What 8 New York Mothers Told Their Kids About the Israel-Hamas War

How do you explain one of modern history’s most brutal conflicts to a third-grader?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo Getty Images

Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, the internet’s parenting-advice engine has been hard at work, churning out psychologist-backed guides to talking with kids about it. The message in just about every well-intentioned article: Remind your children they are safe, stay composed, and keep the true terror of the news to yourself. But in New York City, following that advice can feel nearly impossible. Here, communities and classrooms are international and diverse, and even when they aren’t, the subways, buses, and streets that lead to them are. News reaches kids from taxi TVs and flat screens in diners; from posters taped to subway entrances and the façades of urban college campuses, the word KIDNAPPED in bold red large enough for a kindergartener to sound out. Protesters and mourners gather for rallies and vigils, then walk, in anguish, through residential neighborhoods, carrying flags. Kids talk in the lunchroom and on the playground, parroting what they hear at home. A canned script rarely suffices when it comes to explaining what the city, and in some cases, social media, have revealed to children.

In these interviews, eight mothers from in and around New York City recount how they’ve discussed the attack on Israel, the history of conflict in the Middle East, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Some mothers who spoke to us are Jewish, others are Muslim, and a few have direct familial connections to the region. The difficult, halting discussions the mothers described occurred unexpectedly and in planned sit-downs—and for almost every family, these conversations are far from over. The mothers’ stories vary according to family background and children’s ages, but they also underscore a commonality: fear for their children’s future, and a fervent yet futile wish for a swift end to the violence. 

“I’ve continued to reassure her that all is well and that it’s okay and that Mom is a big girl — she doesn’t have to take care of Mom.”

Zohar is the mother of a 12-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. She lives in Brooklyn Heights.

“I am Israeli, and I have many friends and family members in Israel. On October 7, my 9-year-old son woke me up, probably at eight in the morning, and told me that there had been an attack on Israel. My husband had read about it in the New York Times when he woke up. Before we could talk to our kids, he and I needed a few moments to figure out what was happening and to have conversations with family and friends — to find out that they were safe. My family is safe, but my best friend’s brother, wife, and three children were murdered in Kibbutz Kfar Aza and the kibbutz was destroyed.

The first thing I told my kids was that the whole family is safe, and that this is hard but we’ll get through this. But my daughter is very aware and sensitive. She was crying and worried about rockets. We had to calm her down. We again said that the family is safe and no one is in harm’s way right now and everyone’s okay — their grandmother, their uncle.

Since then, my daughter often wants to know if I’m okay and if she can do anything to help, and she often asks if the family continues to be safe. I’ve continued to reassure her that all is well and that it’s okay and that Mom is a big girl — she doesn’t have to take care of Mom.

And there’s my son. There was a night when he definitely had a harder time falling asleep. When I asked him if he wanted to ask me anything, he said, “Mom, I want to know as little as possible.” And I said, “That is completely okay, and if you want to know anything about it, I’m here.”

I just wanted my kids to have a connection with Israel and spend time with family there and to feel like this was also their home. Before COVID, we visited Israel every year. For years I kept the conflict away from the kids as much as possible. They knew that we were pro-peace and anti-occupation, but that’s pretty much it. And then earlier this year, with the judicial challenges in Israel, it’s almost like the dam had opened. This year, before the war, they saw me upset and concerned about what was happening in Israel. We took a trip to Israel in August and they felt the tension. It was palpable and they were aware of it, and I feel very sad about that. I feel heartbroken that their association with Israel is danger and chaos and sadness.

“I told them, ‘For me, it’s important to be clear-eyed so that we don’t equate all Palestinians with Hamas, and that we don’t equate all Israelis with the Netanyahu regime.’”

Kavitha Rajagopalan, author of Muslims of Metropolis, is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. She lives in East Williamsburg. 

