Reflections on Coming of Age in Israel’s ‘Company Town’

How growing up in affluent Jewish Manhattan has shaped a generation’s worldview of the Middle East

Reflections on Coming of Age in Israel’s ‘Company Town’
Pro-Israel demonstrators wave Israeli flags in New York in September. (Diane Desobeau/AFP via Getty Images)

When I was a sophomore in high school in New York City more than two decades ago, I took an elective called “Nationalism and Terrorism,” which compared the history of the “Arab-Israeli conflict” with “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Barely five years earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had shaken hands with the smiling, keffiyeh-clad Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a historic detente that earned both men Nobel peace prizes. But the initial flood of goodwill toward the Palestinian cause in the wake of the Oslo Accords had evaporated by the time I was a sophomore at an independent girls school on the Upper East Side, and the Palestinians were once again being faulted for the failure of the peace process.

I knew none of this back then. My chief ambition was to be a celebrity correspondent on E! News Daily, and my exposure to the Middle East was limited to watching “Not Without My Daughter” with my mom when I was a little girl, a film she occasionally referenced during my childhood as evidence of her belief that Middle Eastern men beat their wives.

Nor was I particularly predisposed to the Palestinian cause. I grew up on a steady diet of YA Holocaust novels in elementary school and spent nearly every weekend of seventh grade at flashy bar and bat mitzvahs in which Israel’s security was routinely invoked and Palestinian “terrorism” denounced before we all clambered onto the dance floor and sang “I Touch Myself.”

It took me a while to realize that according to the rubric of the elective, the PLO were the terrorists and the IRA, now embodied by its newly palatable, demilitarized political wing Sinn Fein, were the nationalists. As I immersed myself in English-language accounts of the Arab-Israeli conflict in both the classroom and the media, it became clear that my teacher’s narrative framing and biases were the rule rather than the exception when discussing anything related to the Middle East. Nowhere was the support of Israel and demonization of the Palestinians and Arabs more uncritical than in New York City, home to the wealthiest, most-guilt-ridden members of the Jewish diaspora and consequently a hotbed of Israeli apologia and generational trauma.

In Manhattan, I grew up surrounded by two pillars of power — wealthy Jewish people and WASPs. Though the latter group could be antisemitic, they were more anti-Arab or pro-Israel. There were no two sides of the story in New York City. It was a company town back then, and the company was Israel, though this didn’t become obvious to me until I raised my hand in “Nationalism and Terrorism” one day and challenged my teacher to account for the different historical treatment we were giving the Palestinian cause and the independence movement in Northern Ireland. Hadn’t the Irish Republican Army and the PLO used similarly violent means to pursue the same political end? Why were the national aspirations of one group dismissed as violent and reactionary, while the other was perceived to be legitimate?

I don’t remember the particulars of her response, but her reaction was significant. It was clear that I had touched on a moral double standard that was best left unsaid; we did not challenge the legitimacy of Israel in New York City — and this was well before 9/11.

When I came home from school and told my mother that I had wised up to this big glaring double standard in how the story of Palestine is told to the children of Manhattan’s elite, she clasped her hand to her mouth in mock horror. “Oh, Lysandra, your great-grandmother would roll over in her grave,” she pleaded, referencing her Jewish grandmother whom she had so rarely spoken of before.

Growing up, my mother had occasionally mentioned her grandmother Lola, telling me that she was an opera singer from Russia, but I only learned the full story of my ancestry by accident, when I picked up a book my mom was reading about an orphanage for Jewish boys in the 1920s, and she asked me if I recognized my grandfather in the crowd of scruffy kids pictured on the cover in black and white. Only then did my mom tell me that Lola had emigrated from Russia during World War I and given birth to my grandfather at the age of 14. She couldn’t afford to take care of him, so she briefly sent him to live in the facility featured in the book.

