Opinion: The unwelcome topic at this year’s Thanksgiving table

Editor’s Note: Joan Steinau Lester is the PEN award-winning author of six books, most recently “Loving Before Loving: A Marriage in Black and White.” The opinions in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.

My wife and I were recently invited to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of a friend. At the bottom of the invitation, printed in bold letters, were the words, “No Politics Discussed.”

Joan Steinau Lester - Courtesy Irene Young
Joan Steinau Lester - Courtesy Irene Young

I read those words with a deep feeling of relief. “No Politics Discussed” would — as the hosts no doubt intended — foreclose any heated, unresolvable arguments about the war raging in Israel and Gaza, a topic already dividing families and severing friendships.

I found myself wishing that the “No Politics” rule applied more often in our daily discourse, at this moment of fierce strife and rancor. Nearly everyone is confronted by intensely emotional conflicts, with the upheaval roiling workplaces, college campuses, schools and other places.

Arguments over Israel are nothing new, but the rifts are deeper and more lacerating than I can ever remember. In one particularly painful and personal case, a dear friend and I have disagreed for decades about antisemitism and Israel. Somehow our friendship always survived — until now.

Those earlier conversations were fraught, but the twin horrors of the Hamas attacks and abductions and Israel’s military response on the Palestinians have frayed our bonds of friendship beyond the breaking point.

She is a staunch supporter of Israel and finds my empathy for both peoples anathema. In the past, whenever she was stricken over the latest antisemitic threat or assault, I reverted to simply saying, “I love you,” hoping my care might soothe her terror when discussion was impossible. After the attacks in Israel, I listened in silence for a half-hour, biting my tongue.

She stormed while we walked one day not long ago, so upset that she nearly ran, as she vented over what she called the abandonment of Jews by groups they’d been allied with over decades of social struggles. Before we parted, I reached out to give a hug, which she stiffly accepted.

“I’m sorry I can’t be the ally you want me to be,” I said. “I’m sorry I’m the friend who rants,” she answered. She later upbraided my “betrayal” however, for not giving full-throated public support to Israel. She wrote in an email that it was impossible to continue our two-decade-long friendship. Her words cut deep, for she and her family have been among my closest friends.

Old arguments, deeper rifts

In Jewish families especially, the generational differences can be stark. The Holocaust, so recent in my childhood, recedes into the distant past of young people, almost the same way that I think of the Civil War.

At 21, as an avid folk dancer with one-quarter Jewish heritage, I joined an Israeli dance troupe. Dressed in matching outfits, the other members of our group and I kicked up our heels at synagogues and public venues. I was glad that Jews had found a safe home and fantasized moving to a kibbutz, where I’d dance and sing while I joyfully swung my hoe, breaking ground in this new land.

So far, that safe home has failed to materialize: Each side blames the other and competing claims to one land persist. A negotiated reconciliation — unfathomably hard work, to be sure — appears to be the only resolution. Getting there will be a challenge of gargantuan proportions. But South Africa, for instance, despite its unimaginable cruelties, has managed to make progress — even if conditions remain far from ideal.

Other countries mired in endless conflict have made advances as well. None are perfect, yet much preferable to blood running in the street. As a sage person once observed, “There are no sides on a round planet.” The Israeli-Gaza conflict, so brutal, makes this clearer by the day.

Only later did I learn more about Israel’s founding and come to understand that the land was not entirely new. Arab Palestinians were long established there, living alongside Jews. Once I learned that, I became an early advocate of a two-state solution.

Different generations experience the war differently. Today’s young adults, who have grown up aware of many oppressions in a way we older folks weren’t, have known about the Israeli occupation and Palestinian refugee camps their whole lives.

One Jewish friend has an adult daughter who is passionately pro-Palestinian. The mother anticipates uncomfortable Thanksgiving conversations, but is prepared to listen. She believes her daughter will listen to her too, and that their strong bond will prevent a fracture.

Peace is never easy

It will be hard on Thanksgiving Day, despite my host’s instructions, to keep the war, so raw with suffering, from surfacing among the multicultural, politically engaged folks at the dinner table. If the topic does bubble up, as close to the surface as it is for all of us, I hope we will listen to each other in a spirit of empathy.

At this terribly difficult time, empathy is a balm that may ease our collective anguish. It doesn’t make the war go away, but may show a path to resolution when peaceful settlement appears impossible. Great leaders like Nelson Mandela, who practiced something extraordinary — forgiveness, even of his jailers — showed us one example. This type of forgiveness, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described it, is necessary to bring about healing in the Middle East.

I hold out hope that my dear friend — a loyal and generous woman who has repeatedly helped my family in times of need — will someday allow my sustained love to penetrate the armor she finds necessary now. I imagine reuniting with her one day, mending both our broken hearts. After all, if she and I can’t heal our rupture, how can two beleaguered peoples heal theirs?

I suspect that the talk around some holiday tables this year will be rancorous, but some will seek healing. Love may find a way, if not to move mountains, at least to allow space for durable resolutions. Peace is never easy. But it’s not as hard as war.

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