On October 7, after the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel, I spent the day checking in with friends. I have some friends who have a lot of family in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, and I have a few friends who have family members in southern Israel. And then, that evening, I sat down with my daughter. And I said, “Listen, I want to give you a little context. Over the next few days, you’re going to hear a lot about Israel and Palestine and how it’s complicated. Obviously, there’s a long and toxic history. But, as far as many of us can see, when it comes to Gaza, it’s a pretty straightforward situation. This is a people that have been under blockade for 16 years.” Then we talked about the blockade and the humanitarian crisis, and how it’s impossible for people to live in Gaza. I said: “You know, 2 million people live in this very small space — they’re surrounded on three sides by land borders that they can’t cross and on the other side by a sea. And so they live this life of incredible suffering. There’s a lot of surveillance. There’s a lot of violence. Peaceful protest has not been possible. They haven’t had elections since 2006.” I told her that many people in the Israeli government and the Palestinian government have wanted to advocate for peace, but that has broken down for a number of reasons over time. I told her that Israeli people deserve and want safety, and so do Palestinian people. And I said: “For me, it’s important to be clear-eyed so that we don’t equate all Palestinians with Hamas, and that we don’t equate all Israelis with the Netanyahu regime.”

She asked me what the difference between Gaza and the West Bank was. And she wanted to know more about the settlers, and why Palestine had two different governments. She asked: Who are the legitimate rulers, and who speaks on behalf of the Palestinian people? I think my daughter is trying to come to terms with the fact that we live in a world where children can be killed and no one really cares one way or another. Her brother used to be seriously ill, and she saw how hard we fought to save his life. So she’s struggling to understand why people aren’t interested in saving other kids’ lives.

As for my son, he wants to see the world clearly. He wants there to be good guys and bad guys. And so he and I had a long conversation about how the Israeli state is a response to thousands of years of violence toward Jewish people, primarily in Europe. I told him that all people deserve a place with a feeling of safety, a homeland. And then that led us to a larger conversation about displacement. He started talking to me about Pakistan. And then we started talking about Kashmir, and how Kashmir and Gaza have parallels.

Eventually, my son and I started talking about a lockdown drill he experienced at school and how scary that was for him. He said, “Is somebody going to come into my school and try and shoot me, or poison me, or kidnap me?”  And I said, “No, probably not here. But this is something that’s happening elsewhere.”

The other day — about ten days after the war began — my daughter was looking at me over dinner. She said, “Mama, are you okay?” She’s such an empathetic, compassionate person. And I was like, “I’m fine. I’m just really, really sad about what’s happening in Palestine.” And she said, “I’m really just sorry, Mama. I’m sorry that this is happening.” And then she said, “I want to do some more reading and learn more about the history of the region.”

“Our conversation included killing babies. It included rape. It included the most violent expressions of how to treat other humans.”

Leora Kaye is the mother of a 14-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. She lives in Park Slope. 

I’m a Reform rabbi and we have many friends in Israel. We’re very open in our house about how we feel about all kinds of things — we’re not big shielders. So the conversation about Israel on October 7 wasn’t a new one for my kids. My husband and I both told the kids that this was a scary, terrible morning, and Israel wasn’t prepared for it, and it was done by people looking to do as much harm as they can to Israel and to Jewish people. The conversation included killing babies. It included rape. It included the most violent expressions of how to treat other humans.

And we also spoke about the fact that we are not living there, and it’s not right for us to try and center ourselves in any of this. And we said that care for innocent Palestinians can’t get lost and shouldn’t get lost. We had built a foundation of talking about the conflict in Israel before October 7, and so that allowed us to be able to say to our kids: “It’s very hard for any of us to decide if the response to the attack is the right direction or the wrong direction. But we do know the right direction is making sure we have a place in our hearts and our souls for innocent Palestinians who didn’t ask for any of this.”

We were very frank about what had happened in a way that felt age-appropriate for each of them. We would rather share the truth with them and then safely put them out into the world than shield them from stuff that they’re going to hear elsewhere. The last thing I would want is for my kids to come to me and say, “How come you didn’t tell us?”

