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Subtle Parenting Choices in Our American-Palestinian, Jewish-Muslim Family

My eldest daughter first met her grandparents on her father's side on our 1997 trip to my husband's Palestinian village in Northern Israel. My strongest memory is of her, then a little over one year old, standing on the balcony off the sitting room. She was so focused, so grounded, so totally at home as she stared over the neighbors' houses to the olive-tree-covered mountain. I remember my own amazement and fear as I realized that this is her village, her history, her heritage. I thought, "She belongs here although I, her Jewish-American mother, do not."

On our most recent trip, my younger daughter, who was then a little over one year old, shone in her Arab glory as she led every single follow-the-leader game she played with her ten-plus first cousins, all of whom are older. She seemed to understand Arabic effortlessly. She seemed ready to jump into anyone's arms, confident of her place.

My older daughter, however, was already four years old, and she no longer fit in with such apparent ease. The unending questions about "Why do they . . . ?" started on our first day. She wanted to know why her cousins lived downstairs and in the adjacent buildings. At first I told her "That's how they live here," but that sounded wrong. It made her like me, but not like them. I tried saying, "That's how you live here," but that sounded like I was pushing her away, making her different from me. And when I said, "That's how we live here," I felt I was wrongly including myself. Perhaps there would be a time when I could say "we," but not yet.

My difficulty talking to my own daughters about our family highlights the politics of parenting in mixed families. All parents use power and shape power relations when we teach our children who "we" are and who "they" are and how "we" and "they" ought to relate. But in our case, the implications of these decisions are concentrated within our family. International conflicts and inequities are not academic, they are personal history.

In our international family, location is a critical variable affecting the girls' worldview and our family identity, and it is constantly being renegotiated. In the U.S., the girls focus on the commonalities they have with their friends, seeing themselves primarily as "Americans" who are also Palestinian, Muslim, Jewish. While my girls could be attacked or ostracized for being Muslim or Jewish, I believe there is enough diversity in our environment for me to put that type of hatred in context for them. More likely, they may be treated with curiosity--like the looks of surprise we got when we did a presentation on Ramadan during the school "international holiday week," and perhaps they will be misunderstood based on stereotypes. (More than once I've been asked how I dare leave my children with their Muslim father lest he kidnap them and raise them in a harem.) However, because they speak English without an accent, they will never face the same type of racism that my husband faces, since he is immediately identified as a "foreigner." As girls, they will be less likely to be treated as "terrorists" than if they were boys.

In Israel, however, my daughters will be either considered Jewish traitors, or more likely, as Arabs. They will not be treated as Americans, and not as children of a Jewish mother--although that makes them Jews by Jewish law. When we consider settling there, I find it difficult to weigh the high value of family, interdependence and the beauty of Arab culture against the discrimination and even danger they may face living in Israel. In the Palestinian community, there will be tremendous pressure to renounce or at least hide their Jewish identity. Part of this may be driven by the strong belief in Islam as the superior religion, and part of this may be driven by the association between Judaism and the "Israeli occupiers."

The biggest challenge I face in considering where to raise our children is, however, my own ethnocentrism. Not all Arab culture is beautiful to me. It is my opinion that much criticism of the sexism of Arab culture (such as, that women wear a veil out of shame) is misinterpretation and ignorance. But in my experience there is a very profound sexism that one sees more clearly as a member of a family. Although I am somewhat shielded as a visitor and a foreigner, I can barely tolerate it. If we choose to raise our daughters in Palestine, they will not be foreigners. They will be Arabs. The fact is that I do not know if I am able to choose that fate for my daughters, especially as many of my female in-laws struggle to escape those limitations.

Nora Lester Murad

Nora Lester Murad teaches cross-cultural understanding at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. She is an American Jew married to a Palestinian Muslim with daughters ages three and seven.

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