Love and Politics: A Grandmother and Granddaughter Talk Israel.

I passed through the first two days of Passover and our seders feeling disoriented. Certainly, a surfeit of matzah, late night meals, too many prayer services and too much high fat food did part of the trick on my brain; however, the intense political and Jewish conversations that go on in my house when my adult and teenage children come together certainly contributed to my fogginess as well. Though I am used to fighting my share of battles in the somewhat limited context of American Jewish religious life, in the larger sphere of current events, Jewish and general, I am fairly apolitical and a bit squeamish about jumping into the fray and debate. When it comes to the hot political buttons du jour, I have tended to sit back, mumble some questions, or keep my mouth closed.

As they get older, my kids refuse to grant me a pass on these debates, which rage fiercely on their college campuses and in their young American and Jewish lives. I am learning, very slowly, to listen more closely, to hold my rawest emotions in check concerning positions that rile me, and to not be afraid to clarify my positions even if they are disagreeable. Always, I work hard to model my disagreement in a respectful fashion. Hopefully this reassures my kids that we can agree to disagree without letting the skewed power relations between parents and children obstruct our ability to talk with each other as adults.

The hot button staples this past Passover were the ongoing right/left stew over Israel and the Palestinians, with a helping of Max Blumenthal, BDS, and Ayaan Hirsi Alli thrown in. Issues focused on gender, sexism and gender politics came in a close second, though conversations about Obamacare, environmentalism, and American public schools certainly put in appearances. At both of our seders, we struck a fairly delicate balance between family celebration and some thoughtful conversation about what the Exodus means in contemporary terms. This was our family’s first Passover since my father in law’s death, so the mood at our table was more somber. However, I know he would have relished listening to the people, young and old, who mattered to him, talking passionately about the things that mattered to him.

As the second day of Passover came to a close, we prepared to enter Hol Ha-Moed, the intermediate days of the holiday. With our memories of the frenetic seder nights already beginning to fade, a few beautiful, quiet moments of honest sharing began to unfold at our dining room table. My wife and I were about to rush out the door to a neighbor’s birthday party, when we noticed my mother in law and my older daughter talking about Israeli politics. My mother in law can remember a time when Israel was not a given. My daughter cannot remember a time when Israel was not a given. Both women come out of two different eras of American Jewish life and women’s experience and each of them has strong, varying opinions on many different matters, Jewish and general, and concerning Israel specifically.

However, as I listened in on their conversation that night, I realized that neither of them was following an “Israel script” of the left or the right, one studded with doctrinaire talking points. More important, just below the surface of their friendly debate and argument, they were learning, listening, and loving. Each of them raised important points, tested and clarified distinctions between opinion and fact, and balanced agreement with disagreement. Neither woman sought to convince the other of the rightness of her own position. As the conversation continued, grandmother and granddaughter shunned the all too typical format of contemporary Israel debate, in which opponents come with open mouths and closed ears, anxiously seeking to bully or demonize the other side into submissive silence.

With Israel debate having become so heated and polarizing and with all the rhetoric about the deep divide over Israel between older generations and younger millenials, what drew these two members of my family together into such a productive discussion? I think that answer is simple:

They love each other.

At the risk of sounding simplistic, let me suggest that while love may not be all you need, it is nonetheless dangerously lacking among the Jewish people across all our religious, cultural and political spectra. Our dialogues on the “big issues” have degenerated into mean spirited, unidirectional sermons that at times are not even worthy of the junior varsity debate team. Jews have always argued, often fiercely, and argument obviously holds an honored place in the life and health of democracies. Yet all argument in free societies is predicated upon basic respect for the personhood of your interlocutor: you must first love your neighbor, especially if s/he is not like yourself. You must love your fellow Jew, even the one whose position you hate, because that is how families are supposed to behave.

This love does not have to be the same love as that of a grandmother and granddaughter, but it has to be love just the same. Frankly, if a grandmother and a granddaughter can serve as a paradigm for that badly needed love, all the better.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.