Of course, neither of my kids are old enough to understand everything I said, and I say that with love for both of them. They are smart, sophisticated New York kids. The one thing I know they could clearly see is that their dad and I were both in a traumatic mental space.

As I’ve been speaking to my daughter this week, I worried that she’d share stories of antisemitism and anti-Zionist stuff, and I was glad to hear that wasn’t happening to her. The war has not gone deeply into either of our kids yet, because it is all the way over there. It is not on their minds until it’s brought up.

“I would have liked the information about the war to have come from me as opposed to kids at her school, but we can’t rewind our choices as parents.”

H. is the mother of a 6-year-old and an 8-year-old. She lives in midtown Manhattan.

I am a first-generation Palestinian American. My mother is a survivor of the Nakba, expelled from her home during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. My mom is a very big part of my life. My kids know that teta is Palestinian, lost her homeland, and hasn’t been able to go back. For a very long time, we skirted around what that means. My children have many friends who are Israeli, and many teachers who are Israeli. We’ve raised them to uphold the human dignity of everyone.

When Hamas attacked Israeli civilians on October 7, we did not share that news with our children. It is gruesome and awful, and we didn’t think it was right for them to know about that. We also knew it was going to immediately result in an aggressive backlash. But a few days ago, my 8-year-old daughter came home from school and said her friends were talking about how Palestinians have killed Israelis. My child is so young, and I hoped that children weren’t having those conversations. I would have liked the information about the war to have come from me as opposed to the kids at her school, but we can’t rewind our choices as parents.

She said, “I couldn’t help but get involved in the conversation and say, ‘Palestinians have been under occupation for 75 years, and they have been killed.’” We told her we understood why she needed to share in that way, but also asked her not to engage unless she was being addressed directly. We wanted to avoid the possibility of unnecessary conflict with her friends.

She said, “Mom, I feel like everyone hates Palestinians right now. What if my friends don’t want to be friends with me?” That was a really difficult parenting moment for me. I said, “Number one, if they say that to you, they’re not a friend.” I went into the history. I told her Palestinians, Muslims, Christians, and Jews coexisted peacefully on that land for centuries. And what Hamas did was egregious and horrific. And a fight for freedom should never involve killing or harming civilians.

She also saw the posters that have gone up around the city with the information on the Israeli civilians who have sadly been kidnapped. She was basically like, “Mom, I see everybody is stopping to look at all the people who were kidnapped in Israel. Why is no one talking about the Palestinians who are being killed? The children who are being killed?” She’s having this realization that there’s a hierarchy of value assigned to lives.

While acknowledging her very real feelings, I have explained to her that the people in her community don’t hate Palestinians and they don’t hate her. The horrific murder of that little boy in Illinois … I don’t want her to ever hear about that. [crying]

My state of mind has been in the garbage, to be honest. It’s been impossible to parent. I’m losing sleep. I’m crying a lot. I’m very emotional. I’m extremely lethargic, and very distracted. I’m grappling with how I feel the discourse has turned its back on Palestinians in the U.S.

“I practiced hiding with my kids. I said to them, ‘What would you do if there was somebody pounding on the door, saying that they have to come in?’”

J. is the mother of a 4-year-old son and a 6-year-old son. She lives on the Upper East Side.  

My plan had been not to talk to my boys about what’s happening in Israel, because they’re young and they don’t really know what’s going on right now. They also don’t know about the politics of the Middle East, and they don’t know about the Holocaust.

But they both attend a small Orthodox Jewish day school where children of different ages routinely spend time together and so he hears older kids talking a lot. So a few days after October 7, my 6-year-old son came home from school, and he said, “Mommy, Cristiano Ronaldo wants to kill all the Jews.” He was so upset because he loves soccer and he loves Cristiano Ronaldo. I think it was something he heard from other kids. I immediately said, “I don’t think that’s true.” And I convinced him that it wasn’t true, that Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t want to hurt anyone and never said anything like that. And I thought we might be done with the subject. But then, two days later, he came home again, and he said, “Mommy, there’s a war in Israel. And people are trying to kill the Jews in Israel.”

