Tough Talk at Thanksgiving

This year, multigenerational gatherings may include turkey with a heaping side of tension.
By | Nov 22, 2023
Israel, Israel-Hamas War, Latest
Tough Talk at Thanksgiving

“The way my family thinks about Israel isn’t the way I’ve ended up thinking about it,” says college freshman Hannah Moore, who’s just returned home to the Maryland suburbs bordering Washington, DC. She’s on break from her first semester at Drexel University in Philadelphia and is wondering how the conversations about the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the ensuing war in Gaza will go when she gets together with family over the Thanksgiving holiday. 

In middle school and early high school, Moore says she started to ask questions about Israel and how it came into existence. As she read and learned more of the history, she noticed that family and other Jews she knew who were progressive on other issues were what she describes as “more conservative” on Israel, celebrating Israel’s Independence Day and staunchly defending the Jewish state and its occupation of Palestinian territories.

“Until now we’ve sort of ignored our differences, but it’s impossible to ignore now,” Moore says, referring to the ongoing war. She shares that she used to feel like she “wasn’t Jewish enough” to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unlike her mother, she didn’t attend Jewish day school or Hebrew school and she didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah, nor has she traveled to Israel, as her mother did at the age of 16, which Moore describes as “a defining moment” for her mom and for so many others, such as those who do Birthright trips. While her father’s family has been in the United States since the early 1900s and her mother came from Canada in the 1970s, her parents are a generation closer to the trauma of the Holocaust than she is, and her grandmother on her dad’s side, who she calls Bubbe, is closer still, which translates to a stronger belief in Zionism and a “claim to the land of Israel” that Moore doesn’t share. Nonetheless, she strongly identifies with Judaism and laments “the lack of Jewishness in pro-Israel thinking, in terms of humanity and justice.” She feels the ongoing bombardment of Gaza is “antithetical to Jewish values” and that “if Israel was truly a Jewish state it would live by Jewish principles—not mass violence.”

Her Bubbe, who Moore says is very involved at her synagogue and whose life revolves around her Judaism, will be at the Thanksgiving table. Moore says she’s been thinking about the dinner for the past few days and preparing for it. “They’re all so outspoken. I won’t say anything if it doesn’t come up. But if it didn’t come up—that would be kind of crazy.”

Jewish Americans aged 50 and older are far more emotionally attached to Israel than their younger counterparts.

Anticipating uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner conversations certainly isn’t new. The holiday often brings extended family together who may not see eye to eye on current events or even deeper social or theological issues. Young people who have been away at college are typically coming home having experienced a variety of new perspectives at school. They may also be testing the waters of rebellion and individuating from their parents through political arguments. And while Thanksgiving dinner debates didn’t start with the outcome of the presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in 2016, the anticipation of turkey with a heaping side of tension, and the anxiety that accompanies it, definitely ramped up during the Trump years. (Explored in this 2017 “Ask the Rabbis.”

Today, with Americans as politically polarized as ever, the issue of Hamas’s brutal killings, rapes and kidnappings in southern Israel, along with the subsequent air and ground bombardment of Gaza and increased settler violence against Arabs in the West Bank—and how it all factors into the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict—means that conversations this year may be especially fraught, for multi-generational families of all types and especially for Jewish families.

A Quinnipiac University telephone survey of 1,743 Americans across the country conducted from November 9-13 found wide age disparities in attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the current U.S. response. When asked which side they sympathized with, 52 percent of respondents aged 18-34 said they sympathized with the Palestinians, 29 percent sided with the Israelis and 19 percent didn’t know. Among those aged 50-64, only 13 percent sympathized with the Palestinians, 67 percent with Israel and 20 percent didn’t know. In the last group, those aged 65 and over, 65 percent sympathized with Israel, 15 percent with Palestinians and 21 percent didn’t know. (The fact that the percentage who didn’t pick a side on the sympathy question was virtually the same for all age groups is interesting. Maybe if you could get them all at a Thanksgiving table, they could arrive at a reasonable plan for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Or maybe they’d skip the topic altogether and argue about The Golden Bachelor instead.)

On the question of whether the United States is “too supportive” of Israel, 50 percent of young adults said yes, 21 percent of the middle age group agreed, and just 12 percent of the oldest cohort did.

Major surveys that break down views of Jewish Americans specifically aren’t as recent, but those conducted in the last few years also show a generational divide in attitudes on Israel. A 2021 Pew survey, for example, found that Jewish Americans aged 50 and older are far more emotionally attached to Israel than their younger counterparts.  

Eileen, a mother of twins in Michigan who asked not to be identified by her last name out of respect for their privacy, shares that her son, a college senior who has been away at school, recently referred to Israel’s war in Gaza as a genocide in a social media post. Eileen’s husband is Israeli and his sister and other family members in Israel saw it. “They were offended to the point that they didn’t want to have anything to do with him. And they were angry with the rest of the family here in the United States,” she says. Her son did reach out and apologize. Eileen isn’t sure what exactly was said but knows the feelings are still tense between them.

