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Israel--Still a Sticky Subject in Interfaith Families Like Mine

January, 2001

Israel is again featured prominently in the news -- and the news isn't good. Dreams of peace between Israelis and Palestinians are moribund if not dead. Malicious acts of violence occur daily, and each side is heaping blame upon the other for the miserable state of affairs.

Each morning I reach for the newspapers with trepidation. Not only because I'm afraid of seeing more horrific photographs of dead Palestinian children and mutilated Israeli soldiers defacing the pages of the daily paper, but also because media attention on Israel tends to create additional stress and tension in my interfaith home.

And my home is "interfaith" in spades. Although my husband is Episcopalian, his mother was born a Mormon and his biological father was a Quaker. His stepfather, who raised him, is Presbyterian. My husband, who was married previously, has children who are members of the Southern Baptist and Assembly of God Churches, respectively. I am Jewish but have a smattering of Catholic relatives. In fact, Catholicism was so strong an influence on me that when I was an adolescent, I took instruction with the intention of converting -- and was only interrupted in my zealousness by my father's sudden death. Vestiges of my adolescent experience still remain. Thus, when my husband and I discuss anything having to do with religion -- such as issues of faith and ceremonial practice -- neither of us is overly dogmatic about our individual beliefs or ritual preferences.

But the subject of Israel is another matter entirely. My husband tends to be a dispassionate man, someone who automatically sees both sides of a situation. When he reads about events in the Middle East, his comments are likely to be non-partisan, and will often include criticism of Israel.

That never ceases to bother me.

It is not that I am always in agreement with Israel's political policies. For example, I have very mixed feelings about the Jewish settlements that have continued to spring up on the West Bank. When I hear the settlers, many of whom come from Brooklyn, where I was raised, speak of having a mandate from God to settle in this highly contested area, I am irritated by what I feel is unqualified arrogance, however cloaked it may be in religious terminology. People of any persuasion that think they have the "inside dope" on God's intentions always irk me.

I lived in Israel for over three years when I was in my early twenties. It's where I learned to speak Hebrew fluently. My first husband was Israeli. I adored his family and established many friendships at that time, some of which I still maintain. But for all that, and what I will say next will likely be construed as sacrilege in some Jewish circles, I no longer truly enjoy visiting Israel. It is beautiful, exciting, and historically significant, as are few other places on this earth. But I also find it somewhat too brash and intense for my taste. At this stage of my life, I seek out travel destinations which afford me spiritual sanctuary -- places which relieve rather than induce stress. Israel does not meet those qualifications for me.

But I can say such things about Israel. You see, I have relatives (distant ones to be sure, but blood relations nonetheless) who were murdered by the Nazis. My stepfather, a man I loved deeply, was a Holocaust survivor. And, even if none of the above were true, I'd still have a greater right to criticize Israel than my husband. I'm Jewish. He's not. Period.

Talk about arrogance -- not to mention convoluted logic.

But such notions have nothing at all to do with logic. They have to do with tribalism, pure and simple. The "logic" (or lack of it) of such thinking goes something like this: I can say whatever I want about my brother. The fact my brother and I are related by blood gives me the "right" to disparage him if I choose. But should anyone not in my family (clan or tribe) say a word against him -- beware!

This is the same kind of "logic" that takes over my erstwhile rational psyche whenever my husband speaks ill of Israel. He has no right. He's not a "member of the tribe."

A notable exception to this pattern of behavior occurred several years ago. It was when Samuel Sheinbein, the Jewish teen who, together with his friend, brutally murdered and mutilated an Hispanic acquaintance in Maryland. Sheinbein absconded to Israel where he claimed Israeli citizenship through his father. Israel does not extradite its citizens and refused to return Sheinbein to Maryland, where he most likely would have received a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, a much more severe sentence than he ultimately received in Israel.

Feelings about the case ran especially high in my community. The murder was committed in Montgomery County, less than a half-hour drive from my home in Northern Virginia, making it almost a "neighborhood crime." My husband was unusually vociferous in his criticism of Israel's refusal to extradite Sheinbein. But then, so was I. My strong sense of justice -- and my conviction that justice had been thwarted -- overshadowed any feelings of tribalism I might ordinarily have had. I was shocked that Israel could use a law intended to protect Jews from anti-Semitic persecution to harbor a vicious criminal. This time I wasn't uncomfortable listening to my husband express his criticism of Israel, nor was I shy about revealing my own feelings on the matter.

But perhaps tribalism was involved in this instance as well. For although my husband found fault with Israel's position, he didn't obsess about it the way I did. I was shamed -- the way I'd have felt if someone in my family had allowed a grave injustice to take place.

Because I know my husband harbors no anti-Semitic sentiments, I know negative comments about Israel, should he make them, are without malice. But what I "know" and what I "feel" are two different things. I acknowledge my irrationality but don't see myself changing any time soon.

A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Marlena Thompson

Marlena Thompson was part of an interfaith marriage that lasted almost 25 years before her husband died in 2003. She is a writer and singer/storyteller living in the Washington DC suburbs and visits Ireland whenever possible. Her mystery novel, A Rare & Deadly Issue (2004), has an interfaith heroine and can be ordered at www.pearlstreetpublishing.com.

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