(Pictured) Amitai Bardach-Goldstein in his Hand-in-hand Bi-lingual Jewish-Arab school t-shirt.
Amitai is cute. He is cuddly. He is sweet – with a smile that can melt your soul. He just turned six on November 8th. He lives in Jerusalem. He is a first grader. Learning to read. Learning to write. Learning that life is complicated. I am Amitai’s father. I am responsible for his well-being. I am responsible for his personal development. In Jewish tradition, as his father, I must teach him how to swim – meaning ensure he has the skills of survival. (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 29a).
I am struggling to explain to Amitai the ways of the world in Israel these days. There are easy ones – say please and thank you. Don’t hit your siblings. Share your toys. Do your homework. Then there are the hard ones. Harder than I expected when I became a father.
This summer, Amitai asked: “Aba, why is Hamas shooting rockets at Israel? Why are the chayalim (IDF soldiers) sleeping on the tank? Why do you call your Kibbutz family every day to see how they are doing? Why do you always turn the radio down every time there is a red alert siren? What is the war about?” Aba does not answer.
Luckily, we do not have a TV so little Amitai saw almost no pictures of the war. He learned what Iron Dome was only when we went out for pizza and the TV at the restaurant was showing the rockets non-stop.
Amitai and I take his sister to kindergarten at our nearby Reform synagogue (Kol HaNeshama). There is a hushed silence. No one is talking. There is crying. Ruchama, the kindergarten teacher in the next classroom – Amitai’s teacher for his two years at the pre-school – is not there. Her son was killed in Gaza the day before. Moshik Danino was 21-years old. Shot by a sniper as he cleared debris from his IDF army tractor inside Gaza. Amitai asks, “Aba what happened? Why is everybody quiet? Can I go say hello to Ruchama?” Aba does not answer.
We live in Abu Tor, Jerusalem. A neighborhood that is “mixed but not integrated” as we say. Jews live at the top of the neighborhood — within the 1948 armistice lines — and a few buildings away from ours — the street turns into apartment buildings with Israeli Arabs, Jerusalem Arabs, Palestinian Israelis — take your pick as to the name or identity. We live next door to another Wexner Graduate Fellow alumnus.
At 6:00 am, Amitai wakes me up. “Aba, why are there helicopters above our house? Why are there tons of soldiers and police sitting on our driveway? Why is there a water cannon at the top of the street?” Israeli police were carrying out an operation four weeks ago to apprehend the suspect in shooting of Yehuda Glick. It ended in a shootout on our street a few blocks down. The terrorist was killed. I drove the kids to school. As we pull up there is a water cannon also at school. It is washing off graffiti painted on the outside of the school. “Aba, what does it say?” Amitai’s older brother says it says “Mavet LeAravim (Death to the Arabs)”. “Who wrote that?” Amitai asks. Aba does not answer.
Amitai, and his brother, attend the Max Rayne Hand-in-Hand Bi-lingual Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem. They study with Arab and Jewish children. They have Arab and Jewish friends. They have Arab and Jewish teachers in their classrooms. They understand Arabic and Hebrew. They live in a shared school community. They love school. They sing songs. They play soccer. They study in a place that has a massive banner hanging in the courtyard that says in Hebrew and Arabic: “We refuse to be enemies.”
Amitai had his 6th birthday party two-weeks ago. All his Jewish friends arrive on time. Two of his Arab friends are late. Their mother calls to say they were stuck in their village. There are no open exits to drive into West Jerusalem. There are not even checkpoints — all the exits are blockaded with heavy concrete barriers. Amitai asks where his missing friends are. I should be sure to save them pizza slices. I offer to pick the kids up at the checkpoint. A while later — they arrive. It took them 75 minutes and 21 miles of backroads to drive the two miles from Jabel Mukaber (near Talpiot Mizrach) to our house. It usually takes us seven minutes. Amitai asks, “Why were Dalya and Haron so late to the party?” Aba does not answer.
Last Motzei Shabbat (Saturday night) – Amitai’s 1st grade classroom was burned in an arson attack. Books piled in the middle of the room as fuel for a fire. Graffiti on the walls outside spray painted in Hebrew included “Death to Arabs“, “There is no co-existence with cancer” and “Kahane was right.” I tell Amitai early in the morning that his classroom was burned by people who don’t like what his school represents. I explain that parents, including myself, have already set up a new alternate classroom space. I painted posters to decorate. He will not have his books. He will not have his pencil case. He cannot go see the burned classroom. “Aba, why would someone do that to my classroom?” Aba does not answer.
As we sit down for breakfast today, I hide the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. It has pictures from the security cameras of the terror attack in Har Nof at the synagogue two weeks ago. Blood splattered. Cops shooting an attacker. The attacker has a bloody knife. Bodies are strewn on the ground. Amitai wants to see if his picture is in the paper. Yesterday he spent time at the President’s house with his classmates. They played soccer with the President. They read books with his wife. They made a poster with their hands intertwined. “Aba where is the paper?” Aba does not answer.
I am responsible for teaching Amitai to swim. For most questions he asks, I have an answer. For the ones he asks the past few months, I struggle to explain adequately. I do not find words to explain hatred to a six-year old.
These days, I feel like I am dropping little Amitai in the deep end. Not the deep end of the swimming pool, the deep, scary pool of life.
Tomorrow, Amitai will get his next swimming lesson. We will march with people of all walks of life: parents and children; Arabs and Jews; religious Muslims and secular Jews; religious Jews and secular Muslims; deeply spiritual Christians as well. From the Arab villages in the North and from the mixed-city of Jaffa and from Tel Aviv — and from all parts of Ir HaKodesh — our beloved city of Jerusalem. We will march together “hand in hand” through the pathways of Jerusalem to Amitai’s school. There we will share. Share ideas. Share dreams. Share fears. Share laughter. Share food. We will offer an alternative narrative. There is another way. There is another path. There is a different view on how the future of this beloved land can play out.
Walking together is the only way I know how to teach Amitai how to swim out of these tumultuous waters.
Eliot Goldstein, a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 18), is the Executive Director for Global Resource Development at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). He currently resides in Jerusalem, Israel with his wife Rebecca and three children – Adin, Amitai and Dariel. Eliot can be reached at EliotG@jdc.org.