Before October 7, she says her immediate family hadn’t spoken about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for some time. Her son was once active with Habonim Dror, which she describes as a Jewish camp and Zionist-socialist youth movement in Israel and elsewhere. Her daughter, who lives at home, is also progressive and has been marching with Jewish groups advocating for peace.

“It’s hard,” says Eileen. “Their experience of the whole issue is just very different. Even though their grandparents were Holocaust survivors and they have family in Israel, it just doesn’t affect them in the same way.” She recognizes that her children are more influenced by the people they’re immediately surrounded by. She’s also learning from her kids. “Israel has changed, so it makes sense to me that the Israel they see, they don’t like, they don’t feel comfortable with.”

Eileen and her family will be having Thanksgiving dinner at her brother-in-law’s sister’s house. She says they don’t know them all that well and so she isn’t sure if they’ll talk about the war and surrounding issues. “There will be other young people there, so who knows.”

Jennifer Loukissas is the mother of two teen sons who lives in Kensington, Maryland, and is navigating the issues of war and family attitudes as one half of a mixed-faith family. She herself was raised in an interfaith setting—her mother is Jewish and her father was Greek Orthodox, and they celebrated both traditions. She and her husband, who is Catholic, do the same with their sons. They are longtime members of the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington (IFFP), which meets at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville and whose clergy includes both a rabbi and a reverend.  

Loukissas shares an idea Rev. Samantha Gonzalez-Block conveyed in a pre-Thanksgiving service about how the apostle Paul “kept the food at his table vegetarian so that his Jewish siblings could eat with him: to lengthen a table, not build a wall.” Gonzalez-Block characterized  the Interfaith Families Project as “a community of tables pushed together” that chooses to live “side by side while honoring our differences, leaning on our faith traditions, and embracing all the messy and beautiful things that come with it.” Loukissas will carry this thinking into her own Thanksgiving dinner, although she’s not overly worried. “My mother is not particularly Zionist and we’re all anti-Netanyahu,” she notes, adding that she does have Israeli cousins who are very supportive of their government but that they aren’t seeing them this holiday.

As the acting board chair of IFFP, Loukissas recently shared specific suggestions with members who may be anticipating tense Thanksgiving conversations about Israel—with the goal of leaning away from conflict and tension. “We can’t end the war by arguing with our families,” she says. On this point, it’s worth keeping in mind that students who have become active in progressive campus groups may feel duty-bound to pick certain battles, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being one of them. 

She recommends employing breathing techniques to calm down if tempers flare, soliciting an ally beforehand—someone who will be at the table or someone you could text if you need to step away—and agreeing to disagree while actively shifting the conversation to another topic. “Sports is often a safe go-to: professional, college, or kid sports. Hobbies are a good topic as well—getting the kids to talk about their interests. Of course, movies, TV shows and books are always good topics of conversation. And if there is happy family news, focus on that. Our nephew is getting married in the spring, so we could easily riff on wedding attire for 20 minutes.” 

What is your holiday table going to be like this year? Are you having Thanksgiving misgivings surrounding the Israel-Hamas war and the myriad attitudes family may bring? Will you try to push your tables together (literally and figuratively), endeavor to create no-go zones or simply wing it? We’d love to hear from you.

2 thoughts on “Tough Talk at Thanksgiving

  1. Robert S. April says:

    We feel there is no real joy for Thanksgiving this year. Israel is in a major military endeavor not supported by world opinion that is based on ignorance of history and unwillingness to see the international dangers posed by the current war.

    Jewish values include prayer and saying thanks to God three times a day every day. Is that not enough thanks for the One, Invisible, Incorporeal Ruler of the universe.

    Let the young learn from the old so they do not repeat the mistakes in their lifetimes.

    1. hag says:

      As one who has gone thru most, of the various varieties of Judaism, from orthodox to reform, and during covid, great deal of reading, I believe that Judaism must transform itself…we are using 1,000 year old texts (yes, Rashi, filling in, in the Torah for god was a 1,000y ears ago,) and quoting Mishnah as if it were fact, etc….)

      We now know much more JEWISH HISTORY, It is time to celebrate, Ahab and the wonderful woman, his concort, Jezebel (a phonecian) who built a glorious empire, and not the Hasm0nians, who bought Roman Legions to subdue the people….We must expand our reach, welcome converts (not test them )…. and seriously look into our selves…

      Instead of thanking god each day, for a WONDERFUL WORLD, we must HELP god to make it a better world for ALL… yes,,,,,, let young learn from the old so they do not repeat the mistakes of the past..

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