Since that exchange, my mom had barely mentioned the fact that her father was briefly in an orphanage, just as she barely talked about how she had been raised in a Jewish household in Queens. I have always had a tendency to probe for inconsistencies in the stories we share so my mother has traditionally kept unpalatable facts from me. “Lysandra, why do you need to air your dirty laundry in public,” she would routinely chide me with varying degrees of intensity whenever I would reveal information she would rather be secret, whether it be that my father attended AA meetings twice a week — a fact he shared with everyone he knew — to her age, which she covered with a piece of tape on her driver’s license and convinced me was “21-plus” until grade school. Only recently has it occurred to me to question why my mother’s upbringing in a middle-class suburb of Queens to a second-generation Russian Jew and his converted gentile wife falls into the category of “dirty laundry.”

But when I confronted her that evening in my sophomore year about the public epiphany I had in my class, my mom defensively — instinctively — appealed to the Jewish identity that both she and I had been conditioned to suppress. My mother’s belief in Israel’s right to exist at the cost of Palestinian self-determination ran so deep that it trumped the shame that had contoured her adult self.

We went to the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 91st Street and Fifth Avenue, where I was confirmed along with a bunch of other white kids from private schools. In the summers, all the blond kids I went to camp with at our beach club snickered and called me “Afro” when I cut my curly dark hair short in fourth grade and it pouffed out into the aforementioned style. I even remember adults snickering that I looked like a gypsy in a photo of me and my three blond-haired playmates that appeared in W magazine in the nineties. Boys my age told me I was Jewish as if it was an insult. Indeed, in the world I grew up in, where any divergence from the WASPy, white-man ideal was considered an obstacle to overcome or weaponized, the only thing worse than being Jewish was being Arab, Muslim, Hispanic, Black or a poor brown person of any kind. A white gaze of enlightened superiority permeated the education we received, the literature we read and pretty much everything else we were exposed to.

As I have argued with friends, family and boyfriends about Palestine’s right to exist in the two decades since I took that class, I have often tried to understand how unconditional support of Israel ran hand-in-hand with the pervasive antisemitism of my childhood. I have found the answer in the stories that we grew up reading. My peers and I, of all religions and creeds, devoured the same YA fiction about the Holocaust and growing up Jewish in postwar America. In books like “The Book Thief” and “Number the Stars,” European Jewish children and their families are centered as both heroes fleeing persecution and ordinary kids “just like us” in the ways that they relate to the world around them. In the rare cases our school assigned us literature with nonwhite or non-Western protagonists, they were generally cast less as heroes surviving persecution than as victims fleeing oppression, usually with the help of white saviors.

My precocious, perceptive, half-Lebanese, 8-year-old-son pointed to the absence of characters from the Middle East in mid-October, as he became increasingly aware of the war unfolding in Palestine and creeping closer each day to his grandparents and aunts and uncles, who live in a suburb outside Beirut. He and my 5-year-old daughter were watching an episode of “Peppa Pig,” which featured several international characters with names like “Madame Gazelle” from France and “Gabriella Goat” from Italy. “Mom, why don’t they ever have Arab characters in Peppa Pig?” my son asked after the episode was over. “Why can’t they have a Lebanese Lama character or something? Is it because of the war in Palestine?”

I remember thinking — or perhaps saying aloud — that my third-grader had hit the nail on the head, but he had the chain of events wrong. War requires an enemy to dehumanize, and the best way to dehumanize some collective other is to deny them centrality or agency in our collective narratives and the ability to tell their own stories. Perhaps if “Peppa Pig” had a character like Lamia Lama from Lebanon or if the New York City independent school I graduated from had assigned us a book about a Palestinian teenager expelled from her home in East Jerusalem during the Nakba or an ordinary boy in Afghanistan growing up in the shadow of a decades-long military conflict, more Americans would be speaking out against the atrocities in the Middle East that would not be occurring without our government’s financial, diplomatic and moral backing.

