Once upon a time, there was a family, the Isaacs, that lived in a little house. A big bully, from a land far away, came along and threw almost all of the family members out. Some stayed and never left. For many, many years most members of the Isaac family were forced to wander from place to place, often being treated very badly by their neighbors. All the while they yearned for the day they might return to their beloved little house. Alas, they thought this dream could never be achieved.
Finally, much to their surprise and delight, a powerful friend agreed that it was time to make the dream come true. Slowly but surely, with the friend’s help, many in the Isaac family began coming back to the little house to join those who had never left, and, together, they started to decorate it very nicely.
Meanwhile, a new family from the same neighborhood, the Ishmaels, had come to live in the little house — some had been there a long time, others were recent arrivals drawn by the Isaacs’ decorations. But most of them were upset that the Isaac family was moving back in. They had grown to love the little house too, and thought it belonged only to them. After all, it had been such a long time since very many of the Isaac family lived there. They did their best to keep the Isaac family out, but did not succeed.
Feeling justified that they were reclaiming the little house that had been unfairly taken away from them by the bully long ago, more and more members of the Isaac family returned. Immediately, it became clear that the two families just could not live together — did not want to live together. There were too many differences. They spoke different languages. They had different religious practices and customs. And they wanted their own space. The Isaac family, while loving the little house, understood that the Ishmael family needed a place in it as well. On the other hand, the Ishmael family kept hoping that it could take control of the entire little house — never really accepting that the Isaac family also had a right to live in it.
Eventually, the little house was divided, and the Isaac family took one side for itself — Some members of the Ishmael family remained on the Isaacs’ side, but most lived on the other side. Rather than taking ownership of their side, a neighbor became the Ishmaels’ landlord. Years later, that neighbor tried to take the Isaac family’s side too, but, instead, the Isaacs, which by then had grown to be a large and strong family, pushed out the landlord instead and took control over both sides.
The Ishmael family continued to dream about getting the entire little house back. At the same time, with a growing Isaac family now controlling both sides, some of the Isaacs decided to move from their side into the Ishmaels’ side. Living almost on top of one another in such a little house, the two families kept fighting over and over again. It was a very bad situation.
Then one day a wise man came along and said to heads of the two families, "it’s time to end this fighting once and for all. It’s clear, he said, that both your families are deeply connected to and love this little house, but you cannot and do not want to live together. You both have a lot of pain and anger. Therefore, there is only one solution. Each family must be given its own side."
To the Ishmael family, he said, "you don’t have to like it, but please understand this. While away for a very long time, the Isaac family has a deep bond with this little house and loves it no less than you. Unless you start explaining that to your children, one day they may be tempted to try to take over both sides. That’s exactly what the Isaac family is afraid of. You have to reassure them, with words and deeds, that you understand and respect their attachment."
To the Isaac family, he said, "you have done wonderful things on your side. And it’s great that you accept the Ishmael family’s right to live on the other side. But please understand that unless the Ishmael family is given comfortable enough space on their side, they will never be truly happy. So it is in your interest, since you are in control of the entire house right now, to make sure adequate space is preserved for a growing family. You probably will need to draw a separation line that takes into account those members of your family who moved into the other side. But remember, Isaac family, it is in your interest for the Ishmael family to feel it got a fair share of the little house too."
The wise man looked into the eyes of the two families’ leaders and said, "I can’t make you do these things. But if you want the terrible suffering to stop; if you want your children and grandchildren to be able to live peacefully in this little house for generations to come, I urge you to take the steps I have suggested, to sit together and work it out."
"It’s up to you," he said walking away, "it’s all up to you."
Martin J. Raffel is senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs