Raising Anti-Racist Kids

How Palestinian-, Israeli-, and Jewish-American Parents Are Talking To Their Kids Right Now

From the horrific attack of October 7 to the ongoing devastation in Gaza, how do we help our children understand and feel safe?

Raising Anti-Racist Kids

“Mom, someone in school asked me which side of the war we’re on,” my 8-year-old son said to me recently after school. It had been a few days since Oct. 7, when about 1,400 Israelis were killed and about 200 people were taken hostage by Hamas in a horrific attack early Shabbat morning. And since Israel unleashed another round of devastating attacks on Gaza that have, as of today, killed over 8,000 Palestinians, including more than 3,400 children. We are a Jewish household, and my partner and I were both deeply shaken and in mourning as we learned of friends and family of loved ones, both Palestinian and Israeli, who were directly affected. And now, looking at my son’s face, I found myself searching to find the right words.

We have always worked to have open and honest conversations with our kids about topics like white supremacy, colonization, antisemitism, racism, their identities as Jews of Color, and white/light-skin privilege. We’ve also spoken to my son, our older child, about the creation of the state of Israel, and the Nakba, which is the forced removal, mass displacement, and dispossession of 700,000 Palestinians in 1948. That day after school, my husband and I explained the current events within the context of the knowledge he already holds — but it’s an ongoing struggle to continue to adapt the ongoing devastation to his cognitive development.

As parents, we have a mandate to keep our kids safe — and to help them feel safe, to nurture their childhoods — as well as to teach them the truth. But in moments of crisis, where does that balance lie? I talked to Palestinian, Israeli, and Jewish parents who live in the U.S. about how they’ve been wading through this traumatic time with their own children. I also asked for some pointers for other parents on having these kid-appropriate talks.

“Focus on the people rather than the nations.”

Ruthie* is an Afro-Latina Jewish mom of a 10-year-old girl. With two activist parents herself, Ruthie focuses her conversations with her daughter on what they know in their Jewish community and the preciousness of all lives, grounded in history. She feels it is important to be vulnerable and honest with her daughter.

How are you talking to your daughter about what’s been going on?

I was thinking earlier today about the quote from the Talmud [the set of teachings and Rabbinic discussions on the Torah that form the foundation for Jewish law] that says whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world. We’re focusing on people rather than nations because she gets people. We are talking about the kind of Jews that we are. The other thing that I try to do, because we already have a framework for imperialism and colonialism in our family, is to talk about the [historical] role of the British, to try to back it up enough to be thinking: how did all of this even get arranged?

She knows that there has been violence and destruction and death and dehumanization, physical and verbal. People are in pain and a lot are very scared, very confused. We have talked about how the people in Gaza have had their electricity, internet, and humanitarian aid cut off, and while civilians are dying all over the Holy Land, that the places for Gazans to go are limited; are more limited than the places for Israelis to go.

Abba, what’s a ceasefire?

What is it like for you to process this as a Jewish person with your daughter looking to you for stability, security, and safety?

One of the things that I feel is that we are safe. And I think not all Jews feel that way, and not all Jews of Color feel that way in this country. She’s wrapped up in her birthday party, and she’s thinking about how one of my parents recently had Covid — she’s thinking much more locally and she’s not feeling a deep sense of insecurity, although she does feel a deep sense of injustice.

Did your parents talk to you about these issues growing up?

It was clear in my family that Eastern European Jews had been targeted for extermination, and that’s my foundational understanding about why it’s important for Jews to have a safe place. And I wouldn’t even say that Israel is necessarily a safe place, but let’s just go with it for a minute and say to have a safe place. The other message that I grew up with is that what was happening with Palestinians was patently unjust and analogous to — not the same as, but analogous to — the treatment of Indigenous people here in the U.S.

What do you wish all parents would keep in mind when talking about this with their children?

I remind my daughter we’re not there [in Palestine or Israel] and so we can’t know the full context of people who actually live there. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t extend care and love to the people whose family lives are being torn apart.

“No Arab child grows up without these conversations.”

Shireen* is a second-generation Palestinian mother of a 4-year-old. Her mother was born before the occupation and her grandparents, her teyta and sido, grew up under British colonial rule. She learned that this was an oppressive time for Palestinians, which only got worse with the Nakba, and her family was eventually driven out of Palestine when her mother was 5 years old.

How are you talking to your child about what’s been going on?

We’ve always talked about Palestine. It’s who we are. It’s our food, it’s our practice, it’s the art we have in our house. It’s the stories we tell. It’s in our pictures. We read a lot of books about other people’s struggles like the First Nations and what happened to the Native Americans in the U.S. and the civil rights movement and anti-Black racism.

How do you explain what you’re doing when you take her to a protest?

We say to her, “We’re going to a protest today, because a lot of Palestinians are injured and hurt. Some of them are dead. When bad things happen to anyone, we have to say, ‘No, that’s not OK.’ But I want you to know that you’re going to be safe here and no one will hurt you. The march will be a lot of people doing chants and holding up signs and walking in a parade.” I mean, she’s not quite 4, so it’s impossible to convey all that’s happening in a way that’s not terrifying.

