By David Waksberg, Fomer CEO of Jewish LearningWorks
Many parents of young adults have reported on fraught and angry arguments with their children about the current events in Israel/Palestine. After meeting with and hearing from a group of parents, I have developed some suggestions for holding constructive conversations with loved ones.
There are no “talking points” here; indeed, there is little here pertaining to the actual events and content of the dispute. Rather, these are suggestions for how one may approach these discussions in ways that will emit more light than heat and avoid ruptures.
These are fraught and high-risk conversations; try to engage in conditions that are conducive to constructive and loving conversations.
- In person (NOT over the phone)
- At a time and in an environment that is less stressful
- Are you (or they) hungry? Tired? Stressed?
- What is the best time of day?
- Who should (and should not) participate? Is one-to-one best? Sometimes one might feel ganged-up on if there are too many people on one side or another. Or are there family members who might participate who could be helpful in bringing down the temperature (or conversely, unhelpful in ratcheting it up)?
Get in touch with your curiosity. Position yourself as a learner (not “The expert”)
Doesn’t mean you can’t challenge unsupported assertions. But when doing so, better in the form of questioning (but if so, do so to understand, not to set traps).
It is useful to think about this as an opportunity to learn from one another. You BOTH have information to share. It won’t work if either side believes they have nothing to learn.
3. Humility & The Value of “I Don’t Know.”
Don’t feel that you have to know all the answers (or pretend that you do). If you don’t know, say “I don’t know.” If you are not sure, say – “I’m not sure.”
Your humility can be disarming in these discussions. Both this and the previous point can help both of you shift from “combatant mode” to “discussion and learning mode.”
4. Check Your Emotions
You don’t need to check your emotions at the door. But be aware of them. And acknowledge them. It’s ok for your kids to understand that this is a big deal for you.
In an honest conversation about anything, everyone is entitled to their feelings. They are not entitled to abuse the other (i.e., they might get angry but that does not excuse shouting or using abusive language). But there should be space for both of you to feel your feelings. Because they are real, they will influence you either way, and better to not bottle them up. Rather than hiding strong feelings, seek a gentle way to express them.
If you have shed tears over this, it’s ok, perhaps even important for your child to know this. If you are concerned that you will be accused of “guilt-tripping,” you might address that — “If I cry, as I have already done, it’s not to make you feel guilty. It’s because this gulf between us makes me so very sad. We are both entitled to our feelings. And it is important for me that you understand the depth of my feelings.”
5. Tend to Your Emotions
Whatever emotions you are feeling — anger, distress, or the loneliness described in #8 below: tend to those emotions before and after these conversations (with a partner or friend, NOT your child). The conversation will go better if you are aware of your feelings.
As Oprah says: “Feel the feel, then take the wheel.”
6. How You Feel May Depend Upon When Your Were Born
For many Boomers and Gen-Xers, their attitudes were shaped by their experiences as children and adolescents — seeing an Israel embattled and besieged by external armies in 1967 and 1973, and a consistent drumbeat of terrorist attacks during the 1970s.
Subsequent generations experienced Lebanon Wars, Intifadas, and a conflict more narrowly defined as a struggle between the State of Israel and the Palestinian people, with concepts such as occupation, settlements, and checkpoints.
Convictions toward justice and equity inform both sets of perceptions, but for many, they flipped from one generation to the next. As a consequence, the entire outlook is framed differently; indeed, upside-down.
7. The Second Arrow of Guilt
Many parents have shared feelings of guilt and failure in relation to their challenges in discussing Israel/Palestine with their young adult children. Tellingly, we heard these expressions of guilt and failure from parents who felt guilty because they did not give their kids enough of a Jewish education, or because they did not marry a Jew, and also from parents who sent their kids to day schools and Jewish summer camps, who married Israelis and whose kids spent significant time in Israel.
These feelings operate as a “second arrow” — you are already feeling wounded in multiple ways: wounded by the conflict, wounded by how you see the world reacting, wounded perhaps by your own confused or conflicted feelings over the military response and its consequence and, perhaps most of all, wounded by the break or antipathy that has colored your conversations and even your relationship with your children.
