How to talk with kids about Israel when lighting Chanukah candles

Chanukah candles. Credit: Ri-Ya/Pixabay

Rachel Fish (JNS)

As Jewish families prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, we remain continually focused on the fighting between Israel and Hamas. Many children—not to mention parents—are making connections between the thousands-year-old story of Jews fighting oppression in their homeland and current events that tell a similar tale.

For two months now, our children have been seeking answers and understanding, requiring parents to step into conversations in ways they may not necessarily feel equipped to do. This is especially true as many elementary, middle and high schools have become engulfed in heated—and too often misinformed—debates about the war. For example, in a public high school last week in Queens, N.Y., students ran amok blocking hallways and intimidating a teacher who had openly supported Israel.

Meanwhile, over the last few days, discussions of hostages returning to Israel (in exchange for convicted Palestinian prisoners) fill the headlines. For many adults, let alone children, this information deserves greater contextualization and unpacking.

As a professor of Middle Eastern history, Jewish history and Israel studies, I am an advocate for self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians in secure and sustainable states. I am also the mother of four pre-teens and teens. So it is both as an academic and as a Jewish mother that I offer this advice.

 1: Don’t assume your child’s school, district or teachers are prepared. From school board arguments in California to a teacher’s union issuing anti-Israel statements in Minnesota, school systems are buckling under the weight of the discussion. Sadly, not all teachers act in good faith or understand the issues. So it’s up to parents to lead the discussion in their homes rather than outsource it.

2: Be ready to explain what Zionism is … and is not. Zionism is the movement for Jewish self-determination, free from persecution and discrimination. It is not a sinister disguise for apartheid or ethnic cleansing. It is a longing to return to a land where Jews have a historical, religious and national connection (the same land where the Chanukah story happened). It is compatible with the vision of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, existing alongside a future Palestinian state, something that cannot happen while Hamas remains in the picture. 

3: Be clear about who Hamas is … and is not. Hamas is a foreign terrorist organization, designated as such by the United States. It uses brutality and inhumanity to inflict suffering on Israelis and Palestinians alike. They are not freedom fighters; they don’t believe that Israel should exist in any form; and they have never allowed the Palestinians they rule in the independent Gaza Strip to live freely. There are no moral equivalencies between Israel and Hamas. Saying anything other than this dilutes reality and confuses our children. They need to know that evil exists in the world.

4: Explain what life is like for children in the war. Children understand issues and events more clearly if they can relate to people like themselves. Depending on your child’s age, it may not be appropriate to walk them through all of the horrors that Hamas inflicted on Israeli children in the Oct. 7 attacks. But Israeli parents and teachers being called up to the military, American teachers serving in the IDF or villages being evacuated provide conversation-starters to humanize the conflict in ways children can relate to.

5: Advocate for the Palestinian people … and children. Life is perilous for the millions caught in the crossfire, with Hamas using them as human shields after years of redirecting humanitarian aid to build a terror infrastructure instead. By openly empathizing with the plight of everyday Palestinians who are suffering, we build trust with our children as honest, thoughtful resources for them to understand the conflict.

6: Embrace the discussion to talk about truth, perception and moral clarity. As hard as this conversation is, it also offers parents the chance to lead by example. We can walk children through the wildly different media coverage and social media feeds they may see; introduce complex ideas such as biased reporting, just wars, and free speech; and demonstrate how young people can hone their perception of truth, right, and wrong. Our children are eager to be treated as serious learners and can handle complexity. We should choose to wrestle with the truth rather than dumb it down.

7: Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” This can be hard, but sometimes, it’s the right answer. It demonstrates humility, your commitment to seeking truth, and your own pursuit and growth as a learner. Like your children, you are on a journey through facts, opinions, dilemmas and heartbreak. We each bring our own experiences to parenting. As a Jewish mother, I take comfort in a tradition rooted in stories where humans cry out to the heavens and argue with the Divine as part of their often-anguished search for truth. This has taught me that we don’t need to have all the answers to teach and comfort our children, but we do need to have the conversations.