This isn’t something only Palestinian or Jewish parents should be talking about. Everyone can talk about it.

A lot of the Palestine rallies, liberation rallies, they often have a lot of kids. And I think it’s a good thing — and also a product of being an oppressed people. No Arab child grows up without these conversations, so it’s happening all the time. And I think that’s not just, of course, Palestinians, that’s the immigrant experience, that’s BIPOC communities. BIPOC families are having those conversations around what’s happening to their people from a very young age, sometimes out of necessity for safety.

What would you like other parents to remember in discussions with kids?

I think what’s unfolding now is a struggle for Indigenous people to stay alive and to be on their land. And so we ask all parents to center Palestinians in the story of Palestine. This isn’t something only Palestinian or Jewish parents should be talking about. Everyone can talk about it.

“If it’s up to every single parent in their nuclear or individual setting to do it on their own, then everyone's going to burn out.”

Moriel, a father to a 5-year-old child, identifies as Jewish with American and Israeli citizenship. He was born in Jerusalem, lived most of his childhood in the U.S., spent some of his late teenage years in a northern Israeli town, and most of his 20s back in Jerusalem. He served time in prison for refusing to serve in the Israeli military.

How are you talking to your kid about what’s been happening not only these past three weeks, but also over time?

My daughter saw that I was distraught, and I wanted to talk with her so she would know that it wasn't something she did, or that I wasn't upset with her, that I was upset about things that were happening in the world. I eventually decided to take her to a Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow demonstration in D.C. calling for a ceasefire and to stop the genocide in Gaza. And then to kind of take her lead from there to see what questions she had and answer the questions as they came up for her.

Why is Baba crying?

There was one moment that I found really moving and sweet where she asked me, “Abba, what's a ceasefire?” And I said, “Well, that's when we're asking people to stop firing guns at each other.” And she said, “Well, maybe instead of firing guns, we could put all the guns in the fire.” And I was like, “Yeah, I love that.”

She was in utero in Jerusalem, but born in the U.S.; when she was 3-and-a-half, [we took her back and] visited Palestinian friends and Israeli Jewish friends and she knows that I spent time in jail for refusing to enlist in the Israeli military. And I tell it to her in very broad strokes of just saying, “I don't believe in killing people and I don't believe in hurting people.” On a deeper level, the value system that undergirds that for me and that I’ve tried to share with her is that I don’t believe there is such a thing as bad people. And pushing back against that binary thinking, which I think makes up a lot of our political discourse, let alone children's imagination. I think everyone deserves to live in freedom and in safety.

Do you remember having conversations with your own parents about the occupation?

Not until teenage years. We definitely grew up with Israel very central in our household, and also with the sense that discrimination was bad and that Arab citizens of Israel should have equal rights and the Palestinians should have freedom. When I was a teenager I was encouraged to read a fairly wide range of sources.

How do you think parents can stay committed to engaging with their kids?

I think the only way we can do it is in community. If it’s up to every single parent in their nuclear or individual setting to do it on their own, then everyone's going to burn out. The only way we can keep these discussions going — and keep this possibility of positive change going — is doing it together.

“Jewish people need to be free, and we’re not free if we’re oppressing other people. And Palestinian people need to be free. Everyone deserves to be free. And that’s the goal.”

Sarah is a Jewish and Muslim mom who is married to a Palestinian. She is a community organizer and activist with a 4-year-old and a 22-month-old. She was raised in a Jewish Zionist home with the knowledge that 28 members of her family had been killed in the Holocaust and her grandmother was a child refugee.

How are you talking to your kids about what’s been happening, not only the current crisis but also over time?

I do a lot of thinking about how my kids have so much intergenerational trauma in their brain from both the Jewish side and the Palestinian side. And the best thing we can do is just be there for them emotionally and just hold them and support their resilience.

The kids have seen us crying. They see that we’re feeling pain and that something’s wrong. My daughter asked, “Why is Baba crying?” He was crying in front of her, and this was maybe one of the first nights the bombing started, where it was clear that lots of kids were being killed. And we told her, “There’s danger in Palestine. A lot of kids are getting hurt.” I think we even told her a lot of kids are dying or dead. And she asked us to see pictures because little kids are always like, “I want to see this, I want to see this!” We did end up showing her some photos of the destroyed homes, the rubble, because we thought, we can’t hide this from her. This is her life. At some point she asked who was responsible for the bombing, and we said “the Israeli army.” We are careful to make a distinction between the Israeli army and “Jewish people,” because that’s obviously not the same. The Israeli army does not represent Jewish people.

How do you think parents can take action with their kids?

I brought her to a Palestine solidarity protest. I told her, “We protest when things are unfair, and we want to let out our feelings because we want everyone to be free. We want everyone in Palestine to be free. We want to let out our feelings, and this is what we do when things are unfair.” We saw so many people in our community. And that was really beautiful. There’s people of all backgrounds and races at these protests, many Jewish people, and it’s just really beautiful to see the solidarity. My daughter was out with us in a Black Lives Matter protest in 2020. She was in the stroller, protesting. I think it’s super important to expose our kids to that as much as we can in order to educate them, and also to see the beauty of different backgrounds coming together to build community and to work towards liberation.

