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Israel: Yours, Mine...or Ours?

May 2002

Sam and Sara had "made it" as a couple. They had worked through the Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah dilemma. They had negotiated how to acknowledge Passover and Easter with their respective extended families. They figured out which religious school to send their children to and had committed themselves — together — to share in one faith.

But then, trouble arose in Israel. The Palestinians rejected Israeli offers for sovereignty. And the violence began. It wasn't on Sam and Sara's family radar scope yet. But then the violence intensified — suicide bombings throughout Israel, Israel's incursion into Ramallah, the destruction of the Jenin refugee camp.

And all of a sudden, Sam and Sara realized they were in trouble.

Sara began emailing her friends and family, asking that they call or write the President and ask him to support Israel. She went to their community's rally in solidarity with Israel.

Sam heard about the plight of the Palestinians when attending church with his parents on Sunday. His sister sent him plaintive emails from a friend in the West Bank, describing the destruction and loss of family, the arrests of thousands.

Sam and Sara sat around the table one night with their children. They wanted to discuss Israel, how they — as a family — should feel and act. And for the first time in their marriage, they were on different sides of a growing chasm.

Sam and Sara are not unique. Interfaith families are finding themselves split over Israel — how to feel about Israel, how to talk about Israel, who to support in the ever-evolving conflict.

Following are some questions interfaith families might ask themselves, as well as suggestions for how interfaith families might dialogue about Israel and the current conflict. (When speaking of Israel, we refer here to the territorial borders of the state of Israel, to those territories under Palestinian authority, and to those territories whose sovereignty is disputed between the various parties in the Middle East.)

Questions:

  • What does Israel, the place, mean to you historically?
  • What does Israel, the place, mean to you spiritually?
  • What is your relationship — actual and spiritual — to the people who live in Israel?
  • Why is Israel important to you?
  • How do you feel about the plight of the Israelis, who fear suicide bombers?
  • How do you feel about the plight of the Palestinians, who have little hope for a better future?
  • How do you understand the values of "freedom," "security," and "peace?"
     

Suggestions:

  • Most Jews associate attacks on Israelis by suicide bombers as a form of anti-Semitism or coming from an anti-Jewish prejudice. For Jews — especially with families who lost members in the Holocaust — the fear of anti-Jewish hatred and persecution is real and palpable. Also, many Jews cannot separate out the plight of the Palestinian people from the propaganda that Arab and Palestinian authorities spread regarding both Israel and Jews. So, any discussion of Israel, the place, has to recognize this "baggage" that comes along with a Jewish psyche.
  • Many Christians (and those of other faith traditions, as well) see the Palestinians as a people who have lived in squalor for many decades, who have not been given the opportunity for self-determination. Christian communities reach out to these underprivileged Palestinians and — in good Christian tradition — want to do all they can to bring them up into a life filled with dignity. So, any discussion of Israel, the place, has to recognize the human pain felt by many Christians on behalf of the Palestinians.
  • There are many historical sites in the land of Israel that are holy to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. A wonderful starting point for an interfaith family is to research and learn about why these particular places are special to a given faith tradition. Why is Jerusalem so important to Jews, Christians, and Muslims? What are the places we share? How do our faith traditions vis-à-vis Israel overlap? This is an opportunity to discover points of convergence.
  • The most exciting experience any family can share is a trip to Israel. Given current events, it may be wise to plan a trip in the future — next summer or the year after that. Then, with shared eyes, a family can visit the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked in Jerusalem — a walk revered by many Christians. Together, a family can climb Masada, and learn why that place and story is so deeply imbedded in the Jewish heart. Together, families can visit Tiberias and experience the Christian and Jewish history intermingled there. More than any dialogue — more than any reading — a trip to Israel will open the hearts and minds of all the family members, leading to a greater appreciation and understanding of each individual's views of Israel.
     

Interfaith families face many challenges in molding a shared life that respects two faith traditions. One challenge is how each partner looks at the world, and particularly, at Israel. Only with open and heartfelt dialogue and mutual learning can such challenges emerge into ties that strengthen the family bonds.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.)
Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff

Rabbi Arthur P. Nemitoff is Senior Rabbi of The Temple, Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kansas.

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