It's so simple to be wise.  Just think of something stupid to say, and then don't say it.     Sam Levenson (1911-1980)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Nationalism on Their Young Minds

Mommy, I wish I know all the languages. Then I could understand everyone. A brief pause, a puzzled look. And a question: Mommy! am I Israeli or American?

Just when I'm thinking Blondini Boy -- all six years of him -- only has Playmobil and Chaos Faction2 on his mind.

Even now I'm not sure exactly what he was after. Did our recent international influx of family visitors spark geographic, or perhaps linguistic, confusion? Was the very concept of multiple citizenship at odds with his developmental stage and notable tendency toward concrete thinking? Or was I merely underestimating his latent capability for immature existential musings?

I told BBoy he was definitely Israeli, having been born and lived his entire life here in Israel. I emphasized that he was also part American -- and part British, by virtue of his parentage (just to further confuse things), following up with a mandatory footnote, that it is possible to be several things at once, even while you can only live in one place at a time.

He accepted all of that. In other words, I got off easy.

Flash forward, to last Tuesday. J, my work colleague and close friend for over a decade, has rightly insisted that if we don't get ourselves together this week, our breakfast out will have to wait another month until after Ramaddan.

We have a lot to talk about, now that each of us has taken the year off work, to study and recharge....we've missed an awful lot of lunchtime chit-chat. Beyond our common work interests, our kids are of similar ages, and so there are mutual updates and parental wisdom to share, conundrums to analyze and discuss.

I pick up J at her home and forty minutes later we are walking the streets of Jerusalem's historic German Colony heading for my favorite cafe. Once seated, I apologize for having dragged her into such an American venue, but then imagine that for her, being a minority here among the Americans might just be more comfortable.

As always, our conversation tends toward education -- our own studies, the kids' schools -- and our personal and childrearing dilemmas. Her children attend private schools, one secular modeled on the American public school system, the other French Christian with a Muslim majority student body. (Her kids already speak four languages between the two of them).

Together we review pros and cons of separate-sex education, secular education, multi-lingual education, the Education Ministry. Her approach toward nondenominational school prayer comes up, as does my [livid] reaction to my daughter's science teacher's refusal to teach Darwinism because "it conflicts with the Torah" (along with the school principal's support of such behavior on the grounds that "teaching evolution might confuse the girls' spiritual development." (Another time). As always, we found a common interest, and common ground, in every topic.

(For many years J and I worked together in the same department, and from an early stage we began planning our group lesson plans together. I always felt at ease, knowing that her translation of my words would come across exactly as I meant it. If you've ever worked through a translator, you'll understand why this is not something to be taken for granted).

Now here I was, telling J about BBoy's nationality question. Turns out her daughter L, age 8, had recently popped an even bigger one: Mama, do we live in Israel or Palestine?


J answered in Talmudic style, a question for a question. What do you think? Do we live in Israel or Palestine? L thought about it and answered, Palestine, because everyone here speaks Arabic.

J took a deep breath. Then in a brilliant Uncharted Parenting move, J pulled out a map.
I began to describe, place by place, the areas of Arab settlement, and of Jewish settlement. I explained that there had been one war, and then another, and so things shifted, and that, more recently, the Jewish areas expanded until some of them ran into the Arab ones. I pointed out places that were under Israel's jurisdiction ("Israel"), and places supervised by the PA ("Palestine").
Then she repeated L's own question back at her: Where do you think we live? T concluded that she lives in Israel, but goes to school in Palestine (her school is in East Jerusalem).

Put politics aside, as most eight-year-olds tend to do, and this ends up being a pretty precise answer.

I probably don't need to point out the obvious: J lives in two worlds that don't always fit together. She is proud of her Muslim-Arab heritage, proud her family has lived where it has for over ten generations. Yet she appreciates all the good things her state has to offer -- the opportunities, the education, the freedom. J loves Judaism and completed a bagrut in תנ"ך (Bible) and תושב"ע (the Oral Law) and probably knows more about them than I do. Yet if she's at work during the siren on Yom haZikaron (Memorial Day) she finds a private corner in which to sit, so as not to feel she is betraying one part of herself at the expense of the other.

I don't judge J for all of that. I embrace her for trying to find that ephemeral middle ground between sensitivity and dignity, assimilation and self preservation. (I'm trying to find it too, only this time, for the first time, I'm of the majority). Over the years, our parallel perspectives as minority citizens, searching for the common ground, have blessed our friendship with a mutual understanding neither of us has found too easily elsewhere.

J, have a meaningful Ramaddan.

Keep the balance,


Next up: Natural resource privatization issues, out of the mouths of babes.

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