So my husband and I sat down with him, and we just asked him: “How are you doing? What do you think is going on?” And so we validated that, yes, there is a war. And it’s not just a thing that happened — it’s ongoing. And I told him, “People came to Israel and hurt some people and killed some people.” I didn’t tell him about the kidnappings because that would terrify him. Saying “people were killed” is very abstract for him, but saying somebody came and snatched children away from their parents is concrete. He would understand it. And then my husband had this idea that we could frame what’s happening in a religious way because that’s what our kids understand and what they learn about in school. So he said, “You remember on Purim when Haman tried to kill the Jews? There are people who are around right now who also want to do that. And we have to be strong, and we have to band together, and we have to have faith.” And my son said — because he thinks of everything like Minecraft — he said, “So are we going to kill all of them?” And I told him, “No, we don’t need to kill everyone that hates us. We do need to protect ourselves, to make sure that they don’t hurt us anymore.” And I think that’s a very hard concept for such a concrete thinker. But in my son’s beautiful innocence, he said, “Don’t worry, Papi. Hashem always protects us.” My sons believe that narrative because it’s one they’re very familiar with. I don’t know if I believe it, but I’m happy for them to believe it.

My boys wear a uniform to school, and I was always okay with letting them wear a kippah and the uniform, which has a Jewish star on it, on the commute to and from school. But recently, I told them, “We’re not going to wear these uniforms on the street anymore. We’re going to put them away. Wearing a kippah is private — that’s for our house and school, but it’s not for the street.” My older son kind of accepted that.

But at some point, he came to me and said, “I heard everybody hates the Jews. Is that true?” I said, “Well, you know how we don’t wear a kippah outside anymore? It’s because there are some people who want to hurt us, because of who we are. And we don’t need to make it so easy for them to identify who we are.”

Last night, my son came into my bedroom and said, “Mommy, I heard something at school today. I heard there was someone trying to take Jewish kids away from their families. I don’t want anyone to take me from you. Can I sleep in your bed?” I told him, “That’s something that happened somewhere far away, but it’s not happening here.” And then he asked me, “What would you do if somebody came? Would you protect me?” I told him that I’m very strong and I can take on anyone who comes. And he believed that, and he went back to his bed. I didn’t tell him that it happened in Israel.

I learned about the Holocaust in kindergarten when I was in Jewish day school, and I’ve had recurring nightmares my whole life of people coming to find me, and having to hide and then run away and escape. I think that part of me has always known there are people who are going to come and try to kill the Jews again. Recently I practiced hiding with my kids. I said to them, “What would you do if I told you that you had to hide and you had to be quiet? What would you do if there was somebody pounding on the door, saying that they have to come in?” Because I no longer feel entirely confident that that couldn’t happen.

“You don’t want your child to be labeled a Hamas sympathizer. That can ruin their future forever.”

A. is the mother of a 16-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old daughter. She lives on Long Island. 

I immigrated to the United States from Afghanistan. My daughters are more ahead of the news than I am because of TikTok — and my older daughter has been struggling with seeing celebrities and friends posting about Israel but not acknowledging the loss of Palestinians. She feels that acutely.

I had to approve her posts for a couple of days. She wanted to know, “Can I post a prayer for Palestine or supporting the children?” She watched everyone in her circle to understand what people were doing and what they were talking about. She said, “Mommy, I don’t know if they’re going to think I’m, God forbid, a Hamas supporter.”

Our children fear speaking their mind. They are trying to understand, “Why are Muslims viewed in this way?” They are feeling more othered than I did growing up.

I don’t want my kids to grow up with anger, to have any, God forbid, racism against other people. My older daughter was worried about one of her friends who was posting about the losses in Israel. She said to me, “She doesn’t seem okay. I’m worried about her. Is it appropriate for me to check on her?” I said, “Of course.”

My daughter said,  “What if she thinks that, because I’m Muslim, maybe I’m not genuine?” I encouraged her to check in, and they had a very nice back-and-forth.

