The Conversation

Readers respond to our June and July/August 2018 stories and more.

The Dangers of Distracted Parenting

In the July/August issue, Erika Christakis argued that we should worry less about children’s screen time—and more about our own.

We have three sons and three grandsons. All, including the 17-month-old, are screen zombies. We just experienced the power of the addiction/distraction during a two-week vacation with our two oldest grandchildren (13 and 11).
In the past year, they’ve crossed the four-and-a-half-mile bridge over the Chesapeake Bay to get to our home on Kent Island no fewer than seven times. Until we insisted on 22 hours a day of screen-free time, they had never noticed how spectacular or long the bridge is. Their delight and surprise at the existence of this massive structure finally brought home to them the point I had been trying to make: Their life had been reduced to a tiny rectangle, and they were missing the entire world.
The withdrawal was painful for them, but we filled their time with shared activities (cooking, planning outings, playing board games, and dog walks). We took them to the mountains, where, out of cell range, they discovered bouldering, wild berries, waterfalls, and bear scat. I felt like we gave them the gift of the world in 15 days.
While we were out hiking, my daughter-in-law sent me a picture of the 17-month-old holding his dad’s cellphone pinched between his ear and his shoulder while “working” on an iPad. The caption: “Like father, like son.”
Christi Dant
Kent Island, Md.

Smartphones disrupt every aspect of our society. We pay an enormous price for distracted driving, distracted marriage, distracted friendship, distracted colleagues. More significant, we are distracted from ourselves. The average person looks at a smartphone approximately 80 times a day. What is it that we are looking away from? What are we going to do to teach ourselves, our children, our drivers, our partners, our friends, and our colleagues how to self-regulate when they have a portable dopamine pump in their pocket?
The cost is clear. This issue is literally killing us.
Alexis E. Menken, Ph.D.
Pam Firestone

Montclair, N.J.

Erika Christakis concludes her article by saying, “When you are with your child, put down your damned phone.” Perhaps some parents of my generation (I’m 61) will remember the delightful musical number on Sesame Street that admonished our children to “put down the ducky.” The theme back then was about helping children let go of their blankies. But today that song sings more to smartphone-addicted parents than to thumb-sucking kids.
Charles Harrington Elster
San Diego, Calif.

During my postgraduate studies, I learned that self-image is the main determinant of whether a child becomes successful in life. No other factor—not IQ, communication skills, knowledge, experience, or even “who you know”—plays as important a role in leading a productive life. A healthy self-image and resulting confidence arise from positive interactions with adults right from the beginning. This is the time when little humans learn to trust or distrust the world. If trust is not shaped within the first two years, it is very difficult to develop.
Yes! Put down your damned phone!
Mary King, M.Ed.
Fairfield, Iowa

Overheard on Twitter

A Muslim Among the Settlers

Wajahat Ali, a Pakistani American writer, went deep into the West Bank for the June issue.

I am an American Israeli who has been living in a settlement for the past 23 years. Mr. Ali deserves accolades for his tenacity and desire to talk with settlers because he wanted to understand them (us). This is a praiseworthy endeavor precisely because it is so rare.
Mr. Ali concludes that there are two main impediments to the “religious cousins,” Jews and Palestinians, learning to live together in “actual peace.” He says that the first is “the yearning of some Palestinians for all the Jews to leave.” I would say that this means our religious cousins prefer to destroy our Jewish state rather than build their own state. I can agree with this.
But I disagree with Mr. Ali’s second impediment to peace, the settlements and “the exclusivist attitude that motivates the people who live in them.” I maintain that the settlements merely reflect the sad reality of the first impediment. Palestinian Arabs seem determined to refuse all attempts to solve the conflict, in the belief that somehow with time, all Israelis will “go back home.” Time goes on and the settlements grow inexorably. Sadly, our Arab cousins do not seem to realize this. We are home, living in our “massive cities of Jerusalem stone.” And it is only through constructive dialogue that things will change.
Esther Behar
Hashmonaim, West Bank

Wajahat Ali’s article promised insight, but delivered little. The political analysis of the concluding paragraph was thin: “Two things stand in the way of actual peace. The first is the yearning of some Palestinians for all the Jews to leave.” That is hardly blocking peace—no more so than the yearning of some Israeli Jews for all the Palestinians to leave is blocking peace.
The wishful thinking of a minority does not set national policy; the self-interest of the state does. And peace, in spite of all the public lamentation, is not in the interest of the Israeli state. Every year without peace justifies more settlements and more miles of the apartheid wall, both of which serve to entrench and expand Israel’s colonialist acquisition of land. Every year of conflict adds billions of U.S. aid and grants to the Israeli coffers, as well as another installment of the $38 billion of military aid promised over the next decade.
My hopes rose, though, as I read the next sentence, when the author finally named a real obstacle to peace—the illegal settlements. Alas, he skipped over the systemic settlement policy and instead concluded that the culprit was the “exclusivist attitude that motivates the people who live in them.” The Israeli government recruits people with precisely this attitude to carry out land theft for the state. They are the result of policy, not the cause of it.
Sadly, Ali’s article was little more than a travelogue featuring anecdotal conversations with the locals.
Kate Hayward
Hamilton, New Zealand

Of the eight Jewish interviewees quoted in “A Muslim Among the Settlers,” almost all were English-speaking men of Ashkenazi (meaning European) descent who are from the United States or were educated abroad. Whitewashing Israel’s demographics entrenches the separation between “Jew and Arab” and reinforces the idea that all Israeli Jews are of European descent and carry inter-generational trauma from the Holocaust. It erases the very existence of the large part of the Israeli Jewish population—some 50 percent—that comes from the Arab and Muslim world (Mizrahi Jews), not to mention working-class Jews (many of whom are Mizrahi) and women.
As a Yemenite Jew whose family lived on the Arabian Peninsula for thousands of years, I was deeply dis-appointed by the erasure of the Mizrahi narrative. For one, we must break the false binary that the Israel-Palestine divide is between Jews and Arabs. Our histories are deeply intertwined. When Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the middle of the last century, they were relegated to tent cities in the desert and shuttled into low-skill, low-wage jobs. They were forced to adopt a European Israeli identity and expected to separate themselves from the Arab “enemy.”
Even if the Jewish settler population is mostly Ashkenazi, Wajahat Ali missed an opportunity to deepen his analysis and to make explicit the interconnection between the oppression of Mizrahi Jews and of Palestinians, which is rooted in anti-Arab racism.
As long as Jews and Arabs are seen as natural and eternal enemies, there will be no peace in the region.
Ayala Goldstein
Oakland, Calif.

Wajahat Ali responds:

Writing and reporting about Israel and Palestine is an often painful exercise. Nonetheless, I’ve always found the journey to be uncomfortably enriching. The responses to my piece range from intense anger and bitter disappointment to sincere appreciation. I have been accused of being both a shill for Zionist Jews and an agent of anti-Israel liberals.

We’re dealing with an occupation where everything is contested: land, boundaries, international laws, hummus. Reporting on or engaging with the “other side” is seen as a betrayal with profound consequences.

But as these letters reveal, numerous stories populate the land, each with its own complexities. My job was simply to report on a specific story in a specific community: the Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. It is by no means the definitive story; it was never meant as such. And we should be critical of anyone who claims that his or her story is the only one worth reading.


“What Really Killed the Dinosaurs?” (September) stated that Gerta Keller claims to have had near-death experiences with a tiger in Belize and an anaconda in Madagascar. In fact, it was a jaguar in Belize and a boa in Madagascar.

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