My children do not understand the complexities nor the myriad issues surrounding Operation “Protective edge,” Israel’s defensive ground response to over 1,500 rockets launched from Hamas during the past two weeks. But then again at ages 5 and 3, they are not supposed to. They are supposed to be busy playing soccer with their friends, building sand castles on the beach and swimming in a pool during these hot Tel-Aviv summer days.
Instead, we have limited their time outdoors, especially in places too far removed from protective shelters, given the random missile attacks in Tel-Aviv. In the South of Israel, with missile alerts as frequent as the hourly news update, the situation is intolerable, with children spending far too much time in bomb shelters.
So I was not surprised when after returning from a bomb shelter together yesterday, my eldest son who is five, or as he likes to say, “five years and one minute” (indicating his lofty status by virtue of the one minute difference between him and his twin sister), turned to me and asked, “Daddy why does Hamas keep sending missiles to Israel?”
And then it hit me. Not like the suddenness of being jerked into rapid motion by a missile alert and a blaring siren. But more like the sad and remorseful realization that innocence gets stolen far too early in the Middle East.
Our kids were aware of the three kidnapped and murdered Israeli teenagers, Eyal, Naftali and Gilad, whose spilt blood still burns fresh in our national conscience. And they were also aware of the national outrage and our personal disgust at the horrific revenge murder of Mohammed Abu Khader. Those who committed these crimes should be punished for life.
But after thousands of random conversations over decades about the Israel-Palestinian conflict with political leaders, friends, and strangers, it had finally hit home. This was no longer a theoretical conversation. It was then that I realized the generational impact of the never-ending cycle of mistrust.
With rockets being fired from Gaza indiscriminately on civilian populations in Israel, with Hamas’s stated intent on killing as many Israeli men, women and children as possible and with the devastating and painfully mounting number of deaths on both sides, I wondered if now was a good time to try and explain to a five year old the millennial-old conflict that has confounded and frustrated Presidents, Kings, and Prime Ministers.
So much in life is about timing. At that moment, I was not feeling particularly generous to the Palestinian plight after their attempt to kill my family with a missile strike. Hamas aims its bunker-protected missiles at our bunker protected civilians and despite Iron dome’s incredible success, the fact that a missile is deflected does not diminish its intent. And the tragic deaths of so many of our soldiers, young men and in some cases fathers who would never come home to their children, was weighing heavily on my mind.
Each soldier’s death is like a dagger to the collective heart of our nation. When we speak of the price of freedom, it seems too high when measured in blood. And yet, we keep paying. As a former lone soldier, I can only imagine the agony for the parents of Max Steinberg, Jordan Bensemouhn and Sean Carmeli. One fallen soldier even looked like an older version of my eldest son.
But I also know the law of the playground (or the water cooler). I wanted my son to hear a more objective if not nuanced view and not be influenced by some random kid who would be spouting one extreme statement or another.
There is a strength to language. It can either be a bridge towards communication or an explosive used for destruction. The words we choose to name not just our children but also our countries, corporations and institutions have meaning. So too, consider the intent of a country’s military by its reference. Unlike the Palestinian named al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigades, in Israel our military is called the Israel Defense Forces which speaks volumes to the values and intent of our armed forces.
Growing up, I also remember playing good guy vs. bad guy. It seems we reduce most of history to that simple categorization. “You are either with us or against us” is the framework for most policies.
And the world has correctly and justly condemned Hamas as the bad guy. Not just because they indiscriminately target innocent Israeli civilians; or butcher Israeli teenagers looking for a ride home as a matter of policy; or use foreign humanitarian aid to buy missiles rather than books and then place these missiles in UN schools, hospitals and mosques; or build tunnels to kill rather than build bunkers to defend their own people; or embrace suicide bombers as heroes; or use their own citizens as human shields to fire at Israeli soldiers. They are pure evil because they value death. And for each and every one of these atrocities, Hamas should be prosecuted not only by Israel but by their own civilians under international law.
But here there is a third group. The mass of humanity that celebrates life. And in Gaza, like in every corner of the world, there are those who simply want to live freely, not under the tyranny of Hamas and not restricted by the closures of Egypt and Israel. There are good people who run businesses, are doctors, carpenters, lawyers, engineers, etc. They want to raise a family, take a vacation or two, pay off their mortgage and build an independent, free and sovereign state. My heart breaks when I see images of dead Palestinian children or innocent families hopelessly fleeing their homes as tanks roll into Gazan streets. This was not what we wanted when Israel left Gaza in 2005. Life could have been so different for both sides.
And yet, while the blood and tears are flowing on both sides, now is not the time to engage in political second-guessing. It is a time to root out the evil, destroy the death tunnels, end the missile barrage on Israel, and demand of our respective leaders a realistic vision for an end-game. Israelis and Palestinians deserve leaders who will rise above our parallel narratives and cycle of mutual blame to find a point of intersection and resume dialogue and negotiations. Respectful, thoughtful and creative communication is the only way out from this dead-end.
This holds true throughout the world. In Israel we are heartened by the incredible outpouring of support and rallies in communities across the globe that stand with Israel and her right to defend herself. And at the same time, we are horrified as we witness the violent protests in streets from Calgary, Paris, London, etc. that have crossed the porous boundaries from anti-Zionist rhetoric to unabashed and primitive anti-Semitism. This cannot be tolerated. Has the world already forgotten what happens when we descend to such depravity?
Granted a boy’s innocent and simple question hardly seems to merit such a reaction. So, mindful that not every question is a pivotal parental moment and girded with the realistic expectations and limitations of my role and influence as a father, I sat down with my five year old son and offered the following:
“Do you remember when we discussed someone hitting you and what would be an appropriate response? If someone hits you, then you should tell the teacher. But if someone keeps hitting you and does not stop, then you have to defend yourself and hit back.
Hamas is a group of bad people who want to kill all of us. Israel is our home from the time of the Bible until today and it will always be our home. Hamas does not want us to live in Israel and they will not stop trying to kill us. Our brave soldiers, the ones we gathered toothpaste, shampoo, snacks and drinks for at your kindergarten, one of whom is your babysitter, are helping to defend our country and our family so that Hamas will not keep sending missiles and so that you can play freely.
But not everybody in Gaza is Hamas. There are also good kids in Gaza who want to play soccer like you and your friends. And there are also fathers and mothers in Gaza who are sitting with their sons and daughters and who are hoping for an end to this fight so that they too can play together as a family.
Both sides have done wrong and both sides need to apologize to each other. But the most important thing to remember is: “Ve’ahavta le’reiacha camocha” – Literally “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”
There is so much more that I wanted to add but I will wait until he is older. I pray that we will have that chance. And I pray that there are many fathers in Gaza telling their children similarly balanced stories. I pray that there will be no more blood. I pray that Israel’s leaders will have the strength to carry-on until all Hamas rockets and tunnels are neutralized but will also have the compassion to express sorrow and regret for the loss of innocent Palestinian lives and the courage to re-engage in dialogue. I pray that the Palestinian leadership will accept that Israel is here to stay and will channel her energies away from destroying Israel and towards building a strong independent Palestinian state that can be a source of Pride for the Palestinian people and a good neighbor with Israel. I pray that the international community will continue to respect Israel’s right to defend herself but, when the hostilities cease, will create the conditions to enable productive reconciliation.
My eldest son’s name is Aharon. In the bible, Aharon was Moses’ brother and the high priest of Israel, described as not just a lover of peace but a pursuer of peace.
I pray that my son not only pursues peace all of his life but finds the Palestinian ‘Aharon’ and together they achieve peace.