I can’t quite believe my eyes. On our dining table sits a tank that my son made as an arts-and-crafts school project in honor of Memorial Day and Independence Day.
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Toilet paper rolls were painted camouflage green, corrugated cardboard treads were added, Styrofoam was glued on as the cannon, and an Israeli flag was stuck on the turret. I don’t think I would have been happy to see my son bring this home at any age, but it happens my son is 3 and a half.
Having our children, barely out of toddlerhood, construct tanks – perhaps the ultimate symbol of war – comes on the heels of a difficult week, pedagogically speaking. Last week, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, my son said over dinner that it was a sad day because “they killed Jews.”
I was somehow unprepared for him being told this at such a young age, expecting that when I read about Education Minister Shay Piron extending Holocaust education to kindergartners, this meant age 5, not 3. Over the next few days, he repeatedly referred to killing.
By the end of the week, we learned that his teacher was instructing the kids why we were about to mark the upcoming holidays. “The Arabs started a war,” our son told us.
Our son hasn’t quite absorbed the word for tank – when I asked him what that thing was, he called it a tractor, but he said it was a tractor used for war. And when the sirens go off, he said, his dad might have to pick up a gun and protect us.
My critics will call me Pollyannaish, a bleeding-heart liberal. When I posted the image on my Facebook page, many friends expressed similar dismay, but several others wrote in defense. One said it simply reflected reality, adding, “I would be more troubled if my kid came home with a dove and peace symbol to honor the day.”
Those who make that argument perhaps forget what it means to be 3 and a half. My son still likes stories with animals. He loves the image of Spiderman and likes to wear it on his T-shirts, but when I let him watch seven minutes of a classic Spiderman cartoon I opened on YouTube, he found it too scary and asked me to turn it off.
“Spiderman is bad,” he said after seeing Spiderman beat up and depose of some nasties. He couldn’t follow the story line and was confused over why Spiderman seemed so mean and brutal. And that brings me to my point: Our children are too young to follow this story line and process the nuances.
Kids this age do not need to be exposed to images of weaponry any earlier than they would just by living here, and being taught how to make a toy tank can only serve to normalize or even glorify images of violence.
The curiosity about the tank leads to questions about the kind of gan — garden, what the Israelis call a kindergarten or nursery school — we send our son to. As I have written in this blog, it is a new, city-run, national-religious gan right in our neighborhood, and because we have been disappointed by the messages of gender inequality being imparted by the staff, we will not be returning in the fall.
But don’t misunderstand: This is a gan in an upper-middle-class neighborhood serving a diverse, moderate and modern community. Most mothers come to pick up their children in pants and short-sleeved shirts, and their kids are in gan in the first place because they have meaningful careers.
For years I’ve been covering Israeli politicians and quoting the statements they make about the Palestinians: They don’t educate for peace, their schoolbooks don’t recognize Israel, their media regularly incite against the Jewish state, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued a few weeks ago.
Is there any question that the Israeli side is not so different? Many times as a reporter I’ve noticed the toy guns Palestinian boys are given as presents for Eid at the end of Ramadan. I find it troubling, just as I find troubling the gun culture of America, the country in which I was born and raised.
But my husband, a native-born son who served in a combat unit and whose lineage makes our son a fifth-generation Israeli – a fact of which I am proud – finds the tot-sized tank equally troubling. For him, it is a symbol of the militarism that Israel finds it impossible to evolve beyond.
That’s what many Israelis do on Independence Day, he reminded me – climb on tanks, see air shows. Then they go to a barbecue and try to forget the nuances.