After college, I moved to London and went to the leftist university, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where I was further reminded how thoroughly Americans had been brainwashed by the media about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

For Christmas that year, I copied the most digestible readings from my master’s program into a binder, which I gave to my mother, along with a copy of Fred Halliday’s “Ten Myths About the Middle East.” I meant to give my father a copy of Robert Fisk’s tome about the Lebanese Civil War but wrapped it and accidentally gifted it to the mother of my childhood best friend at Christmas Eve dinner, which prompted a heated argument about whether there is such a thing as American values. My best friend believed that U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the Iraq war in particular had been motivated at least in part by the desire to spread a set of uniquely noble liberal democratic American values and rid the world of autocratic regimes. I believed then, as I do now, that you can’t export liberal democratic values with violence or promote universal human rights alongside a global system of unchecked, carbon-intensive capitalism and that vulnerable civilians have historically borne a disproportionate share of the consequences of wars conducted in their name. Read about the Kurdish no-fly zones in the first Iraq war if you don’t believe me.

Historical arguments, whether laid out in the pages of a book or at the holiday dinner table, were not successful, but one night about five years — and many tears and lost friends — into my campaign to change hearts and minds, I got a call in London from my mom telling me that she had finally seen the light. “Lysandra, you know Queen Noor of Jordan. She went to your school. She went to Chapin,” my mother excitedly told me over the phone. “I’m reading her autobiography and I finally get what you’d been trying to tell me about the Palestinians for all those years. I just couldn’t understand what you were saying because you’re always yelling at me.”

I’ve come to realize that literature, rather than logic, is the only way to convert those to the right side of history. Now, my mom proudly recounts picking fights with members of her book club in Palm Beach who, she reports to me aghast, “are so brainwashed, Lysandra, you wouldn’t believe it.”

I too used to see the knee-jerk support for Israel in the most liberal city in America as the result of brainwashing, but since the Oct. 7 war broke out, I now think it’s also the result of the specific mix of generational trauma and survivors’ guilt that Jewish people in New York City are conditioned to feel by their schools, synagogues and parents as well as the fact that Arabs have been systematically dehumanized, whether consciously or not, by the media and educators since 1967.

In 2011, I went to the occupied West Bank for three weeks, one of which was spent tagging along with a group of Palestinian Red Crescent workers as they made their rounds through the bisected, walled-off villages and towns of the occupied West Bank that Israel voluntarily ceded under the Oslo Accords but is still occupying. We would zoom through the sections controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and as we approached an Israeli checkpoint, the passengers in the car would wordlessly buckle their seatbelts. They would then unbuckle them once Israeli troops gave clearance so they wouldn’t be arrested and imprisoned indefinitely for a minor infraction. The aid workers I traveled with kept asking me the same tragic question each day, which I hated answering because the truth was too shameful to admit. “How do you see us, Lysandra? How do Americans see the Palestinians and our cause?”

It has been almost 12 years, but the answer to the question remains the same. Whether by accident or design, most Americans do not see the Palestinians as individuals with thoughts and feelings at all, but as an amorphous enemy of the civilized — meaning white — world.

In mid-October, I visited an old friend who also grew up in New York and now lives abroad with her family. My friend, who is Jewish but has traditionally been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, told me that when the war broke out on Oct. 7, she felt immediately attacked and defensive for being Jewish, an identity I had rarely heard her speak about in our 30-year friendship. As she shared this unexpected, vulnerable, yet instinctive reaction with me, I resorted to my usual logical arguments.

“Ly,” she said, using my childhood nickname. “I know that what you’re saying is true. But this is how I felt, and it’s different in New York. I wouldn’t have felt the need to explain my Jewishness or qualify Israel’s actions in New York.”

Though the trip home had been planned months ago, over the past few weeks, every “free Palestine” post or protest slogan and every image of civilian suffering in Gaza, made her feel at once defensive and attacked in Europe, where Israeli policy is viewed far more critically than in the U.S. and antisemitism, perhaps, more prevalent.

She yearned to return to Manhattan, where it was still a safe space to be a Jewish person — where it is still a company town.

Earlier that week, another Jewish friend on the East Coast whom I have long sparred with over Israel and Palestine sent me a photo of himself in a parked car outside his daughter’s preschool with a loaded gun on his lap, which he captioned “Working From Home Today.” Hamas had declared “a day of rage” and my friend said he was one of three dads — the other two of whom were not Jewish — who spent the morning in the parking lot of the private preschool school packing heat to protect their children.

