What is going on in Gaza? It has been a site of conflict since long before I was born and sometimes it feels the violence will never end. As the author of Bringing Up Race, I’ve had several parents turn to me wondering how do we talk to our children about Palestine?
If you’re like many parents in the UK or US, you might have been watching recent news reports and feeling helpless. Especially when it comes to the children. What do we say to our kids about the long and tortured history of this region? How do you explain the issues without letting antisemitism or Islamophobia stray into the narrative?
To write this post, I had to do quite a bit of reading and re-education myself. I’m still learning. I found an article I wrote many years ago for Salon.com where I interviewed the filmmakers of Promises, an Oscar-nominated documentary (pictured) about Israeli and Palestinian kids growing up in the West Bank.
It made me sad to read it, thinking how little progress has been made in that time. Still, it’s a film I highly recommend if only to humanise the stories beyond the headlines. It’s important to put real faces on the individuals living there, especially when it feels so far away.
On May 20, 2021 the Israeli government and Hamas (the party ruling Gaza) declared a ceasefire after 11 days of violence. But tensions remain high and fears of another escalation continue to bubble under the surface.
‘Let’s not talk about who’s right and who’s wrong. Let’s not debate who’s been more hostile and which side should take the most blame for starting the conflict to begin with. Let’s just talk about Palestine. Let’s talk about the men who wear turbaned keffiyehs and the women who wear embroidered dresses in every hue of the sunset. About how some Palestinians are dark-haired and brown eyed, and some are blue-eyed and near blonde. About how olive trees are symbols of Palestinian culture and are prized throughout the occupied lands.’
How do we talk to our children about Palestine
This is especially important if you have older kids who might ask more in-depth questions. Don’t wade into the discussion without an understanding of key facts and some basic history. You don’t need a degree in Middle East politics but it’s useful to have some context. If your child probes you on something you’re not sure about, be honest about what you don’t know. Explain that you will do more research or invite your child to learn alongside you (see resources at the end of this post).
Find out what they already know
What ideas have they picked up from the news, school, their peers? There might be stuff that is factually inaccurate or harmful and that needs instant correction. But in these early stages, think of it as a fact-finding mission. Mostly, you want to learn about what they understand, how they think and also how they feel about the situation.
Raise a critical thinker
Try not to shut down curiosity or to spoon feed your child easy answers. Encourage them to ask questions and to go beyond social media and news soundbites. It’s essential to help your child develop critical thinking skills, especially when it comes to complex issues. As I wrote about in Bringing Up Race, I believe critical thinking is part of being a kind, responsible and anti-racist human.
‘Empower kids with critical thinking skills and you are giving them tools to come up with creative solutions for real-life challenges. Plus you are sowing the seeds for a kinder, braver individual by teaching them to resist narrow ideas, to consider other points of view and to embrace the unknown.’
Check your biases
Depending on your political, ethnic or religious affiliations, you are likely to have strong views on this issue. That’s a natural human response. But do be honest if you’re talking to kids about why you might see things from a particular lens.
As a Black African woman, I make no bones about being anti-colonialist. So I vehemently oppose the ongoing encroachment of Israeli settlers in the West Bank. I am appalled that the majority of Palestinians are still refugees or second class citizens in their former homeland (several human rights organisations describe it as apartheid). I grew up when apartheid was legal in South Africa. I remember the ANC and Nelson Mandela being called terrorists by Margaret Thatcher’s government.
‘But we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’
If I were an Israeli mum trying to shield my children from daily rocket attacks by Hamas, I might feel differently. The rise of radical Islam across the region is a very real and present worry. Arab and Muslim friends I speak to are upset that the injustice against Palestinians isn’t properly covered by mainstream media. Jewish friends feel the coverage is one-sided and that they are being demonised on social media.
When we talk to our children about Palestine and Israel, it’s ok to be open about why we feel a certain way. However, try not to let your biases stop you from engaging in nuanced discussions. You are not aiming to indoctrinate your child. You are teaching them to care about something bigger than their daily life.
Don’t get stuck on a single story
This leads me to Chimamanda Adichie’s excellent speech ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. When it comes to an issue this divisive, it’s easy to get stuck on a singular narrative. ‘Peaceful and democratic’ Israelis being attacked by ‘terrorist and jihadist’ Palestinians. ‘Evil’ Israelis trying to obliterate Palestinian ‘victims’. Actually, the villains and victims narrative is dehumanising for everyone.
