My Grandfather, Rabin, & Me: Notes on the Optimism of Youth

By Sivan Zakai

In my office stands a black and white photograph of another era. It captures three figures standing on a stage: my grandfather, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and me. My grandfather, a rabbi, looks stern and imposing. Next to him stands Rabin, his face is contorted into a grimace despite the fact that in the photo’s backdrop it is possible to make out the faces of dozens of singing children. I, at the time an elementary school student, stand next to Rabin, holding an Israeli flag nearly twice my size. Only I am smiling.

When I first realized I had this photograph – long after my memory of that day had faded, long after Rabin’s assassination and the death of Oslo – I assumed that the photographer had chosen a particularly inauspicious moment to click his camera, an instant when both men were scowling and only the little girl smiled. But now, years later, I wonder if any moment from that day would have shown the same image: the burden of adulthood, and the optimism of youth.

I am no longer the child I was in that photograph, but I still spend a great deal of time in Jewish elementary schools – as a social scientist who studies American Jewish children’s relationships to Israel. For the last several years, I have been following a group of Jewish kids in the United States to learn about what they know, and how they feel, about the Jewish State. And it turns out that many Jewish children – from a range of denominational and ethnic Jewish backgrounds – do exactly what I did in that photo: smile and hope even when the adults around them are grimacing under the weight of an uncertain future.

American Jewish children have a disposition that is so rare in their parents and grandparents: a simultaneous ability to recognize the tragedy of current-day violence in Israel and still have hope for the future resolution of the conflict. When I ask children to tell me stories about life in Israel, their tales are peppered with a host of tragic details that reveal just how much they know about the challenges Israel has faced in recent years: stabbing attacks and terror tunnels and rockets from Gaza. Most children view Israel as a society marred by terrible violence, and they worry about Israel and its future.

And yet, even though they are acutely aware of the threats Israel faces, they are confident that eventually Israel and its enemies will make peace. “In the end,” one girl explained to me, “they will make a brit, which is a promise of being nice and kind to one another.” Another child envisioned a future in which Israel and its enemies unite to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to break your favorite country, and I won’t do it again.” Even if it stems from a naive understanding of geopolitics, I find the children’s words to be profoundly beautiful. They are still able to conceive of what my own less elastic adult mind has difficulty imagining: a world in which Israelis and Palestinians are – amongst themselves and to one another – peaceful, caring, and just.

And so – long after my memory of the event has faded, long after the assassination of Rabin and the death of Oslo – I keep in my office an old black and white photograph of two scowling Jewish leaders and a smiling little girl. The photograph is from another era, and I am no longer that child. As each day’s headlines announce another attack on Israelis, and I can see no path towards a peaceful future, I have taken on the pained grimace of Jewish adulthood. But the photograph reminds me of the optimism I once felt, and of all of the children who can still imagine a world at peace.

Sivan Zakai is assistant professor of education at American Jewish University and an affiliated scholar at the Mandel Center of Brandeis University. She directs the Teaching Israel Fellowship (AJU) and the Children’s Learning About Israel Project (Brandeis).