She’s a freshman in college, and she’s part of the Muslim Student Association. A few days after the October 7 attacks, the group wrote “FREE GAZA” with chalk on the ground. She came home to me, and she said, “Mommy, do you think it’s bad that I was with them?” She was worried about how she would be perceived. And I’m going to be very honest with you, I want her to be on the right side of history, but I don’t want her to be perceived as a danger.

I’m picking up on the word radicalized in the media. It’s not lost on me that when Muslims held a rally, our mayor portrayed them as Hamas sympathizers. You don’t want your child to be labeled a Hamas sympathizer. That can ruin your future forever.

“I grimaced. And my daughter turned to me and said, ‘Is it Israel?’”

Rachel Sklar is the mother of an 8-year-old daughter. She lives in Gramercy.

We were waiting to cross the street on the Upper West Side on the evening of October 7. I looked down at my phone, and I saw yet another piece of news about the terrorist attack, and I grimaced. My daughter turned to me and she said, “Is it Israel?”

All day I had been trying to read the news secretly, to keep it to myself. But it turned out she had known about it the whole time and hadn’t said anything. I asked her how she knew about Israel. And she said, “I saw it at the hotel.” She had spent that morning with her dad, who lives out of state but was in town for the night at a hotel. It turns out the TV was on in the room that morning right before they checked out, and she saw the news. Then my daughter asked me: “Is Danielle dead?”

Danielle is a close friend of my daughter who lives in Israel. The girls met at our local playground over the summer, and they really hit it off. It turned out they were renting an apartment in our building, just one flight up. We made a point to see Danielle and her family as much as possible before they returned to Israel at the end of August. Thank God, I had already texted Danielle’s mother earlier that day and heard back, and I was immediately able to tell my daughter that Danielle was safe. Something you should know about me: When I was 17, I had a friend who went on a trip to Israel, and she died — she was killed by a Hamas pipe bomb.

The older your kids get, the more they’re out of your purview — especially once they go to school. When my daughter came home from school over the past week, I asked her what people were saying. She has friends who are Israeli, and we live in a polyglot city. There are kids of various backgrounds around her, and they talk about it in different and 8-year-old ways. She told me that one of her friends said the Israeli army might come to New York. And I was like, that’s not going to happen. And if they do that, you know, Israel is an ally of the United States. And she knows children died. Not because I told her. I think she learned from friends. As parents, we’re called on to answer highly specific things — whatever our kids bring home.

Once I knew my daughter was aware of the attack on Israel, I decided we should listen to The Ten News, a great news podcast for kids that I trust. But I turned it on, and in the first few minutes, there were so many concepts that she didn’t really know. It was “Israel,” “Hamas terrorist group.” And I was like, we have to go back … Let me just Google a map. And so we started with a map of Israel. I wanted to give her more context than I grew up with because what I grew up with is very different from the heightened awareness I have now, that there is injustice to Palestinians. It’s not a binary good versus evil. A horrific, violent thing was done to Jews. But I wanted to distinguish between the people who did it — Hamas — and the Palestinians they claim they did it for.

I made a bit of a misstep on Friday, October 13, when many of us were very worried about a Hamas video circulating that called for protests. There was no credible threat to New York City, but there was an increased police presence in front of my kids’ school, and my DMs and mom text thread were blowing up with Jewish friends freaking out, questioning whether to send their kids that day. The space between feeling fine as a Jew, even in New York City, and feeling nervous, is very short, especially at a time like this. We were all on edge. I said something to my daughter like, “Maybe you shouldn’t go to an after-school program today. Let’s just play it safe.” And she asked, “Why? Why isn’t it safe?” That was the first time she started to seem scared for herself.

We had a vigil for Israel in our neighborhood and my daughter attended with another family, who is Israeli. Going with them allowed her to grasp the solemnity. If she had gone with me, she might have pulled on me or asked me for things or whined. But I watched her from afar, sitting quietly and thinking. She really rose to the occasion and understood.

