How to talk about the Israel-Hamas conflict at Thanksgiving

How to avoid toxic conversations at Thanksgiving. Here is a prayer that you can use.

(Photo by Monstera Production/Pexels/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — This Thursday, families and friends will gather around festive Thanksgiving tables. They will consume large quantities of turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, pumpkin pie and various forms of liquid sustenance. They will celebrate American prosperity, gratitude and the common good.

Let me take you to one home in, say, Great Neck, New York. Let’s look at what their Thanksgiving table will look like.

The hosts, Martin and Judith, are enthusiastic donors to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. One of their children, Paul, is active with Jewish Voice for Peace, a radical self-described anti-Zionist organization. His visiting sister, Rebecca, lives in an Israeli settlement on the West Bank.

Their cousin, Louisa, is a Jew by choice, a past president of her Reform synagogue and a board member of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

Martin’s grandchildren, Jeremy and Alison, are home from college this weekend. Jeremy is the president of his Hillel. Alison is active with IfNotNow, a Jewish-led group highly critical of Israel.

The subject of Oct. 7 and the ongoing conflict will come up. In particular, since they are the host and hostess, the burden of managing the conversation will fall on Martin and Judith. How should they handle it — especially because someone is going to say Israel is committing genocide, or ethnic cleansing, or is automatically at fault in this current situation, and in any situation, or that Israel should not even exist in its current form.

Normally, I like political conversations. Also, normally, I like nuances. I like to see things from a variety of positions. I resonate with the words of the Sages, quoted by my late teacher Rabbi David Hartman, that we should make ourselves into “a heart of many rooms.”

So, too, I cherish this teaching from my friend and colleague Rabbi Elyse Frishman. The Hebrew word for truth is emet. Write out the Hebrew alphabet, and you will see that emet consists of aleph, mem, and tet. Those are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet that are on the right, the middle, and the left. Truth consists of the right, the middle and the left. I have long believed that the left, center and right have partial truths that might, together, create a whole truth.

So, too, I love the midrash that the ancient sage Rabbi Meir could offer 49 reasons why a reptile could be ritually pure (which it decidedly is not!), and could then offer another 49 reasons why it was impure.

So, how do you handle a conversation in which Israel’s very existence is “on the table,” or in which Israel will be automatically deemed “impure”? From the other side of the political spectrum, how do you handle a conversation in which the speaker suggests the Palestinians are evil, and Israeli Arabs should be forcibly evicted from their homes?

My firm and loving advice for this year’s Thanksgiving table is: Avoid the conversation. Don’t engage.


It is not only because Thanksgiving should be about shalom bayit, a peaceful home and table; it is also because, on some subjects, it is difficult to make yourself into “a heart of many rooms.”

On this issue, it might be very difficult to locate emet, truth, everywhere.

On this issue, you probably will not be able to make a reasoned argument that a reptile is ritually pure.

On this issue, our minds should not be so open that everything falls out.

On this issue, it is possible that we will not even be able to agree on the facts. We will find ourselves in two worlds of meaning.

Here are my truths:

I do not see any moral universe in which the actions of Hamas and the actions of the Israel Defense Forces exist in the same place.

I do not see any moral universe in which Hamas and the state of Israel exist in the same place.

I do not see any moral universe in which the leadership of Hamas and even the xenophobic right-wing leaders of Israel exist in the same place.

(Even Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the staunchly racist members of the coalition? Yes, even them — but the ugliness and xenophobia of their words, and the violence of some settlers on the West Bank, show that words and ideas have consequences.)

We have been here before, emotionally. For years, families with Democrats and Republicans have gathered at the same tables, and there have been difficult conversations.

But a Joe Biden supporter and a Donald Trump supporter could pass the cranberry sauce to each other and still have a Venn diagram of American values they share in common. The discussion might get heated, but they would walk away from the conversation saying, “OK, we agree to disagree. Tell me: How’s your job going?”

No. Our current situation would be comparable, intellectually, to sitting down with a member of the Proud Boys and discussing our vision for America. It does not compute. We have no values and no narrative in common.

Conceivably, among those on different places on the Israel conversation spectrum, on what could we agree? What could be the topics of a more or less pleasant dinner conversation?

Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish, democratic and secure state. An extra helping of pie for anyone who can explain why Israel, out of all the imperfect countries in the world, is the only country that must continually justify and defend its very existence. China is destroying the Uyghurs? No demonstrations about that at Columbia — or anywhere else, for that matter.

Jews and Palestinians share a love for the same land, and both peoples deserve dignity, self-determination and security. (This one is a little trickier.) Ideally, for many of us, that would have meant, and might still mean, two states for two peoples — Israel and a Palestinian state. (OK, people, quiet down.) But a two-state solution definitively does not mean “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” Remember, folks, we’re talking about two states here, not one state. And to our right-wing relatives who think Israel should simply annex the West Bank, please then agree the Palestinians would need to have the vote. If not, please explain why not, and how that works. An extra glass of Chardonnay if you can do it.

Israel has the right to defend itself. Of course, the meaning and extent of that self-defense is where the conversation gets hot. Not going there.

Antisemitism, anywhere and everywhere, must be condemned and vigorously fought. There have also been hateful, violent acts against Muslims, and we must condemn those acts. Jewish communities and Muslim communities, despite the many challenges, need to reach out to each other. 

Innocent people should not have to suffer. Acknowledge the human tragedies. Full stop. You lose points if you continue that statement with “but … ”

The hostages must be freed now. Acknowledge their suffering, their pain and the ongoing torture of their families. Full stop. 

Finally, a prayer for your Thanksgiving table.

O One of many names:

We gather at this table, mindful of the blessings of home, family and friendship that weave our lives together.

We are grateful for the gifts that sustain our bodies and our souls.

We remember those who gather at tables this evening whose minds and souls are not at ease.

In particular, we think of those in Israel and Gaza, whose lives have been torn apart.

We despair over the loss of life, the disruption of families, the destruction of homes and communities.

We weep with those whose loved ones are in places unknown, held hostage to unspeakable cruelty.

We reach our hands out to those who are in mourning, who consume their food and drink mixed with the salt water of their tears.

The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the essence of life is not to be afraid. May we, who cross those many bridges of the spirit, walk forward without fear.

Have a good, peaceful and prayerful Thanksgiving!

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