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Beyond a Place of Wrath and Tears

 

Why persist in the belief that "ordinary" people could not possibly sanction, let alone partake in wholesale human slaughter? The historical record, from ancient times to the present, amply testifies to the ease with which people can extinguish the lives of others, and even take joy in their deaths.


― Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust"

 

 

 

 

This week, the Jewish Community Center Safety Committee in New Paltz invited the Chief of Police to talk about the potential for antisemitic incidents at the synagogue. "What kind of situation would lead to stationing police at the Synagogue and Community Center?" the email invitation to the congregation asked. Though I am not a member of this congregation, I receive their emails, and this one gave me pause. Soon after the antisemitic terrorist attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018 in which eleven people were killed and six wounded, I received a phone call from a woman who lives and works in New Paltz. She knew I was a journalist and wanted to show me an antisemitic screed she had found in the wastepaper basket at the Town Hall. I asked if she had taken it to the police; she had not. Afraid to lose her job, she asked if I would "report" it. By this she meant report it in the local newspaper I write for occasionally. Instead, I made an appointment to see Chief Lucchesi and asked a member of the Jewish Community Center to come with me

 

The Chief was both knowledgeable and reassuring. He assigned a detective who determined that the screed had been faxed from an unknown location and was not local in origin. Soon after this visit the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh shootings was caught.

 

For most of my life, I have been spared the fear and rage that my Israeli cousins and Palestinian friends experience every day. Indeed, I always told my refugee parents that I was thankful they had landed in America rather than on a sliver of contested Biblical land inhabited by deranged warring societies. Edward Said, The Palestinian American academic, called the efforts  to "fix" the Israel/Palestine "problem" akin to "shaking peanuts in a jar," one peace "accord" after another broken by intractable hatreds.   

 

We are now witnessing a horrific, pulverizing, uncivilized war in the Middle East, instigated by Hamas, perpetrated by Hamas and its handlers, but continued with little respite by a vengeful, dangerous right wing Israeli government that has broken every international humanitarian law ever codified—in  its own "settlements," in the West Bank where there has been detention without trial for decades, and now in Gaza. It should be no surprise to any Jew in the American diaspora that some of the uptick in antisemitism—on social media, on the streets, and on the college campuses—is  a reaction to this war. As I write, it has only worsened, despite the release of hostages.

 

Years ago, I was asked by a German magazine to interview Daniel Goldhagen, a Harvard professor, who had just published Hitler's Willing Executioners; Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust which I have quoted above. Reading this quote again today, it seems more applicable to the Israeli government than to contemporary Germans who have worked ceaselessly to confront their history, and atone for it. So here's my prayer for this holiday season:  May the next Israeli and Palestinian generation feel secure enough to do the same. May the children of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank survive this war and live in peace. May they not dishonor their souls with hatred.

 

 

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Let The Good Times Roll

Kyiv on a winter's night in 2022. © copyright Peter Zalmayev

 

I am a prayer of smoke wandering the broken houses, the littered ground looking for a white flag of reason…

 

-from "I Am a Prayer," by Joy Harjo,

 

23rd United States Poet Laureate

 

 

 

I hesitate to use the plural pronoun here, to extrapolate from my own experience; I'll just speak for myself as witness, participant, peripheral observer, narrator, protagonist. But I'm also a journalist and have gathered stories, not evidence, but stories. Therefore, I make no claim to knowledge beyond my own experience and reporting. I offer no solution. But the sense of loss, real and metaphoric, is profound. I had hoped, as have so many, that the world would be at peace in my lifetime.

 

Is there anyone you know, dear reader, who has not been touched by the conflagrations in Ukraine and the Middle East. Is there anyone you know who does not have an opinion about these wars, about what should and should not be done?

 

Speaking for myself, then, and only for myself, as a child of war, there's a sense that I've lost –not everything, but far too much. This loss, or confusion, surfaces in dreams which have intensified since I realized I knew someone—Peter Zalmayev—in  Kyiv and intensified again after the massacre in Israel on October 7. I have cousins in Israel and an acquaintance, a young artist—Malak  Mattar—from  Gaza. I follow her on Facebook and connect with her on FB Messenger. Meanwhile, here in the United States, I received a request from a once dear  Palestinian friend to remove him from my blog blast. I do not think he wrote it as it seemed to be copied and pasted from a printed document, but it is eloquent nonetheless:

 

How can you explain that you are no longer fit for superficial daily conversation, and that you are so drained that you need some solitude in order to repair what the war destroyed within you.

 

A simple reply from me: I understand.

 

An email to one of my Israeli cousins was answered almost immediately. He is in New York on sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, his son is in the IDF reserves and has been called up, and that was it. Two sentences. No plans to get together as yet, no reply to a follow-up email, no What's App conversation. Solitude heals. Solitude protects.

 

In the past, therapists have asked me, "What do you feel as you awaken from the dream? Describe the sensation, describe the emotion."  And if I were asked to reply this week, I'd say, "Incomparable loss, irrefutable loss, isn't it obvious?"

 

Lord Byron might have called this dream image of nothingness ahead, white as a sun-spattered cloud—death awaiting. There is no grounding in that image, no ledge on which to sit and watch the sky or sea. The only antidote to such a free fall dream is to weight myself in hiking boots and march full throttle into the mountains away from war, and then to stay connected to those in war zones with messages and interviews and articles, to give them voice in my blog posts and articles.

