How do we, as Christian families, talk to our kids about the carnage and chaos – created by human hands and human hearts – erupting in the Holy Land right now?
As with all hard topics, the first step is to know what is true. We can not share facts with our children in appropriate ways if we don’t know those facts ourselves.
And despite what you might have been told or might have heard, the facts about the history and context that have led to this moment really aren’t that complicated. Detailed, yes. Complicated, no. Check out Wikipedia’s entry on “History of Palestine” for just the bald facts (though I’d suggest starting with the British Mandate period if you don’t have a lot of time on your hands). Or, if getting a catchy tune stuck in your head while also hearing a very succinct history sounds attractive to you, there’s this hauntingly beautiful sea shanty. There are other resources, too, but as a rule, avoid any mainstream American media other than NPR, since it’s bound to have a slant.
As you learn, remember three key points:
- The recurring modern-day conflicts are a part of recent history. We’re talking about a 75-80 year period here. Do not confuse the nation-state of Israel with ancient Israel of the Bible. This is a whole different kettle of fish.
- At their heart, the conflicts are political in nature, not religious. Before the middle of the 20th century, Muslims, Christians and Jews (all Arabs, all Semitic peoples) lived in mutual respect and support for each other. They shared (and still do!) a culture, language and life, and the same God.
- Especially in situations of colonialism—which is what this conflict is all about—people in power usually control the narrative, the story that gets told globally about what’s happening on the ground. To hear the full story, you have to pay attention to the powerless, the dispossessed and the oppressed: in this case, the Palestinians. And, as people of privilege, it is our responsibility to seek out these other narratives. We won’t get them by just reading the news or scrolling Instagram.
So, you’ve got the gist of the facts; you’re holding on to the key points; you’ve sought out and heard the voices of the powerless. Now what?
In the end, talking with our kids about this topic is the same as talking about any other topic: stick to the truth. Which aspects of the truth we choose to tell depends, of course, on the age of the child. But we always tell them what is true.
And I have found that any child of nearly any age knows profoundly this one truth: Hurt people hurt people. I don’t know who coined that phrase originally but even my youngest kiddo, age 5, understands that when we feel hurt, our first instinct is often to hurt back. Someone takes your turn on the swing? You might be inclined to push them off, hard. Someone calls you a bad name? You start thinking of a worse one to hurl back. And if you can’t unleash your pain back onto the person who harmed you, you might find it directed somewhere else – maybe even onto someone else entirely, unfairly.
Of course, as parents, our job is to help our children learn how to control those instincts, to talk through the pain another has caused us, to use our words, to practice forgiveness. But we grown-ups know how hard it is to do these thing sat every age.
And, in the end, the horrific violence unfolding in the Holy Land right now is what it looks like when individuals and even whole societies fail, miserably, at digesting pain in appropriate ways.
One could, perhaps, look back through millennia to find the first source of the hurt, but I think it is more fruitful to look to the latter years of the 19th century, when anti-Jewish racism throughout Europe began manifesting itself in serious outrages upon European Jews: Russian pogroms, blood libels, the Dreyfus affair in France and attacks on Jews throughout Europe that cost many lives and stripped Jews of their human dignity.
And then, of course, there was the Holocaust, the ravages of the Nazis and the nightmare of World War II. European Jews were hurt, gravely, irreparably.
So, it should not surprise us that, when Britain handed over its colonized mandate in Palestine to European Jews who wanted an escape from the nightmares they had experienced, their own pain played out in a way that gravely, irreparably, hurt others.
The slogan of Zionism after World War II was ‘A land without a people for a people without a land.’ But that was a lie. There were, of course, a great many people living in the land of Palestine when Britain ‘awarded’ it to European Jews. And in order to establish the new nation-state of Israel on that land, the people already there had to be done away with. So they were. With terrorist tactics, with homemade bombs and Jewish militias that menaced in the night, nearly 1 million Palestinians who had lived on that land for generations were forcibly and fearfully evicted from their homes, deprived of their livelihoods, and— if they had no means to leave— corralled into refugee camps and ghettos that would eventually become occupied territories of Israel.
Hurt people hurt people.
A whole generation of Palestinians carried that trauma with them, passed it down to their children and grandchildren, told the story of how their loved ones were murdered, their land stolen, their existence erased by the betrayal of their British colonizers and the actions of their now-Israeli enemies. What might have started as resistance to occupation quickly turned into desire for revenge.
Hurt people hurt people.
And so it goes on and on: trauma and pain breed anger and fear, which lead to violence and tragedy, which causes even more trauma and pain. It takes people of courage and compassion to break the cycle. But people of courage and compassion are rarely the people in power, and they certainly are not in leadership in Palestine or Israel in this moment.
As a Palestinian-American priest, this is what I tell my own children about the events happening in the Holy Land right now: hurt people hurt people. And when we perpetuate our own pain by causing harm to others, it leads to one unspeakable tragedy after another.
But, in our family, we know there is another way. We have been shown by Jesus how it is possible to stop the cycle of pain and hurt, to forgive, to move forward with mercy, love and compassion, to turn the other cheek, not as a passive victim but in a radical and courageous act of love. We know it is not easy to do so; we know we will often fail, but as for me and my household, we will continue to practice this Way. And we pray that, one day, there will come to power in the Holy Land people who are committed to such a courageous life, too.