“Good Prof. Penslar he looked down, on the Feast of Stephen. Bright the snow lay roundabout, white and crisp and even.” My father has taken to singing this lyrically-altered Christmas carol to me every winter since I took a history course with a Professor Penslar as part of my undergraduate degree. My father did not disappoint this evening on our post-Chanukah Zoom call.
More seriously, my Zoom Shabbat sessions with my father sometimes seem to invert the struggle between the generations. While I read extensively about the divide between anti-Zionist Millennials and Gen Z-ers and their parents over the Israel-Hamas war, in discussions with my father, the divide seems to cut the other way. With a profile earlier in December in The New York Times and the recent Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll that found two-thirds of Gen Z-ers see Jews as “oppressors,” the generational divide about Israel seems apparent. While it appears from such reports that younger Jews oppose the war in Gaza and their parents support it, my father seems to feel the need to prove the point of his iconoclasm.
“I don’t think Israel necessarily did enough to target its attacks to avoid civilian casualties in the early part of the war,” he says to me emphatically from his home office in northern Toronto. On Friday nights, after my husband and I have performed Shabbat blessings and eaten our celebratory dinner, my father and I meet virtually to talk about the week in retrospect, to discuss our lives and our views. I treasure this time with my father, who has coped with cancer for the past ten years, perhaps more than he will ever know; or perhaps the unknown appreciation is also reversed.
“I’ve seen photos of GPS-guided missile attacks in the Palestinian Authority where Israel was able to take out one cell of an apartment building where suspected terrorists were hiding, and leave the rest of the building untouched,” he says under the glaring yellow light at his desk. “I’m not sure Israel is doing all it can in this war to minimize Palestinian casualties.”
This space is where he writes memoirs of his career in the high-tech sector and recollections of growing up Jewish in the linguistically and religiously divided Montreal of the 1950s and 60s. I know he knows antisemitic tensions as part of the warp and woof of his coming of age. His understanding of antisemitism stems from this time and place: while he recognizes epithets and stone-throwing and the anti-Jewish history of the Catholic church in Quebec, he doesn’t see expressions of anti-Zionism or unbalanced pro-Gaza media influences as antisemitic. Surprisingly to me, he seems to doubt a solidly Zionist stance.
I have generally believed that Israel follows the law of proportionality in this war. To hear my father entertaining other views shakes me. I am again encountering the possibility of being critical of Israel without advocating for its destruction. It is a duality that, as I have written elsewhere, is challenging but necessary to hold. My father is now asking me to hold it, to live up to my words, as we find ourselves looking at each other across a reversal of the typical generational divide.
His criticism of Israel is not simplistic or naïve as critics have often accused the young left of being; indeed, he has written his own blog arguing against the left’s position on that most loaded of terms in this war, genocide. In this post, he rails against the hypocrisy of the left’s focus on the so-called genocide of Palestinians, while ignoring countless actual genocides happening the world over. In his opinions on Israel, he is not wholly for or wholly against. He takes each aspect of the situation and, through the fog of war and his humanitarian principles, analyzes it to the best of his ability. And he shares this analysis with me.
“I don’t talk about this stuff much,” he admits. “You’re getting the full unadulterated version because you’re thoughtful and you know history. I don’t bother with most people.” Except for his blog. “That’s my educational effort,” he says. “I write that to reach out to people who don’t consider these issues much. Talking to you is very different.” Our conversations get heated sometimes, but we maintain the ability to hear each other and to air out our disagreements, an ability which comes from our mutual respect. It is a quality of discourse sorely lacking in most conversations about the conflict.
He jumps to talking about Jewish anti-Israel protestors and what he sees as the mistaken assertion that they are suffering from internalized antisemitism. He draws a distinction between Jews who are ill at ease being Jewish and Jews who are outright self-loathing.
“Antisemitism is a loaded term,” he says, voice rising, perhaps in his own discomfort, or perhaps in self-defense. “It doesn’t do any good to tar everyone who has a problem with Israel with the same brush of antisemitism.”
He further distinguishes between Jews who he says are “uncomfortable” with their Jewishness and wish to assimilate more, and non-Jews who throw epithets or take violent action. To call all these attitudes antisemitic is to oversimplify, to confuse the issue of what antisemitism is, he says. I see in his insistence the roots of the antisemitism he grew up with, versus a new contemporary cast of Jew hatred that he does not fully grasp.
“But all these actions have the same source,” I counter. “It’s just that different groups express their antisemitism in different ways.” For a moment, the animation leaves his features. He is still as he considers my point.
“Well, that’s true,” he admits. “These attitudes don’t come from nowhere.”
And then he is off to the races again, expounding on how Jewish guilt is the culprit of many young Jews’ anti-Israel reactions to the war. Raised in a liberal culture that emphasized tikkun olam and peace-loving politics as central to their Jewish identity – if they have one at all – Millennials and Gen Z-ers see the Israel-Hamas war not as an existential fight for Jewish survival, but as a betrayal of their liberal Jewish values. Guilt over Palestinian civilian casualties, harms done in their names as they see it, fuels their outspoken activism.
“You have a very strong Jewish identity,” he says over the wireless internet. “That’s why you find this so hard to understand.” Perhaps my father, who has a stronger sense of cultural Jewishness than he will admit, simply cannot imagine internalizing self-hatred to such an extent that it becomes a self-directed antisemitism of the soul.
My Jewish identity is undeniably stronger than my father’s. I describe myself as a self-taught Jew. Although I learned the basics of the holidays as a child in Hebrew school, I refused a Bat Mitzvah and abandoned my Jewish education when I was 10. Later, as a high school student, I discovered the resonance my Jewish identity held for me in a secular ancient history class. I haven’t looked back since. As an adult, I take classes, celebrate Shabbat, belong to a shul. I’ve spent six months in Israel, first on a kibbutz and then, in law school, volunteering with a nonprofit working on the issue of the agunot, or women refused a bill of divorce. I had an adult Bat Mitzvah in 2022. I married a man who converted and now have a committed companion on my Jewish journey. While my father has supported me in all these endeavors, always taking an interest in my learning and expressing pride at my milestones, he has declined to pursue such deepened Jewishness for himself.
His moral interrogation makes me confront the difficult questions again: Is Israel doing all it can for Gazan civilians? Have the war’s attacks been truly proportional and appropriate, given the high numbers of civilian casualties? This question haunts me and many other progressive Zionists, with whom I think my father would somewhat reluctantly identify. With Netanyahu in power, war decisions remain questionable and fraught for those who hope for an eventual two-state solution or at the very least some stability for the region, and my father feels this insecurity keenly. At the same time, my father, like me, expresses outrage over anti-Zionist policies and practices in light of the war, on his blog and in discussion with friends and relatives.
While my politics often make me a misfit among my peers, I know I can work toward understanding with my father on our weekly Shabbat calls. I also know from what I’ve heard about other parent-child relationships strained by Middle Eastern politics, that this willingness to work toward understanding, despite differences and even arguments, is a gift underpinned by gratitude and mutual respect. It is this shared appreciation that holds us together rather than tearing us apart. I look forward to hearing my father’s personalized version of Good King Wenceslaus next year, right before our Jewish Christmas celebration of a Chinese buffet and a matinee.