My New York friends posted headlines about the NYPD boosting security around the city, even though the stories themselves quoted officials saying no additional threats had been detected. Another Jewish person I know sent me a clip of protesters at UCLA chanting the word intifada and waving Palestinian flags after I asked her for evidence that antisemitic attacks had been on the rise in the U.S. since the war in Gaza began. I told her that there was nothing violent in the video. In Arabic, “intifada” means uprising, “madrassa” means school, and “Allah” means God. The words themselves aren’t scary, but Western media consumers have been conditioned to hear a threat in the Arabic language. The peaceful protests in Lebanon that forced Syria to end its 29-year occupation of the country in 2005 following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri are known in the Middle East as “Intifadat al-Istiqlal” (the independence uprising), I told her, but were rebranded the “Cedar Revolution” by the Western media, because the word had been misrepresented as inherently violent in the coverage of the first and second Palestinian intifadas.

As hate crimes of all kinds have spiked across the globe since Oct. 7, my Jewish friends are legitimately worried that their children will be victims of antisemitism. Meanwhile Muslims, Arabs and people who have criticized the unprecedented brutality and civilian death toll of Israel’s assault on Palestinians over the past two months have faced real violence as well as financial, personal and professional consequences. A Lebanese friend of mine with an obviously Arab last name read the news of the 6-year-old Palestinian boy who was allegedly murdered by his racist landlord and wondered aloud to me whether she should make her teenage son wear a cross necklace in public to signal that he is not Muslim.

As my husband and I watched heart-wrenching videos of homes, babies and lives being blown up from our Brooklyn apartment as the bombs fell closer to his family’s home in Lebanon every day, we received an email from the head of our children’s private school in New York City, apologizing for not fully condemning Hamas terror attacks and denouncing antisemitism in the letter that had been sent to parents about the war earlier in the week. I defended the second letter because it was obvious the head of school had been pressured to write it. To my husband, it laid bare the fact that our children’s school valued the lives of Jewish students in the classroom more than the lives of our own proudly Arab-American children.

A couple of weeks ago, a woman attacked and harassed an Indian-American man wearing a keffiyeh and his 18-month-old daughter inside the playground that my family and I have been frequenting since my son started to walk. As he and I walked past the skeletons and bloody Halloween decorations that have felt so triggering to me this year, my son noticed a sign on the playground fence that read, “Arrest the Zionist Terrorist,” with pictures of the attacker. He asked me what a Zionist was, and I explained in a way that omitted much of the bloodshed. After processing what I said for a moment, he asked, “Mom, did that lady attack the man because she thought he was Arab?”

It was the first of many times since the war started that I wanted to comfort my son by telling him that he was safe, not because we live in one of the most politically liberal enclaves of brownstone Brooklyn in the U.S. but because he looks white. I resisted the urge again on the subway the next weekend, when we saw a man with face tattoos and a shaved head wearing a jacket that had a bunch of white nationalist slogans and a “Kill ISIS” patch. “Mom, does that mean that man wants to kill all Arabs?” my 8-year-old hesitantly asked.

“No, he’s talking about ISIS, which has nothing to do with Gaza and Palestine. Isis is a fundamentalist branch of Wahhabi Islam that opposes the U.S. invasion of Iraq in explicitly Muslim terms,” I babbled to him confidently, knowing that most of the American public doesn’t make such distinctions between the various militarized strains of Islam that have sprung up to resist U.S. military campaigns in the Middle East over the past 20 years.

I have decided that if my son finds out about the three Palestinian teenagers who were shot in Burlington, Vermont, because they were speaking Arabic to one another, I will tell him the truth: that the only reason he is safe in America is because he looks white. If he makes sure not to wear a keffiyeh or vocally support Palestine or speak Arabic in public, he has nothing to worry about. At home in Brooklyn, his dad plays the oud and refuses to speak English, but in the streets of the most liberal city in the United States, he must suppress these parts of himself and be white.

A few mornings ago, he put on a shirt with Arabic letters and I winced and put a sweatshirt over it. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit and perfectly reasonable to add a layer to my son’s clothes. But did he know that I was worried for his safety because he’s half-Arab? When will he learn that an Arab life is worth less than a Jewish one not just in Palestine, but in America too?

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