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How do you explain to children about the bloodshed in Gaza and Israel?


The crisis in Israel and Gaza continues to escalate despite humanitarian and diplomatic efforts. This morning, we're going to spend some time with a Jewish American family in upstate New York as they try to help their young children understand and cope with what's happening. NPR's Brian Mann has our story.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When the terror and violence in Israel and Gaza began, things moved really fast for Ronnie (ph), whose family is mostly in Tel Aviv. Her phone went crazy with texts and phone calls.

RONNIE: So I just had a visceral - turn on the news. Something happened in Israel. Something real. Ella (ph) was up, so I didn't intend for her to hear.

MANN: Ella is 8 years old. Sitting on the edge of the couch next to her mom, she says she wants to know what's happening.

ELLA: I kind of been sneaking in, watching on the news with my parents, but my parents don't want me to 'cause, like, there's guns, rockets and all that stuff. Like, shooting through houses.

MANN: Here's a quick introduction. Ronnie is in her 40s. She's Israeli American. She and her husband, James (ph), he's in his 50s, live in a college town in upstate New York. They have three kids - Ella, who you've met, Aviv (ph), who's 9 and Zoe (ph), she's 11 1/2. They invited me to sit with them in their living room and listen to how they're talking as a family about the terror attack and the war. And right away, the kids kind of take over. They have a lot of questions. Here's Zoe.

ZOE: Like, how did it - like, why and how did it start?

MANN: And this is Aviv.

AVIV: What are they going to do with all those kidnapped people? Are they going to murder them, torture them or let them free? Those are scary questions.

MANN: One thing the kids really want to know - will the violence reach their family members in Israel?

ELLA: Is there a chance that it will spread to Tel Aviv?

RONNIE: Are you worried about Safta? She's going to be safe.

ZOE: What about our cousins?

MANN: Ronnie and her husband James say answering these questions is painfully complicated. More often than not, they just don't have answers.

JAMES: We're not hiding the fact that there is a war going on, but some of the more detailed parts of it, yeah, we are protecting them from that.

MANN: But sometimes the boundaries set by the parents break down, like this moment when Ella speaks up.

ELLA: So you know how, like, Gaza snuck in through the gates? How'd people not notice a big bunch of group of people climbing - going over a gate?

MANN: James tries to explain how Hamas penetrated Israeli security, but what Ella hears is that she and her brother and sister might be vulnerable.

ELLA: Can someone easily break into our house by climbing over the gate and smashing our windows?

MANN: James leans into Ella, holding her, and says their family dog will keep them safe.

JAMES: Then Bailey (ph) would bark like a maniac and alert us. She barks at everything.

MANN: It's the kind of thing you say to a child - part hope, part fairy tale - and it works. The kids laugh and seem to relax. But Ronnie, their mom, is on edge. She hates the fact families like hers - Jewish and Palestinian - are having these conversations.

RONNIE: It might seem odd, maybe, to American families. Why would you be talking to your kids about hostages? This is terrible. But again, as an Israeli - and I'm sure a Palestinian - it's so much part of your fabric of life, unfortunately.

MANN: I asked Zoe and Aviv and Ella to tell me how much of all this they understand, what kind of picture has formed in their minds.

AVIV: Gaza was originally part of Egypt, I'm pretty sure. And then Israel took over it and it's trying to rebel. So that's why it's attacking.

ELLA: It all started, like, 100 million, gazillion years ago.

MANN: It is.

ELLA: They didn't like each other.

MANN: While they talk, I watch Ronnie watching her kids, and it's clearly agonizing.

RONNIE: It's hard to find the balance of how much to shield them. I want to frame it for them in a historical way, but you can see it's a little bit of a mush, right? Something sticks, and it's a salad. And so you don't really know how to do it well. And all I can do is slowly expose them to more of a complexity and also tell them things that are not complicated, like killing civilians is never right, ever. Whatever side, that is something that's human, and we can connect on that. So yeah, I wish I knew how to do this better or that I thought about it more carefully before I needed to really face it, but I didn't, and I should have.

MANN: It's getting late. Close to bedtime. As we wrap up, I asked the kids what they hope will happen now. Ella says she wants the hostages held by Hamas to be rescued, but she sounds doubtful.

ELLA: Do we know where people are hiding them or have we had suspicions...

RONNIE: We don't know where they are.

ELLA: ...On where people are?

JAMES: Yeah.

RONNIE: We can't know. I don't know that...

MANN: Then Aviv chimes in and says he just wants all the fighting to stop.

AVIV: I'd wish for a tie so neither one wins and neither one loses. Because if one wins, the other one's going to be extremely harmed. That's not OK. If the other one wins, then the other one's going to be extremely harmed. We don't want that. We want a tie.

MANN: For Ronnie and James, this is maybe the hardest thing to explain to their children that this isn't over. There are more ugly days ahead.

RONNIE: Knowing what's going to happen in Gaza and being very, very scared for the Palestinians, I mean, terrified, and also being terrified for yourself because inevitably, antisemitic attacks rise on Jews when this happens.

MANN: The one thing Ronnie and James insisted on before inviting me to share this conversation is that I not use their last name or take photographs. Ronnie tells me it's important that people understand this, too, is part of what they have to share with their children. That Jewish families have to be cautious and wary, even here, half a world away from Israel and Gaza. Brian Mann, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.