On Motherhood and Citizenship: Reflections for Yom Ha'atzma'ut

Before my daughter's birth, my Tel Aviv-born husband and I spent hours discussing the implications of our future child's dual citizenship. How would an American-born child negotiate dual identities? Would citizenship help her to feel closer to her Israeli cousins? How would we raise her to feel responsibility for both of her home countries? Would she volunteer for the army (and which one)? Would we be setting her up for bureaucratic hurdles in one country or another? What if she runs for president?

And then: after her arrival, these big questions disappeared into a bureaucratic shuffle. We arrived at Ben Gurion airport for a year abroad, carrying a four-week-old baby and a pile of documents. A few visits to the Interior Ministry later, our baby's tiny shoulders officially carried two countries' hopes and dreams, as well as the weight of two countries' tzuris.

This year, the American Mother's Day (Sunday, May 8) falls together with Israel's Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day, May 9) and Yom Ha'atzma'ut (Independence Day, May 10).

Being the American mother of an Israeli citizen is no small thing. On Yom Hazikaron, thousands of mothers (and fathers) will mourn their children killed in war. Thousands more will worry about the safety of children currently enlisted.

The somber memories of Yom Hazikaron contrast starkly with the next-day celebrations of Yom Ha'atzma'ut. In Israel, children will run through the streets shooting silly string, kitschy bands will play on television, and all-night parties will rage. In the United States, synagogues and Jewish schools will serve falafel and sponsor Israeli folk dancing.

But in our more reflective moments, Yom Ha'atzma'ut also reminds us of the hopes of so many Jewish mothers and fathers about what the creation of a Jewish state would mean for their children. The nascent state promised protection from persecution, the flourishing of Jewish culture, and the chance to live out Jewish values in a sovereign state.

Some of these promises have come true. Israel has offered a shelter for Jews fleeing the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, North Africa, and other parts of the Middle East. The country has produced a robust artistic culture in Hebrew, giving new life to influences from Jewish history and tradition. In many areas of society -- including the provision of health care and a strong social safety net -- Israel reflects the best of Jewish law.

But in other ways, we have far to go. Even while celebrating Yom Ha'atzma'ut and Mother's Day with my own Israeli family, I cannot help but remember the Palestinian mothers who are spending the day mourning their own children killed in the conflict, or worrying for those who live under constant threat of violence from soldiers and settlers. I think too about the Israeli mothers whose children have survived their tour of duty, but whose army service required them to take part in or witnessacts of violence.

Compared to mothers bringing up children in Israel, I have it easy. As a non-resident, my daughter will not be required to enlist in the army. At worst, she will suffer from bureaucratic challenges if she spends time in the country while of draftable age. Still, I worry both about her body and her soul: Will Israel be a safe place for her to spend time as an adult? And will she be able to feel pride in the country for living up to Jewish values, in regard to the treatment of Palestinians, foreigners, minorities, and low-income Israelis?

Many Jewish communities celebrate Yom Ha'atzma'ut by reciting Hallel -- the psalms of joy traditionally said on Jewish holidays. The first of these, Psalm 113, ends with these words:

God lifts the poor out of the dust; raises the needy from the rubbish heap, and seats them with the powerful, the powerful of God's people. God settles a barren woman in her home, a mother happy with children. Halleluyah!

For a mother to rejoice, suggests the psalm, two elements are necessary: First, a mother must know that her children are physically safe. Joy comes both through the ability to have children, and through the knowledge that these children are at home, and not in immediate danger.

Second, the promise that God will raise up the poor teaches us that a mother's joy also depends on raising her child in a fair and just society. It is not enough for a child to be physically safe; a mother also worries about her child's economic well-being. And mothers blessed to raise their children in relative comfort worry about the spiritual impact of a child seeing injustice and inequality, or worse -- perpetuating such injustice him or herself.

My daughter, though not yet two, is already growing up with two identities. She switches between Hebrew and English without noticing. She happily chats on Skype with family members in both Israel and the United States.

Just a few weeks ago, I became the Executive Director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, an organization that protects the rights of all residents of North America, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. Our work includes ending human trafficking in North America, guaranteeing economic security for Israelis, helping Bedouins to stay in their ancestral homes, and ensuring that Palestinians can harvest their land without fear of violence.

This is my Mother's Day gift to my daughter: an investment in the two countries that have given her citizenship.

I hope that both Israel and the United States will offer a home where my daughter can be safe from the dangers of war. I hope that these homes will be places where all mothers, wealthy and poor, will be able to guarantee their children a good quality of life. I hope that all of these places will be ones that protect the rights of minorities living under their control.