It started with a blue T-shirt, so small you could barely fit a frisbee in it. It was a gift for my four-year old daughter from a relative, and but for the six multicolored letters below the palm tree and the grinning camel, it probably would have registered not a single wayward glance from anyone, let alone my wife, my little girl’s mother.
Instead, my daughter frolicked around Brooklyn the other day with the word “Israel” emblazoned on her tiny chest, while 5,600 miles away it was killing Palestinian children her own age with missiles the U.S. helped supply. Some say their deaths are Hamas’ fault for using them as human shields. Some say it’s the Israelis’ for wielding wildly disproportionate force to neutralize Hamas’ missiles fired the other way, into Israeli neighborhoods.
The only common ground to be found in this despaired summer is that unlike my kids, those in Gaza simply were in the wrong place.
“So it goes,” as Kurt Vonnegut wrote about another war.
I hadn’t been to Israel in almost twenty years, but I follow what goes on there closely - through friends, news reports, books—anything I can get.
My daughter asleep, and her T-shirt in the hamper, my wife, I call her MZ, wanted a word. Her normally flagging energy at that hour was surprisingly robust. That T-shirt got to her.
“I feel really uncomfortable with it,” MZ told me.
“Are we really going to have this conversation now?” I replied. At that time of day, we are easily rattled by simpler debates than the Middle East conflict. This will no doubt spill into bruised feelings and regrets.
MZ: I just don’t think this is the time to make a statement in support of Israel, when they are doing such objectionable things. Hundreds of children are dead. And the ones who aren’t dead? Burned, maimed. Scarred.
JR: It’s hell.
JR: You think Israel wants to kill children?
MZ: Of course not. But here we are, they are dead. And from what? What precisely killed them?
JR: These children are being used as shields. Hamas is firing missiles and begging Israel to retaliate so they could use the images as propaganda.
A note on biography. I am an American Jew. I was educated at a Hebrew day school. I am not Israeli, but like many of those like me, Israel was seen as an unambiguous homeland in a way that reality can probably never fulfill.
MZ is another suburban kid, from immigrant parents. Her mom is Swiss-German, her Dad is from Iran. They are not Jewish. MZ and her siblings were raised nothing, really, except to be skeptical about nationalism and organized religion.
All our disagreements and bickering over the fighting in Gaza, however—the bickering of everyone around the world—is nothing compared to the compared to the horror there. And yet, the conflicts in our home and in my head aren’t nothing, either.
MZ: Israel is a first-world country. It’s economy is as big as all of its neighbors combined. They’ve won Nobel Prizes. So many brilliant people, and they fall into this trap?
JR: What are they supposed to do? Wait until enough Israelis are dead to match the Palestinians, then fight? And the tunnels are game changers.
MZ: Why can’t the tunnels be dealt with separately from refugee camps, and crowded apartment blocks?
JR: Israel must know what it’s doing.
MZ: Do they? This is sickening.
JR: This is a death match. It pains me to say this, in the year 2014, we are in a death match.
I realize we are taking more extreme positions than we really believe—all for the purpose of arguing. We both do that sometimes, especially when it’s late.
We are too tired, and too far in for either to admit it.
And then with a single utterance, MZ has me unglued.
MZ: I’m not even sure you could cover this fairly.
I’m a reporter. This is what I do. I try to be fair. And the first person ever to claim I am unfair is my wife?
JR: How dare you? How fucking dare you? And show some sensitivity; we are talking about my people.
MZ: Aren’t you a human being first?
Bagels. Jerry Seinfeld. Black hats and side curls. Being a Jew conjures varied images.
To me, being a Jew carries a low-grade paranoia that is both an overreaction and entirely justified, based on history. All this beautiful acceptance we are afforded can quickly evaporate. Our past is too riddled with revocations to fully trust. Economic rights, followed by civil rights, followed by appointments to high positions in society. It all ends in the rumble of cattle cars.