In our conversations, we are careful to distinguish between the aggression of a hardliner Israeli government or a militant Hamas vs the hopes, dreams and concerns of ordinary Israeli and Palestinian citizens. Encourage your child to seek out multiple perspectives. Listen to real life stories told by the people who have everything at stake.
‘Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.’
Stand by your values
Being able to consider multiple perspectives doesn’t mean you abandon your personal values. This isn’t about picking sides, it’s about basic decency. I am a proud Nigerian Brit and I am often critical of both Nigerian and British governments. I am also critical of human rights abuses in countries like America, Brazil, China, Myanmar, Iraq, Syria and Colombia. Calling out injustice doesn’t make us ‘anti’ any of these countries, it makes us pro humanity.
When we talk to our children about Palestine, we must stand by our values. In our family, we are anti-imperialist and oppose the occupation of Palestine and her people. We are anti-racist and oppose the spread of antisemitic narratives or the denial of Israel’s right to exist.
We believe everybody deserves to have a country they call home, where they feel free and safe. In an ideal world, this would include freedom and security for Palestinians and Israelis. The two-state solution is not as simple as it sounds, but it’s something to aspire towards. Above all, we value peace and we look to those who share the same values.
Look for the helpers
When things seem overwhelming, remember Mr Rogers said ‘look for the helpers’. Reassure your child that there are always people who want to help and that we can help too. Talk about ways to be helpful e.g. sending donations, writing to an elected official, going on a march to raise awareness, listening and learning, or supporting friends who are directly affected. Talk about ways people have tried to help throughout history and follow present day organisations committed to peace.
We are lifelong learners and that means we are always ready to unlearn and relearn. When we talk to our children about Palestine, we can also look for broader lessons. The historic struggle can teach us much about global systems of power and oppression, national identity and religious persecution, East vs West, ancestral land disputes and the search for sovereignty, the ongoing impact of foreign intervention, and generational trauma. And if we look closer we can also find lessons of kindness, friendship, resilience and hope.
Here’s a very simple framework for how to talk to our children about Palestine (and other big topics).
Ask: What do we know?
Find out what they know so far. Explain what you know about the situation, sticking to basic facts from trusted sources.
Ask: How do we feel?
Encourage them to share their feelings. Talk about your own emotional response too, acknowledging how this might be shaped by your values, personal relationships, life experience or other biases.
Ask: What can we learn?
Talk about what they understand and remember that you are both still learning. Discuss universal themes like ‘Every person deserves a home’ and ‘Violence harms everyone’. Encourage questions and don’t offer easy answers. Help them engage and empathise through stories from the region.
Ask: What can we do?
Share ideas about simple things you can do e.g. read books and watch movies to understand better, have another conversation, make a sign, support friends who are hurting, donate to families in urgent need. Teach your child that every action creates ripples that can be felt around the world. So focus on doing small things that promote kindness and common ground.
The Conversation: Everything you need to know about Israel-Palestine
Britannica: Palestine for Kids
Teach Mideast: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The Balfour Project: Britain in Palestine 1917-1948
PBS: How to discuss what’s happening in Gaza and Israel with your students
Rethinking Schools: War of Independence or Catastrophe?
School Should Be: We cannot champion diversity & inclusion in schools if we do not champion the history of Palestine
Education World: Lesson: Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Through Kids’ Eyes
Jewish Virtual Library: Traditional Narratives of Israeli and Palestinian History
Jewish Voice for Peace: Palestine/Israel 101
NPR: Tribes and Traitors: What Happens When You Empathize with the Enemy?
The Jewish Chronicle: How do I talk to my son about what’s going on in Israel?
Slate: The Clubhouse Room Where Israelis and Palestinians Are Actually Talking
The Anti Violence Project: Having the Difficult (and Necessary) Conversations: Talking to Kids about Colonization, Colonialism, and Decolonization (as a White Settler Parent)
Human Rights & Aid
Books for Older Kids and Adults
For more advice on raising kids with compassion and a sense of justice, check out Bringing Up Race: How to Raise a Kind Child in a Prejudiced World. On sale in bookshops across the UK, US, Canada and Commonwealth.