It’s a lot. There’s no need, no warrant, and no value for you to compound all this hurt by additional self-inflicted wounds of guilt or feelings of failure. Your feelings of failure are almost certainly magnified or intensified in the moment. If you are feeling these feelings, ok, feel them. But then it may be helpful to take a step back and think about why you love this person and all the ways you feel proud of them (it’s not a bad idea to let them know).
Those guilt feelings — are these old recordings from some authority figures in years past, critical of your life choices? Might be time to let them go.
You and your child may have profound differences in your world-view and even identity. Worthy of exploration and discussion. Don’t compound what is already a fraught enterprise. You are not a failure.
8. Ethical Loneliness
Ethical loneliness, or double abandonment, describes the phenomenon when one feels that they have been victimized by an injustice and then experiences a lack of caring in its aftermath.
I believe that Jews worldwide have been feeling this ever since the world’s reaction to October 7. I also believe Palestinian-Americans are feeling similarly. For different reasons, we both believe we are alone, that the world has abandoned us, that no one sees, hears, or cares about our victimization.
And, I believe we are both correct in some ways and not correct in others. But what is important here is that feeling of abandonment.
If a Jew feels this loneliness in watching a post-October 7 demonstration that valorizes Hamas and its actions, how much more so if one experiences this from one’s own child.
This is itself a deep wound. Your child is not seeking to wound you, they are expressing their deeply-held conviction. But it is a wound nonetheless.
9. Begin with Shared Values and Understandings
Often these arguments begin with where we differ, and they devolve from there.
Instead, try starting with what is common between you. You might not reach agreement on everything but you stand a better chance of achieving consensus on the most important things. And, at least you can appreciate where you do agree.
My children assert that their positions are the result of them applying the values they learned from their parents to the information they’ve learned about Israel/Palestine. We may differ about the information and/or how to understand that information, but we can at least find consensus on our shared values.
10. Words Matter
We have seen during these times, words and phrases being thrown around without precision and seemingly without care. A phrase like “From the River to the Sea,” may mean something different to you (and, for that matter, to Hamas) than it does to your young adult child; they may not be aware of why you might find such terminology dangerous and hurtful.
Words like “genocide” (well, there are not other words quite like genocide) have been used.
These and other words and phrases can be triggering. Bear in mind that your young adult child may be getting at something other than what those words connote to you. Instead of reacting angrily (as we often do to emotional triggers), try probing: “What do you actually mean when you say that? I’m not sure I understand those words the same way you do.”
Coming to a shared understanding of what words and phrases actually mean can aid your communications. And, you might discover that you are less far apart on how you feel about some things, if incendiary language is set aside.
11. “The First Casualty of War is the Truth”
Obfuscation is a part of this conflict. You might hear things that you are certain are untrue (for example: social media has been inundated with October 7 Denialism; assertions that it was actually the IDF who killed all those kids at the SuperNova Concert, etc.).
You may wish to probe your child’s sources for some information that you suspect may be untrue or misleading. If so, be open to your child probing your sources as well — and some of them may also be untrue or misleading. We can all benefit by getting out of our information silos.
12. The Second Casualty of War is Nuance
Whether it is a war of bullets or a war of words, conflict tends to polarize. True understanding in this conflict requires awareness of complexity.
Two seemingly contradictory things can be true at once.
- Not every criticism of the Israeli government is antisemitic or even anti-Zionist;
- Antisemitism (and of course, anti-Zionism and the rejection of Israel’s legitimacy) is clearly present in far left (and far right) protests these days.
- Was Israel’s blockade of Gaza in response to Hamas terror or was Hamas terror a response to the blockade?
The answer is complicated.
Some things are simple, but understanding will require that we embrace complexity.
13. Civil Discourse is Counter-Cultural: Enragement = Engagement
Many of us (not only young people) are getting much, or most of our information from social media. These platforms are often unreliable (see #11 above) and prone to narrow and one-sided depictions (see #12). In addition, social media platforms are not designed to promote civil discourse; rather, they are designed to spark outrage, because that fuels more usage and thus, more advertising revenue. Social media platforms compete for attention. They have found that “enragement equals engagement.” Thus, their algorithms promote more and more outrage among their users.
If social media is one’s primary information source, it is likely factually unreliable, lacking in nuance, and leaning into intolerance and outrage.
14. Makhloket: The Jewish Art of “Arguing for the Sake of Heaven”
Jews have been arguing for thousands of years. The Talmud is itself a series of intellectual disputes captured over many years.
Hillel and Shammai and their respective students were early examples of this Jewish tradition. In one dispute, the Talmud suggests that both sides were correct, but it leaned to the side of Hillel and his students because they showed greater respect toward their disputants (by first stating the argument of the other side before stating their own position).
While there is no precedent for October 7, and the depths of our feelings might also be without precedent, it might be useful to remember that Jews (including Jewish children and their parents) have been arguing for generations. Can you remember bitter disputes you had with your own parents when you were young?
If we can engage in healthy and constructive argument — NOT for the purpose of debate or scoring points but for the purpose of learning from each other, we can emerge on the other side having learned from one another, with our relationships intact and possibly, even strengthened.
When pursued in such a way, there is no loser in the argument; only learners (who are, thus, winners).
15. You Are the “Adult in the Room”
Yes, your child is an adult. But they are still your child. Their argument with you is AT LEAST as fraught as your argument with them, and possibly more so. They may be feeling their feelings as (or more) intensely as you are feeling yours. But they might not be as capable of understanding or controlling those feelings.
No matter how intemperate they may present, the burden is firstly on you, the parent, to set the tone and keep the temperature conducive to a constructive conversation. They learned this dynamic from birth and became accustomed to it over two decades. It takes some time for them to truly relate as an “adult peer.” Your young adult child is still your child. That means that you must show the way with patience and understanding. That may not feel fair, but since when has parenting been “fair?”
16. “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?”
You may believe that your young adult child is seriously and even dangerously misguided (and they may feel the same way toward you). Remember that they come from a positive motivation of caring about injustice.
It is useful for you (and for them) to remember your shared humanity. Your disagreements may be deep and painful; but your child is not a villain. Staying mindful of their humanity will help, and it may help them stay mindful of yours.
17. “Do Not Harden Your Heart”
A subtext in many arguments among Jews (especially across generations) is a tension between universalism vs. particularism (or tribalism).
Tribalism is baked into our make-up through thousands of years of social evolution. It is why we care more deeply about loved ones than we do about people we have never met.
Universalism, the caring for ALL people, is based on a sense of equity and cross-cultural solidarity.
Different perspectives on the current conflict may be rooted in different sensibilities across this spectrum.
A danger in a particularist-only sensibility is callousness or disregard toward “the Other.” Torah warns against this and exhorts us to welcome “the stranger.”
A danger in a universalist-only sensibility is the tendency to flatten differences among peoples, delegitimizing religious, cultural or ethnic differences. One can think of it as a “melting pot” vs a “quilt” metaphor for different groups.
It is worth understanding this dichotomy and Judaism offers a way to transcend it. The seminal rabbinic sage, Hillel, boils this down to two key questions:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And –
If I am only for myself, what am I?
It is possible (and human) to care first and foremost for one’s family, to consider the Jewish people as family, and to treat the Other with dignity and respect.
Toward the end of the Amida prayer, traditionally recited three times daily, is this verse: “Grant peace over Your people Israel and over all who dwell on earth.” (Shalom rav al yisrael amcha, v’al kol yoshvei tevel).
Psalm 95 calls on us, during hard times, to “not harden our hearts.” We can care deeply for our own and our hearts can expand to include others.
18. “I Love You”
If you feel that you love your children no matter what, tell them. Say it at the beginning of the conversation (it will be easier then and it may pave the way for a more constructive conversation).
And try to say it at the end of the conversation, even if it was painful for you. Your child needs to hear it. And you are modeling a tone that, one hopes, they will emulate (even if they are not capable in the moment).
Looking for More Support?
As an organization that nurtures and trains Jewish educators, our primary goal is to support teachers in all educational settings. In response to the war in Israel, we are curating educational resources that may be useful for others who care for children. You can view them here, and learn about our framework.