Sunday 11 April 2010

How Do We Protect Our Children?

I have just finished reading the Daniel Gordis book "Home to Stay" (Three Rivers Press, 2003). It tells the tale of a family that came from a comfortable existence in the USA to spend a sabbatical year in Jerusalem. Their experiences during this period soon made them decide not to return to the USA, but rather to make Israel their permanent home. I could identify very closely with the family's experiences, as they were very similar to the ones that my family went through. Additionally, because we made aliyah almost at the same time as the Gordis family, many of the events that he describes are the ones that we recall during the period of our acclimatisation in Israel.

Gordis highlights many dilemmas that immigrant families to Israel have to endure. I am always amused by the changes in political views experienced by olim (new immigrants) like Gordis upon arrival in Israel. Many Americans arrive in Israel with strong liberal views. Living in Israel soon allows them to understand that we may wish to treat all in a fair and just way, including our enemies, but they do not necessarily feel the same about us. The simple fact is that many Palestinians wish to see Israel wiped off the map and the Jews driven into the sea. This realisation leads many left-wingers to move their political views further to the right in acknowledgement of the political reality in the Middle East. If trying to treat our enemies fairly serves to endanger our own lives, even the most liberal of us will be forced to take a more conservative stance. The struggle with being forced to acknowledge this fact is clear throughout the book.

One of the central themes that runs throughout the book is the dilemma that Gordis and his wife Elisheva have regarding their children. They continuously question themselves as to whether they have done the right thing by their children in bringing them to live in Israel, and directly exposing them to the ugliness of the Middle East conflict. These questions are more pronounced when there is a dramatic increase in the number of terror attacks being carried out, and when these attacks are concentrated on the city of Jerusalem where the Gordis family lives. At one point, Daniel writes about specifically preventing his children from watching TV on an evening soon after a terror attack has taken place, in order to prevent his children from seeing the details of the attack on the live broadcast. Ironically, however, it is in his last chapter when he finally brings this discussion full circle after he receives email attacks following a radio broadcast he did in the USA. The emails that he received questioned his decision to expose his children to such danger in Israel, when they could live a safe and comfortable life in the USA. In his response to the question, Gordis is firm in defending his decision by explaining the difference between living a safe existence in a "foreign" land, and living at risk in a land which is yours and represents all that is important to you.

For me and our family, the dilemma that he revisits throughout the book is very real. I imagine that many immigrant families in Israel would experience the same thing. The truth is that, unlike the original immigrants to Israel who saw the country as an easy option when compared with having to live in the shadow of the death camps in Europe, many of us have immigrated to Israel from countries which gave us a relatively easy and comfortable existence. It is true that there has been a notable increase in anti-Semitism in recent years, and actions by numerous anti-Jewish individuals and groups like Al Qaeda show clearly that they can reach anybody even in New York, Madrid or London. Despite this, the Jewish community largely enjoys respect, freedom of worship and good opportunities in most countries around the world. So what motivates the Gordis or the Reich family to leave all this for the uncertainty and numerous risks which are associated with living in the Land of Israel?

In determining what is best for their children during the course of their upbringing, each parent considers the needs of the child according to his or her assessment. Inevitably, the parent will be influenced by his or her own experiences during their upbringing in deciding what may be best for their child's physical, emotional and intellectual needs. As parents, we decided that we wish to raise our children in a wholly Jewish environment. This allows our children to view their Judaism as an intrinsic and natural part of their make-up rather than a personality that they adopt in certain situations. The environment in which they now live helps our children to identify in this way. More than this, they know that the country in which they live will always act to protect them and their Jewish identity. The confidence that this provides is part of our plan to protect our children.

I disagree with Daniel and Elisheva Gordis's decision to protect their children from the realities of what is happening in Israel on a daily basis by denying them access to TV broadcasts. I have always encouraged my children to take an active interest in all that goes on around them, even when this is sometimes upsetting. The truth is that it is impossible to hide them from these events when everybody around them, especially at school, will be discussing it. My children have somehow managed to cope with this in the same way as we see other Israeli children coping. Some of them may not take the serious events sufficiently seriously, and others may take them too much to heart. Overall, however, Israeli kids seem to have a way of keeping everything in perspective which allows them to continue with their daily lives.

With two boys in our family, the issue of serving in the army was always a major consideration. When deciding to come and live in Israel, this was a major discussion point with my wife. Despite the obvious concern that we felt about this prospect, we nonetheless decided to make Israel our home. Now, the issue is a much closer one as my sons rapidly approach army-going age. Members of our extended family have even suggested that we somehow move our boys away from Israel at a critical moment to avoid them being registered for the draft as required by law. This approach was not even a consideration for us and we, like most other Israeli families, will reluctantly but proudly see our boys serve in the Israel Defence Force (IDF).

The reason for deciding to support their enlistment to the IDF is simple. We have lived in Israel for 12 years during which time there has been a fair share of conflict and terror directed at Israel. Over this period, many Israeli families have sent their children to the IDF in the protection of people like ourselves. Without their willingness to do so, there can be no doubt that Israel's very existence would have been at risk. When our turn comes to play our role and see our sons serve to defend the Jewish homeland, it is our obligation to allow them to play their role in the same way as others have. Even if this, heaven forbid, brings them into personal danger. With only 6 million citizens to call upon in the protection of Israel, it would take only a small percentage of people refusing to serve in the IDF to risk the security of our land. Although there is a vociferous group of conscientious objectors who voice their objections to serving, we are fortunate that the vast majority of young Israeli boys are willing and proud to play their part to protect Israel.

Now that we are on the verge of our children enlisting to do their duty, we are forced to consider again our decision 12 years ago to bring them to Israel and expose them to the "dangers" which are associated with this choice. On balance, I am still of the view that the advantages that we have offered our children by living in Israel outweigh the dangers and risks that they have been exposed to. They are certainly very different children from those who have grown up in England where they were born, and in South Africa where we were born. Bearing in mind that there is no place where one can raise children without risk to their physical, emotional or intellectual well-being, parents are forced these days to choose the best of the evils when selecting a place to allow their children to grow up. For many parents, the easiest choice is the default - stay where you are. Our choice was to move our children, and I have no regrets. Ultimately, there is a limited amount of protection that we can offer our children.

They will soon be exposed to the realities and the evils of their living environment. Is the best protection that we can offer to our children to shield them from these issues? I am not sure. Perhaps the best protection is to allow them to see their world with all its imperfections. I have adopted the approach of allowing my children to see the world for what it is, and exposing them to the dangers inherent in doing their duty for their land and for their people. For me, there is a certain level of protection inherent in this approach. It is my hope that my children will be well equipped to handle all that comes their way. This, I hope, will allow them to feel good about being proud Jews, and be good citizens of Israel and of the world.

Although Gordis and I do differ on some of the details that we are happy to expose our children to, we have both embarked on an exciting and different path to raise our children. Only time will tell whether this approach has been the right one. I certainly hope it is.

No comments: