Frustrations and Epiphanies
Our quiet town, with its Victorian houses (many of them kept in good repair by the law firms that have taken them over), its charming signs of civic care and pride, has for some years also been the scene of a performance that I for one find deeply frustrating and troubling.
Every Tuesday, between 5:00 and 7:00 p.m., the main square in town is occupied by men and women holding up large placards that read, in big letters, “Justice for Palestine,” “No to Apartheid” and “No to War.”
The implicit claim here, that Israel practices Apartheid, is a false claim. The “wars” that the placarders oppose are not the ones that have been fought against Israel from its inception to the present. The “injustice” they reproach is not the embezzlement of millions from foreign aid by the Palestinian leadership. Nor is it the indoctrination of little Palestinian children to grow up to be suicide bombers. And it’s certainly not the P.A.’s refusal of a succession of two-state solution peace proposals that Israel has made at high risk to its very survival.
The implications are pretty obvious. In the competition for Biggest, Baddest Actor on the Planet, none save Israel warrants the sacrifices that the placarders have made. They are out there rain or shine, summer and winter. It’s single-minded devotion.
Of course nobody nowadays is anti-semitic. Everybody has at least one Jewish best friend. The motivation is the purest idealism. Nothing anti-Jewish to see here.
Suppose we take our placarders exactly at their word. It is still the case that anti-Judaism is the oldest continuously-playing hatred in recorded history. It’s not that nobody else has been exterminated in the last 40,000 years of homo sapiens sapiens. But Jews refuse to stay dead. So the hatred goes on and on. Nobody imagines that this hatred began in 1948 with the declaration of an independent Jewish state, or that – were Israel to be destroyed as its enemies hope – anti-Judaism would die with it. So there is some moral risk attached to singling out the Jewish state for unequal condemnations.
Where’s the moral risk? Well, a passerby might think that the trespasses of Israel must be worse than the destruction of the Bahai in Iran, of the Laogai in China, of 500,000 civilians in Syria, of the ancient Christian populations of the Middle East, of the Yazidi people … and worse than Hamas’s call in its charter for extermination of all Jews and – need I go on? So the passerby who wants to make sure that the Jews don’t get away with being more awful than all the world’s trespassers combined could be stirred to vandalism or violence.
Anti-semitism is contagious. In 2015, when I first noticed our town’s placarders, I became alarmed. “We must do something!” I urged our then rabbi. “Every day they are there with impunity, right in the town square, increases the toxic effect and its dangers!” Our good rabbi allowed me to be persuasive and we did hold a well-attended public Debate. Israel’s defense was taken up by the Israeli Consul in Philadelphia along with our rabbi. The other side was upheld by two representatives of the local Peace Center.
In the aftermath, I felt deeply relieved. The pro-Israel speakers acquitted themselves admirably, our congregants were well-informed, sturdy and played their parts well. I was sure that our peace-loving friends would see that a strong case could be made in Israel’s defense and – out of fairness – would lay down their one-sided placards.
To my horror, the picketing of the Jewish state continued, quite as if the public Debate had never happened.
What else could we try? Maybe they needed more direct contact with us, so that we could explain face-to-face the impact they were having on their Jewish neighbors? After strenuous efforts, a Dialogue was begun, moderated by a very nice lady from the Peace Center who had professional training in Conflict Resolution. Under the rules she set, participants could give voice to their feelings but must avoid judgments of fact or value. Falsehoods could not be challenged directly. Also, the Dialogues were to be kept confidential.
Meanwhile, the misjudgments of fact and value were still paraded weekly in the town square. I implored the placarders to lay down their signs – at least for the duration of the Dialogues. Smilingly they shook their heads. I was quite an “interesting woman,” one commented.
To keep the steam from coming out of the top of my head, I wrote a column or two about it in “Dear Abbie”. I kept names out of it, but did illustrate the problem, citing an exchange or two between me and a participant. My columns came to the attention of the placarders who judged them an unacceptable breach of confidentiality, and they broke off the Dialogues indignantly.
Okay. I wrecked it, our beautiful Dialogues. What can I tell you?
The picketing continued for a time, more defamatory than ever, but eventually it tapered off. Had other causes become more fashionable? No matter. The toxic waves of public bullying were no longer seeping over our town.
What a relief! Oh, no, wait a minute, not so fast.
The placarders have restarted their weekly “vigils.” Jerry has advised me not to drive by them since they seem to get new energy from the appalled expression on my face. Okay. So I drive on the other street.
But meanwhile this hatred-in-the-name-of-peace-and-love goes forward unopposed. It’s not taking place in a vacuum either. Jewish students and faculty are harassed and intimidated as never before, particularly by “Students for Justice in Palestine,” who were actually trained at summer workshops by the American Friends Service Committee! The most recent FBI statistics show Jews as more frequent victims of hate crimes than any other group. There is no one more French than a French Jew, but the Jews of France are actually fleeing that country in the tens of thousands. In England, even Prince Charles has expressed alarm over the rise in anti-semitism and I am reliably informed that Jews are tending to beg off from dinner invitations, so open and unashamed has social anti-semitism become in England nowadays.
The other night, Jerry and I had dinner with a former U.S. Senator, a man of vast experience, good will and charm. I asked his advice about this problem in our town. He said his grandfather had told him, “If you have an enemy, make friends with him.” In other words, start with the personal relation.
I thought about it. Should I invite the placarders for coffee at 7:00 p.m., after their Tuesday night “vigil”? Is friendship the remedy? But I have had good and dear friends, who knew me well and loved me sincerely, turn anti-semite. It didn’t come from something they read. It was an inner turning.
I thought of Kasim Hafeez, the ex-terrorist who spoke at our temple on April 1st. What had turned him? Alan Dershowitz’s Case for Israel led him to travel to Israel for the purpose of disproving the arguments in that book. By itself, it didn’t change his terrorist purpose. What changed him then?
Standing before the Western Wall, the last remnant of the Second Temple, he saw what others were doing and did the same. Pressing his forehead against the stones, it came to him: Israel is besieged! It’s in danger, surrounded by haters who hope to destroy it! The numbers ranged against it are enormous. It acts in self-defense, to prevent the mass extermination that would happen inevitably otherwise.
In the only other case I know of, where there was the same kind of 180 degree turn, the realization was identical. What’s striking is that in neither case did information become available that wasn’t well-known and obvious before the “realization.” The realization wasn’t the conclusion of a reasoning process. Rather, it was a “discovery” of the obvious.
It was a turning of the spirit.