Hold your fire: In the Middle East, children try to understand war and hatred

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I wish I could read the newspaper and have an opinion about Israel. What a privilege to watch the news, read the articles and theorize about a land on the other side of the ocean both geographically and culturally. I used to do it and sometimes, albeit rarely, I wonder why I made the choice not to theorize but to live it.

I live on top of a beautiful valley, on the edge of a forest, in Israel. On clear days I take walks with my kids, we pick wild figs and grapes in season, we lick our sticky fingers and marvel at the simple pleasures of life. On clear days I can also look to the horizon and see the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean Sea. These days I too often saw missiles lighting up the sky. Last Friday night, before Wednesday's ceasefire, instead of basking in the light of the Shabbat candles and the joys and warmth of my family, I looked into the eyes of my lovely children. Ten eyes were swimming with fear and confusion as a missile siren wailed in the background. I sat with them in a circle, all of us holding hands, feeling their nervousness. I forced a deep breath and said, "Let's sing ... let's just sing."

Then I spent an evening, and a day, and another day and what I hope won't turn into a lifetime talking about why Israel, their country, is at war. They are children, they are curious, they have so many questions. Why would people want to kill other people? Why do these people not like Jews?

Who do we know who is in the army right now? What are missiles? What do they do? "What is the difference between a rocket and a missile?" my 8-year-old asks. "Eema, I am scared," my 2-year-old contributes. I do my best to explain a simple yet terrifying reality. Over and over again I tell them how much I wish peace to prevail.

I explain to them that not all Arabs are trying to hurt us, and how so many of the civilians in Gaza are simply pawns in a terrorist regime. I show them to be kind, not to "play Gaza" because war is never a game, to smile and communicate with our Arab neighbors. I talk to them about spiritual, political and daily realities -- sometimes I get blank stares in response. I try to explain the conflict in ways they can understand. Yet I do not oversimplify -- too many in the world do that in this conflict. They may be kids, but they are wise and they are living this harsh reality. Those who write articles can turn it into black and white, those of us who live it cannot.

The conflict has nothing to do with the changing of the guard in Jordan, or a civil war raging in Syria. This has nothing to do with Egypt's new government or the upcoming elections in Israel.

This has to do with pure and simple hate. Here I am forced to ask the same questions my children ask. Why are there people who hate the Jewish state so much? Why are innocent people expected to endure barrage after barrage of rockets and not defend themselves? Why is Israel always seen as the aggressor?

I don't want to hear all the ignorant responses about occupation, settlements and the mistreatment of the Palestinian people. I want to hear the truth. I want to hear the things that you know because you have seen or lived them firsthand. In this information age there are so many lies running rampant. As intelligent people we need to be honest about how much or how little we know.

Do you know what it is like to hear an explosion and run through the streets searching for loved ones? Do you know what it is like to raise children to love all people and yet teach them the realities of terrorist attacks and bombings on the very streets where they run and play? Do you know what it is like to live one reality, and then watch the media create an entirely different one through word and image distortion?

To speak my daily reality would dispel so many myths about life in Israel and the Middle East, but would also take many words. Suffice it to say that what I tell my children is what we need to tell ourselves -- political reality is not daily reality. And media reality is only a snippet, a cut and paste, choosing what to leave in and what to leave out reality.

Even if you watch the news, you do not know the truth. My truth is that I want the world to be sweeter for my children than it is right now. I want to enjoy the simple pleasures of sunsets, cold beers with friends, the sounds of kids giggling in the hammock. I also know that Israeli citizens have been suffering rocket attacks for years, and too many children and adults suffer PTSD here. I believe in life and I believe in peace. I also believe in realism. The reality is Hamas is a terrorist organization that explicitly states its mission is to destroy Israel and all Jews in the world. We do not want to fight but these are the facts. What is our choice?

opinion_commentary

Debby Titlebaum Neuman, who was born and raised in Squirrel Hill, has lived in the Jerusalem area for 12 years.


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