“In tragic moments like these, I think our collective humanity is what we should be focusing on, and creating spaces for all of us to grieve.”

Hayat*, whose kids are 6 and 8, is an Egyptian-Palestinian American parent. Her mother is a Nakba survivor and she talks about this often with her kids, although she struggles with the complexities of explaining colonialism to small children. She is acutely aware that, if it were not for the privilege of her circumstance, her children would have been born in Palestine.

How are you talking to your kids about what’s been happening since Oct. 7, as well as over time?

My kids know that Teyta (Grandmother) is Palestinian, that her home was taken from her. That she had a wonderful childhood that was essentially robbed from her, and became a refugee of the world very early on, moving from country to country. So, they have that context and background, but they didn’t quite understand how that came to be.

Going back to Oct. 7, we made a deliberate choice not to talk about what happened with them. In the same way that we have not spoken about how 2023 had already been the deadliest year on record for Palestinian civilians [in the West Bank]. We don’t feel that children can comprehend that level of trauma, how civilians can be subjected to that level of dehumanization.

I always go back to the word unfair, and ask, how would you feel if you were on one or the other side?

How have you maneuvered the topic of your family’s identity in the past?

We really tried to not have that very specific conversation with the kids. Our conversations have been along the lines of, “Grandma is Palestinian; Grandma had a homeland but Grandma no longer has that homeland. Here are Grandma’s foods, here are Grandma’s traditions. Here are the things that identify her as Palestinian.” The recent events meant we had to have complex conversations with our kids on a much more condensed timeline than we would’ve liked.

Your parents clearly had conversations with you as a kid. Is there anything different that you’re doing with your children?

My parents made it clear that you don’t talk about this in public. We just need to fit in. As toxic as the conversation is now, I think now you can at least say the word Palestine in public. You couldn’t a few decades ago.

What would you like other parents to remember in discussions with their kids?

In tragic moments like these, I think our collective humanity is what we should be focusing on, and creating spaces for all of us to grieve.

“We talk a lot about power in terms of who has power in this situation and who doesn’t, and where does that power come from?”

Sam* is an early childhood educator and Jewish mom of two kids ages 9 and 7. Her family escaped from Germany during World War II. She has talked with her kids about the Holocaust. She talks to her kids about her great-grandfather who had to leave everything he owned and loved because his life was at risk, so he immediately saw what was happening to Palestinians and found it unfair.

How are you talking to your kids about what’s been going on?

When I talk to them about the Holocaust, one of the ways I make it age-appropriate is to stay away from horrific violence in the description, and talk a lot about what people were thinking. And why it was wrong, and unfair, and where those thoughts came from. And then, how that thinking turned into action and how that action was really unfair and then the impact of that action. One of the ways we’ve talked about the impact of that action is how not only did a lot of Jews and lots of other people die, but they had to move and spread out all over the world.

My intention is to just use this time to connect, and to make space for her questions. It’s also important to feel joy in this moment — it’s how I remember what I’m fighting for.

We’ve talked about the Nakba. We’ve talked about how something can happen and two groups can view it two different ways depending on how it impacted them. And how Palestinian people saw it as a catastrophe. They were displaced and in some cases killed. And had to give up their homes, and their lives, and their families, and their world. Then for Jewish people who came to Israel or who were in Israel at that time, it was a chance to create a homeland. They saw it as the beginning of their independence and the right to exist and have a homeland. And just how that can be really unfair. I always go back to the word unfair, and ask, how would you feel if you were on one or the other side?

We talk a lot about power in terms of who has power in this situation and who doesn’t, and where does that power come from. Then we used one of Ki’s resources that I love, because they’re so visual. We looked at that together. I just fielded their questions about it for the most part.

As an early childhood educator, do you have any tips for talking to kids?

This week, because the topic was so emotionally charged, I found it helped to talk while also doing another activity, so it doesn’t feel like a lecture. Car ride conversations are great because I find kids talk more freely when you’re not looking directly at them. Reading a book together is also wonderful. We read two picture books about Palestine to ground our conversation about land. Making art is another thing we’ve tried. My kids helped me make the protest signs that I brought to D.C. We listen to music together. There was a beautiful song we sang in D.C. with the hundreds of folks who got arrested for practicing civil disobedience at the Capitol. I found a version of the song online and we listened to it in the car. We talked about what the lyrics mean, and the important role of singing and chanting in protest. They wanted me to teach them some protest chants. And we’ve been baking and cooking; I promised my 7-year-old we’d bake a cake today. My intention is to just use this time to connect, and to make space for her questions. It’s also important to feel joy in this moment — it’s how I remember what I’m fighting for.

*Name changed.

Interviews have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Raising Anti-Racist Kids is a column written by Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs focused on education and actionable steps for parents who are committed to raising anti-racist children and cultivating homes rooted in liberation for Black people. To reach Tabitha, email hello@romper.com or follow her on Instagram.