The Questions We Must Ask

Tamar Duke-Cohan - Newton, Massachusetts
As heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition, September 30, 2007
Tamar Duke-Cohan

Tamar Duke-Cohan’s Jewish family inspired in her a commitment to examine the moral implications of her actions. From that, Duke-Cohan believes in asking hard questions and arguing about the answers.

Age Group: 30 - 50
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I believe in asking hard questions and arguing about them.

I grew up in Israel in the ’70s with the shadows of the Holocaust. We children knew that the people with the blue numbers on their arms were survivors, forcibly tattooed by Nazis in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. In my family, too, the Holocaust left scars. My grandparents managed to escape Germany, but they left behind relatives and friends.

What beliefs do such collective memories create, especially when mixed in with the intensity of living with war and terrorism? In my family, they created a commitment to examine the morality of our actions — a feeling that we have a duty to do the right, that is, the moral thing. Even though we agree about that, my mother and I disagree about the implementation of our commitment to moral awareness.

My mother, who lives in Israel, believes that every action we take and our treatment of every individual must stand up to moral scrutiny. In this context, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank seems to her to be absolutely immoral. She also feels the ongoing occupation is tearing apart the fabric of Israeli society. She therefore joined an organization called Machsom Watch, whose volunteer women drive to military checkpoints in the West Bank daily. They monitor the soldiers’ behavior for perceived human rights abuses and advocate for Palestinians denied passage.

Although many in Israel agree with their actions, my mother and her friends have been criticized for providing support to the “enemy,” and even attacked.

Unlike my mother, I don’t live in Israel, nor can I view the world at such an individual level. I think the need to protect society as a whole is sometimes more important than that absolute commitment to each individual that my mother feels. Moral or not, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is a fact of life, as is the threat of terrorism. Given this realpolitik, I support the military checkpoints, which have managed to halt suicide bombings despite their negative impact on Palestinian lives.

This is not to say that my mother doesn’t believe in the greater good, nor that I am indifferent to individual rights. The question is one of balance: Does the Israeli need for security outweigh the importance of the rights of individual Palestinians? I believe it does and my mother believes it does not.

The intellectual and ideological struggle in which my mother and I are engaged has at times been painful. We have remained close, however, and have even glimpsed islands of agreement as we navigate the rapids of discord. I attribute this to our shared belief in another idea, deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. This idea, to which I alluded earlier, is that we are duty bound to confront moral dilemmas and scrutinize the implications of our actions. For me, this is the main lesson of the Holocaust. We must hotly debate the political and ethical questions posed by today’s complicated world and we should sometimes disagree, avoiding the dangers of “group-think,” while striving for compromise. That’s why I believe in asking hard questions and arguing about them.

Tamar Duke-Cohan is a business analyst, and she teaches classes about the Holocaust at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass. Although they fight when they discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Duke-Cohan and her mother continue to talk every day.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.