Should I have married someone Jewish, if only to keep our population up? In this mad world, is love and understanding enough to protect the Jews, or must it be all about raw numbers?
This is insane. This woman, the mother of our two precious children, doesn’t hate Israel, and she certainly doesn’t hate Jews. MZ just wants Israel to be like any other country, the kind of places drawing remarks about its beaches and food. And so do I.
But it’s not.
We turn off the light.
My sleep is hot and jaw-tensed and filled with dreams of death.
We somehow got the children dressed and out the door without talking.
My Twitter feed is overheating with Mid East dispatches. I’m clicking on links to photographs of wailing mothers in Gaza and checking updates in Israeli news sites to see where the air raid sirens are sounding.
I stumble through interviews for my job at NY1, memories flooding back.
After I graduated college 16 years ago, I backpacked through Israel, Egypt and Jordan. On a bus the way back from the Pyramids, we passed Gaza through a border crossing patrolled by Israel.
The bus had no air-conditioning and was filled with Arab families. I must have been the only Westerner. We got to the border patrol, and waited. No buses were ahead of us to clear. The Israeli soldiers, my age, sat impassively on a bench while babies cried and a man complained about gratuitous humiliation. Maybe there was a reason why the soldiers left us there for hours; the agent who processed me never told me why.
Another memory: An earlier trip to Israel, this one as a teenager after visiting concentration camps in Europe. Nothing seemed so right then as to wrap myself in the Israeli flag marching between Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nothing made me prouder than fireworks for Israeli independence day in Zion Square in Jerusalem.
I think of all this as I spot protesters in Manhattan (or Mannahatta as the Native Americans called it when they lived here) chanting about Israel’s colonial occupation. You may find yourself agreeing with some points, but then what about their solutions?
Jews should go back to Europe? To what warm hearth, precisely, should they go? And what of those hundreds of thousands of Jews booted from Arab lands? And what of those who bought land from willing Palestinians generations ago?
And hasn’t the Palestinian resistance forced Israel into this death match by using Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and bus bombings? Wouldn’t Gandhi-style resistance have really won the world over, including all these soft-hearted Jews?
But wait … Isn’t armed resistance justified against an armed occupier?
But wait… When Israeli settlers left Gaza almost a decade ago, Jews donated millions of dollars to keep greenhouses there running under Palestinian control. Those greenhouses? Looted after the settlers left.
But wait … You take my land and my dignity and you want me to thank you for greenhouses?!
Who needs conflict with your wife when this war is dividing your own brain in two? See, I can cover this fairly, I just may never stop crying.
The past intrudes everywhere, and to top it off now they’re parading swastikas in Europe again.
It occurs to me to float a law: no one outside of Israel/Palestine should be allowed to opine on this without offering a solution for ending the conflict acceptable to both sides.
I’m not sure I can survive another night arguing about this, and MZ isn’t interesting in talking, period. My sleep is again hot and disrupted, but thankfully the dreams are nondescript.
I am racing around New York covering de Blasio and Al Sharpton. MZ is with the kids watching TV at home. She sends me an email apologizing for questioning my fairness as a reporter.
“But frankly,” she adds, “I don't believe anyone is able to practice completely unbiased journalism. Ever. We do our best as humans. Btw, I'm not a fan of nationalism but happy Swiss day to you anyway. And now, back to Paw Patrol on Nick Jr.”
Soon enough, Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire. And then Thursday I noticed that the conflict wasn’t on the cover of the Times in G-d knows how long.
A day later, the violence restarts. So it goes.
But back in our little Brooklyn home, I’m more optimistic MZ and I won’t be sucked back into the unanswerable abyss. There’s no neat vow of silence between us — only an unspoken agreement that we seem to have stumbled into. It goes like this: Arguing isn’t helping, especially when it’s only a few hours before the kids wake up.
And that t-shirt with Israel on it? MZ probably won’t put it on her again, but maybe she will; I probably will dress her in it, but maybe I won’t. We’ll see what my daughter wants to wear.