the conflict in Gaza raged this summer — as each day brought reports of more Palestinians dead and injured, more Israelis injured and living in fear of the worst, more Internet screeds and requests for urgent funding – after I felt off-setting rage and sorrow, one thought kept creeping back in to my mind:
“Please let this end by August 26.”
Not because of any importance on the Jewish or Muslim calendar, not because it represented a specific number of days or likely number of dead.  Not even because of a particular tragic anniversary, whether in the region or my own family.
No, I wanted it over because my boys began the school year at their Jewish day school on August 26, and I could not bring myself to think about how hard it would be for me to be a parent of kids at a Jewish day school during a hot conflict.
This was my first sign that, for the first time in close to 20 years of activism and engagement around Israel and Palestine, I have come close to losing hope and am searching for refuge.  And I am struggling with what that means for me and for my family. 
I am struggling on two levels.  First, because of my own opinions, which are admittedly quite far left.  This essay is not meant to focus on my experiences or views, but in sum, I spent two summers in law school (the equivalent of two lifetimes ago, in 1997 and 1998) as a Jew living in Ramallah and Haifa, respectively, working on issues related to Palestinian and Israeli Arab human and civil rights.  I experienced a scintilla of life as “the other,” and it changed the way I think about the situation and approach Judaism.
It made me far more committed to Judaism, rather than run away from it, but believing that the version represented in — or used as an excuse for – some of Israeli policy is not the same as what resonates for me.  The version of Judaism I believe in tells me that Jewish values exist to be lived by, and that Israel has an obligation to live them out above all else.  Not to have those values defined in relief against the actions of Hamas or Iran or French anti-Semites, but to fully live them out.
Put another way, I see the Occupation and Israeli policy as being principally about “us,” and who we are as Jews, not about Palestinians or others.  And it is not a version of “us” that I have ever agreed with, so I have found ways to be active, always in the belief that we could find a different path.
That is where I come from, and I have struggled to find ways to share these experiences and admittedly minority opinions with my sons.  Like any liberal parent, I cling to an idealistic notion that they will take in all opinions, mine or otherwise, and perspectives and experiences and make up their own minds.  My own mind changed drastically through that process, and I desperately wish the same for them and can accept that this is a challenge to me as a parent.  Perhaps both my own views and parental goals make me a naïve dreamer.
The second reason I am struggling, beyond my own views and relative skills as a parent, is because of the state of the American Jewish community my boys are growing up in, a community that has driven me further and further away from it — and from Israel.  Their day school does a remarkably good job (and I say this in all honesty, not to be politically correct) of being balanced — whatever that means in what is ultimately a moral debate – and avoiding overly divisive messages or events related to Israel.
But the starting point for what looks “balanced” now is one that pushes ever more against my first hope, that they can actually take in all opinions and perspectives and come to their own decision.  It is nothing new to bemoan what feels to be a one-sided debate about Israel in the American Jewish community.  Beyond the often paranoid and occasionally anti-Semitic concerns lodged in the general public about the strength of the “Jewish lobby” in shaping American public policy, the debate within the Jewish community on the topic of Israel is just as old and intense (and certainly still relevant – just Google the word “Hillel” and Israel and see what is happening on many campuses).
Whatever the political or psychological reasons for it, the result is that today’s “balanced” starting point I think I see at my sons’ school would certainly not look so balanced to people outside the Jewish community.  Maybe it never would have.
What feels different about that balance now, however, is its relationship to the trajectory of Israel and the erosion of the debate there.  For much of the past 47+ years since the Occupation began, and certainly for much of the last 25+ since the first Intifada began, there has been a meaningful debate in Israel, and a set of political options to reflect it.  So at least when the debate felt one-sided here, there was hope to be found within Israel itself.
But with new elections announced and public polling apparently pushing more strongly to the right – even in the wake of, among other things, government measures like official segregation on buses and a “Jewish identity law” that strikes at the heart of democratic ideals – it is becoming harder to find that debate in Israel either.  Sure, there are some signs of opposition and a few extraordinarily courageous voices — just as there are still in the American Jewish community — but finding them is increasingly difficult and supporting them ever more self-marginalizing, further away from what is considered “balanced.”
Perhaps I should look harder or just be more hopeful.  Or maybe this means that I have been wrong all along.  Whatever the reason, I am drifting further and further away from Israel and the Jewish community that supports it.  I want to stand up and push back, but sadly, I find myself withdrawing.  Maybe many people feel like this, I don’t know, but I find myself now just dreaming more on my own about what could be rather than seeing a way to be hopeful in the potential for real change.
Which brings me back to my boys.
Soon they will learn at school about their ancestor Joseph, and how his brothers threw him in a pit as a compromise against killing him outright, at the insistence of one brother who had hoped to come back and rescue him.  Before that rescue could occur, Joseph was sold off to traders who take him to Egypt where, over many years, he eventually became a senior political leader.  The time in the pit ultimately saved him and, throughout all of his difficulties, allowed Joseph to remain a dreamer and visionary, to the point of not exacting vengeance against his brothers when he later had the chance.
Both of my boys, too, are dreamers.  They understand ideas of peace and justice, but the community they are growing up within tells them in myriad ways that the first idea to start with is that “support of Israel” means standing up for precisely those policies I find unacceptable.  And yet, the prospect of there being something else to show them seems also to be slipping away, to the point where finding another way is akin to a fanciful dream.
I want them to wrestle with these ideas, but for now, if I cannot really show them how, I am tempted to throw them in the equivalent of Joseph’s pit.  Not to be harmed, of course, but to protect them from the next conflict, the next election cycle, and the inevitable push further and further to the right, and my own biases and parental failings.
Perhaps the time in that pit will help them rise above everything the rest of us – including their father – cannot and show us that new way I cannot seem to find.

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