For the last decade of my professional life, I’ve moved toward pan-social-justice causes. And when you’re involved in the wider movement, a lot of times it’s just easier to not engage on Israel and cross your fingers and hope it doesn’t come up. But this moment forced me … one of the first things I texted a friend was, “I guess someone’s going to Hebrew school soon. My bad.” Because I need help with this.

“I wanted him to have a heightened understanding that all was not right with the world — that it was not the same as it had been on Friday.”

Neve is the mother of a 6-year-old son. She lives in Park Slope.

I’m a Black woman who is a nondenominational Christian, but I went to Israel as part of a fellowship for a philanthropic organization that exposes leaders to Israel, and I’ve met with amazing children in both Israel and Palestine. Before this happened, I had a trip planned to the UAE. I have friends across the Middle East and many friends in Israel. I’ve stayed at a kibbutz.

On Saturday, October 7, as soon as I heard what was happening, I turned on the news — MSNBC and CNN — and kept it on all day. I had it on a loop, and I was crying nonstop — and this was before everything had come out. Had we not had places we needed to be that Sunday, I think I would have sat there watching the news all weekend.

And so, my son definitely saw the news, and he heard the conversations I was having with my husband, and he saw my shock and my emotion, and he wanted to know what was happening. At the time, I said: “There has been a kidnapping. A lot of people have been kidnapped and hurt, and all of their families are just so sad, and I’m so sad for them.” He knows the word kidnapped because when he runs ahead of me on the street, I’ll sometimes say, “Don’t run ahead. You could get kidnapped.” But until this, I don’t think he thought of that as something that could really happen in real life.

As we talked, I wanted him to have a heightened understanding that all was not right with the world — that it was not the same as it had been on Friday. All was right with his direct world at this moment, but these things can change on a dime. And it’s heartbreaking. There was no hiding it. I was not going to hide my emotion and sadness over the state of our world right now. He may have peers who are traumatized by this — I’m traumatized by this — and I wanted him to be able to have age-appropriate discussions with them, if they needed that.

My son has grown up watching the news his whole life. He doesn’t ask to watch the news, but we put it on every evening. I’m a big fan of David Muir, and he watches him with me a lot. It started in the pandemic when I would tune into those Cuomo press briefings like Must-See TV, and continued with George Floyd and seeing Black people die on the news as almost normal programming. I didn’t want to protect him from what was happening because, actually, this is what we’re living through right now. This is reality. In my mind, being shielded from everything does not equip you to be a citizen.

On October 7, we didn’t really end up having a conversation about the war. In fact, I don’t think I’ve used that word with him. But I did say to him, “These types of atrocities have happened throughout history. And this is another atrocity that has happened.” And then I realized that now was the right time to watch a “child-friendly” video about Anne Frank, to show him that kind of perspective. And I found one on YouTube that I really liked, that was really effective.

In the days and weeks since, I’ve stopped having the news on all the time. His school sent out an email saying that kids his age shouldn’t be watching the news, and in truth, I needed to watch less of it for myself too. But we still watch it sometimes. He has seen tanks on TV — he asked me, “Is that the police? Are the police involved?” — and I have used the word bombings. He sees everything as good guys versus bad guys, and he wants to know who the good guys are. It’s a privilege to be able to keep him in a bubble like this, because if this war were not on foreign soil, if it were here, we would not have the luxury of being able to moderate what the conversation is. There are many children his age in the Middle East — and across the globe — who know what war is because they’re literally in it.

I want him to appreciate that you don’t need to be physically in a location to feel the weight of what is happening in that geographic location. I told him, “Do we know the people that were kidnapped? No, but we certainly know how it feels to be sad. And we know what it feels like to be scared.”

The other day we were walking in our neighborhood and we came upon the poster for a 3-year-old hostage named Aviv. He saw me looking at it, and he said, “What happened?” I said to him: “That is one of the children who was kidnapped. She’s only 3.” He acknowledged it. And then we started walking again.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity. Some names have been changed to protect children’s privacy.

How NYC Mothers Talked to Their Kids About Israel-Hamas War