Dialogues with Local Quakers

William Penn is shown at center with the Delaware Indians at the time of the Treaty of Shackamaxon.  Frieze in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.  Constantino Brumidi, Filippo Costaggini and Allyn Cox.  1859-1877

William Penn is shown at center with the Delaware Indians at the time of the Treaty of Shackamaxon. Frieze in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Constantino Brumidi, Filippo Costaggini and Allyn Cox. 1859-1877

Dialogues with Local Quakers

Since the fall, a small group of Quakers has held what they call a “vigil” once a week in the central square of our small town. They hold up placards that demand “Justice for” or “Freedom for” Palestinians. I haven’t seen the name “Israel” on any of these placards, but it’s clearly an anti-Israel demonstration, if it’s anything.

In practical terms, what difference does this make? For many months, their Jewish, Israel-supportive neighbors have been held up to public condemnation.

Without a hearing.

Without taking testimony from the accused.

By people acting as prosecutors and sentencing judges

at one and the same time.

Not one of these condemners would want to be treated like that personally or see it happen to anyone they cared about. It’s a very model of unfairness. To paraphrase a certain carpenter from the Galilee, how can they support justice for middle easterners whom they haven’t seen when they are unjust to their neighbors whom they have seen?

Aware that testimony that’s uncontroverted is treated as evidential, both in courts of law and in the human psyche, I’ve been minded to stand opposite them with a sign of my own, rain and shine, as long as they stood there. But, to prevent that, my co-religionists practically sat on me, unwilling to see the thing turn into a “spectacle.” One Jewish organization consulted also gave the advice to do nothing, since the placard people were pictured as relishing any resultant publicity.

For myself, I was never quite convinced that they were right, but didn’t want to cause a crack in whatever solidarity we could muster, so I let them talk me out of it.

In schoolyard terms, not to respond to an insult is to lose status and invite further insults in consequence. Not long after the condemners began their vigils, a Jewish family in the county found “Jews Move” scrawled on their garage. Some Quakers who had seen nothing amiss with the vigil showed up on the lawn of their beleaguered Jewish neighbors to express compassion and moral outrage.

I’m not knockin’ that — I do appreciate the gesture — but meantime I was aware that months of insults could well have triggered aggression in some loser in search of a target that looked both

vulnerable and harmless.

After a good deal of effort, negotiation and diplomacy, a small group from my temple is scheduled to have a second get-together with a corresponding Quaker group that includes the “vigil” keepers (or vigilantes, as privately I call them).

Our first meeting, conducted by a rather lovely and lovable Quaker lady trained in “conflict resolution,” was for getting acquainted and sharing good feelings all around. The second one, to take place this week, may be more substantive.

At the get-acquainted meeting, I was paired with an attractive young woman who told me that she is a “vigil” keeper. She looked amazed and shocked when I said that I felt “menaced” and “very hurt” by her vigils. She apologized for having occasioned these reactions in me. I had no sense that she would cease to regard her vigils as anything other than sanctified austerities, like the vigils Galahad might hold before departing in quest of the Holy Grail.

The other day I saw a program on TV, where Alveda King, a niece of Martin Luther King, was one of the interviewees. I’d never seen her before, but after listening a while I thought her quite a bit like her uncle. Questioned about recent civic unrest, she drew a distinction. On “the soul level,” she said, “we are our color, our skin, our resentments” and so on. But there is another, more “elevated” level, which she called “spirit,” where what counts is “the content of our character.”

I thought of the Society of Friends, the beautiful religious movement started in the seventeenth century by George Fox. When his followers came to these shores, they treated the local Indians relatively fairly, for example buying the land from them. (As my uncle, who headed the Jewish National Fund in Mandate Palestine, did from Arab land owners, but without getting William Penn’s good press for it.)

The Friends loved peace. I spent a summer at one of their youth camps and took from their influence a lifelong love of Gandhi, opportunities to hear A.J.Muste, meet Dorothy Day and Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker movement, Bayard Rustin of the War Resisters’ League, and the belief – for a season of my youth – that pure-heartedness was enough.

The world is more complex than that. It includes what a philosopher has called “the coefficient of adversity.” None of us can feel as safe as we used to, behind our wide seas, inherited thought forms and informational isolation. The information bits and the disinformation bits are battering our houses. The complexity is blinding and destabilizing. How shall we shield ourselves? What shall we believe? What shall we do? Is it all our fault?

One simplifying answer would be to flatten the topography of the world so that its boundaries would be described by just two opposing poles:

Oppressor versus Oppressed.

Now simplify the simplication by drawing up an approved list of Oppressed. Those on that list, one will stick up for. The others … go on the other list.

Trouble is, one can be authentically and demonstrably oppressed, yet find oneself on the Oppressor list. By the same token, one can be a real bad oppressor, bubbling with hatred like the inside walls of a live volcano and yet – with the right friends – find oneself on the Oppressed list.

If one wants to be just, or effectively loving, one has to consult the real world, with its contestable claims of fact. Being fair involves trying to discover what is true. That’s a ragged business. But those who get into the ragged business of trying to get to the truth about contested matters — and continuing to try — are the heroes. As the niece of Martin Luther King noted,

there is another, “more elevated” list.

They go on that list.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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