“Do you really think you can make peace with those mamzers? I hope Israel kills every one of them!” she would not quite yell into the phone, enraged by the latest suicide bombing.
That was my mother, sharing her rage with me during the seven years I worked on a dialogue project that brought Palestinians and Israelis together to share their pain during and after the second intifada.
My mother grew up dreaming of rescuing more than 50 members of her family, including her grandparents, from Auschwitz, where they were put to death in the horrific machinery of Nazism. We were not a family that “never spoke of it,” or spoke only in hushed voices so the kinder wouldn’t get upset. Stories of how my great aunt saved her niece from Mengele’s line, and that niece’s last memory of her mother before she was taken to the gas chambers, as well as other stories, both tragic and heroic, were my bedtime fare.
Yet Phyllis Mermelstein Hertz Kippur (z”l), who should have turned 80 on Aug. 27, was anything but a tragic figure. She was a fierce protector and supporter of Israel, the Jewish people and human rights, and she taught us that Israel’s strength and America’s democracy were the inoculation against another Hitler. “Never think it can’t happen here. The only thing preventing it is good people speaking out. Never stand idly by!” These were her goodnight words, sealed with a kiss of determination on my forehead.
It’s a truism in my field of conflict resolution that “We teach what we need to learn.” I most needed to learn how to deal with my mother’s fear and anger, which took the form of verbal attacks. After each suicide attack not only did she doubt the possibility of peace with the Palestinians, she would remind me of the friends and family members who thought I was naïve and stupid to bother trying.
Naturally, this hurt and infuriated me, so I defaulted into my own well-worn defense mechanism, which was to get on my moral high horse and ride over her anguish with my rational mind. I would remind her of the lovely Palestinian roommates she had while hospitalized with pneumonia in Israel. I would remind her that she had brought us up not to be prejudiced against any group of people. She couldn’t really mean she wanted all Palestinians killed, could she?
You can guess how well those tactics worked.
It was only when I could let her anguish fully into my heart that something new and tender started growing,
what Martin Buber calls “the between,” that sacred space when an I-Thou connection starts to take root.
Our conversations still started the same way. Yet instead of trying to talk her down from her anger, I acknowledged it and shared my own. Instead of trying to shame her out of her reactivity, I went beneath it to the pain and fear that lay waiting in that still-little-girl’s prayers to save her grandparents.
When I used the skills with her that I taught to others, we could meet in the sadness of shared suffering and she would whisper, “You know, no one hopes you succeed more than I do.”
We are coming into the final months of a difficult election. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains unresolved, and the Middle East is in more flux than ever. It’s a complex time with new solutions struggling to emerge, while many retreat into tired, old defenses — blaming, anger and violence.
It is my hope and prayer that we can use our core Jewish teachings, civil discourse skills, knowledge of neuroscience, history and a networked world to connect more fully to each other and help something new unfold.
In dialogue, guardians and prophets, young and old, those who need to remember and those who can’t forget, as well as those who can’t see what all the fuss is about, dig deep and find a unity, not in one voice, but in many, singing not one note, but a harmony that blends wisdom, vision, respect and love across the generations.
Shortly before she died, my mother told me I was her greatest teacher. She didn’t normally use language like that, and I was touched and surprised.
When it comes to conversations about Israel (and many other things) she has certainly been mine. Rest in peace, mamala, and know that your teachings echo through many conversations.
Rachel Eryn Kalish is the founding facilitator of the JCRC’s Project Reconnections and Year of Civil Discourse, which trained 1,000 Jewish community members in how to have open discourse about Israel. She can be reached via www.workplaceconnections.com.