This summer, after nearly 20 years in Israel, I took my four children (14, 13, 10 and 5) to the United States for a year. My husband remains in Israel for work. Luckily, my own work in resource development at an Arab-Jewish NGO was transferable. The temporary relocation was not an easy decision and the decision to extend our stay another year was even more difficult.
People on both sides ask us why we are here. I answer these inquiries by declaring that we are on a mission. “A mission?” they ask. “What sort of mission?”
The answer is complex, almost unexplainable. Sometimes, it seems unjustifiable. A family choosing to live (temporarily) on two sides of the ocean is indeed strange. I want my kids to improve their English, but then again, who doesn’t? I want my kids to experience a different culture. I want my kids to get to know my family. But while these most apparent benefits of our adventure do indeed exist, our mission is significantly more complex.
I arrived in Israel in 1994, drawn to the idea of a strong Jewish people and the blessings of self-determination. I arrived with deeply ingrained values of progressive Jewish America – of tolerance, of inclusion, of tikkun olam – repairing the world. Gradually, I understood that my values were not considered mainstream in Israel and the idea that self-determination comes with social responsibility toward the country’s minorities was a fringe concept, reserved for “those leftist radicals.”
I married, had my children, chose my friends and found work that was in line with my values and all was well – for a while. Slowly, I began to see that my teen boys who attended a public school in a pleasant middle class suburb in the south of Israel were becoming the type of Israeli Jew that I could not identify with: xenophobic, racist, nationalistic, and macho. Their admiration of American culture was limited to consumerism and the values of the progressive American Jewish community were as foreign to them as the cultural heritage of any other nation, be it China, Japan, Kenya or France. So, I packed up and left on a mission to embed great Jewish and progressive values into my Israeli children.
Jumping forward: We’ve been here for eight months. My children attend a very diverse public school and participate in the Jewish programs offered at the local Reform Jewish community. My 13-year-old was Bar Mitzvah, American style – he learned about Tikkun Olam, participated in preparing homeless meals, community gardening and spoke about compassion in his Bar Mitzvah speech. Things are going well but life is not easy as a pseudo-single mother with four children who works full time and I constantly question the sanity of my decision.
Last night, for the second time in eight months, after the children were asleep, I still had enough energy to watch a movie on Netflix. I chose “Five Broken Cameras.” The movie was deeply disturbing and haunting but I won’t review the movie’s inclusions or exclusions, the horrors of being a Palestinian youth in the occupied territories or a young Israeli soldier sent to those same territories.
In the morning, my boys asked to see a movie. I recommended that they watch “Five Broken Cameras” and gave them a short synopsis. My 13-year-old quickly responded that he has no interest in politics. I answered that it may be interesting for them to see what they will be expected to do in another four or five years.
I insisted on showing them the trailer. They watched. Then my 13-year-old exclaimed in a tone filled with arrogance, “Whoa, look the SOB’s are throwing stones at the soldiers.” I said, “Yes, but look, the soldiers are shooting.” He answered, “They are just rubber bullets, they don’t do anything, they are just trying to calm them down.”
I felt like I was punched in the stomach.
My beloved son, even after eight months, was referring to the Palestinian protestors in a tone that he would use to talk about wild animals. The dehumanization of the Palestinians was so deeply ingrained in his psyche that even after three-quarters of a year into my “mission,” he could not free himself of it. I said nothing. There was nothing to say. Was my “mission” useless? Was this family sacrifice for naught? Well, I didn’t have much time to think about it because I had to take my 10-year-old to his basketball game.
When I came home, I saw my 13-year-old lying in my bed and watching “Five Broken Cameras.” When it was over, he came out and said to me, “Mommy, I saw the entire movie. It made me think a lot. Thank you.”
I guess there is hope after all.