 

I'm reminded of the days following 9/11. I was in the city and had to force myself back onto the subway to teach after roaming for weeks on foot. Long past the Civil War, with no warfare in North America, most Americans can't imagine war, or famine or terrible contagious disease, or the kind of poverty that grinds and breaks a family open with fear. We—and I'll use the plural pronoun here—we Americans, are eager to let the good times roll. If the dreams become too portentous, we push them aside; we don't admit to having such dreams.

 

Even though I've got food, shelter, work, a significant other, and objectively can't complain, or mustn't complain, I sometimes judge a friend who's just been to Telluride on a skiing holiday, or another who's boarded a plane to run a marathon in Florida, or another who's been to Spain and toured around as though these wars never happened and life is as it was—for  them—joyous and everlasting.

 

This post is dedicated to the Israeli and Palestinian people. May they find a lasting way to peace and reconciliation.

 

 

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Why I Write to (Living) Writers

     I realized it was about the section of the book that's about my mother's suicide, where she killed herself in a bathtub. ..There's nothing there that could possibly titillate. Even if you're a sadist, you wouldn't go to that one for the picture, to see a dead body. And so I was offended just like they were, but I was offended by describing a naked corpse as a nude woman.

 

-Art Spiegelman in conversation with Lisa Tolin, Editorial Director of PEN America after the banning of "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic memoir.

 

 

 

I've been facilitating a Banned Book Club at a local library, one book a month since September, and though it has been poorly attended, it's been good for me, a reminder that books matter and so do writers in a free society.  And as I am a writer in this free society, I figure I matter too, as do all readers, and all three libraries I belong to in the Mid-Hudson Valley; I've taught writing workshops in two of them. A beacon of civilization, may all libraries everywhere on Planet Earth prosper forever. May we #standupforlibraries  and #standupforwriters no matter the pressures brought upon us.

 

I am a long-standing member of the Authors Guild, PEN America and International PEN, all organizations working to staunch the book banners disruptive rhetoric and fascistic actions, to protect the authors of the books thus banned, and internationally, to free incarcerated writers all over the world. I think of this struggle as both personal and political, and hope, dear reader, that you will also. As Joyce Vance so eloquently said in a recent Substack newsletter, we cannot rest, it is a moral imperative not to rest. She signs her newsletters "in this together."

 

I began the process of choosing the banned books for the club last summer and read about twenty of the 1,000 plus on American PEN's list. One book a month seemed a very small sampling, but it was an important gesture,  and Nicole Lane, the librarian at the Gardiner Library, agreed to put the Banned Book Club on the  library's calendar of events. She even published a "manifesto" that she distributed to the library's members. It reads, in part: "Individuals should be trusted to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. Further, parents should not be making decisions for other parents' children about what they read. We are united against book bans."

 

My syllabus included a similar manifesto, which reads in part: "Book banning impacts the education of our children and the livelihoods and reputations of authors, illustrators, and other creators. It corrodes the trust, civility and freedoms we must sustain in a working democracy."

 

Four Thursdays @ 6:30 p.m.

 

September 14: Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

October 12: Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness

November 9; Art Spiegelman, Maus

December 14: George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue

 

Of these four writers, three are living writers. I decided to write to all of them to bolster their courage and determination, and my own. I told them I'd assigned their books, that their books are worthy of assigning.

 

Writing to thank (living) writers I admire is a practice I began many years ago. I contact them through their website, publisher, agent, or Facebook page. More often than not, I receive a reply, sometimes formulaic, sometimes personal. And if a book has been banned this "right action," as the Buddhists  call it, has its own reward; it's a contribution to the struggle against the persecution of writers and their work.


                                                                      

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A Brief Incomplete History of Aerial Bombing

The fashionable Ginza neighborhood in Tokyo pulverized by American bombs on March 9-10, 1945. All bombed-out neighborhoods look the same from the bombardier's POV. S/he can't see the people down there.

 

The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish.

 

-J. Robert Oppenheimer

 

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron."

 

-Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

Before unleashing the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans fire-bombed Tokyo. It was March 9-10, 1945 and my cousin, Fritzi Burger Nishikawa, was living just outside Tokyo with her husband, Shinichi and son, Yoshi, in what was considered a "safe" zone near the pearl farms of their Mikimoto relatives. In 1999 I outed her as a collaborator in my memoir, Searching for Fritzi. An Olympic silver medalist, she had entertained the German and Japanese High Command with her ice dancing throughout the war years, and had done nothing to save her family—my  family—most  of whom were killed in the Nazi death camps.

 

The images of bombed-out buildings and bodies in shrouds and body bags in Israel, Gaza and Ukraine, brought back a memory of those long-ago bombings, and the civilian deaths in Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When is such bombing "justified?" When is "collateral damage" acceptable? With or without a nuclear conflagration, body counts are high after bombing. A conservative estimate is 80,000 deaths in Tokyo alone.  It's a crude tool of warfare despite modern technology to improve "targeting." There are children down there. Think of  all the movies you've seen of London during the Blitz.

 

It is my hope that the moral questions raised by even targeted bombing will plague us after the current wars are over and inspire conferences, seminars, some sort of international détente. But I dream. Many of the IDF soldiers in "the strip," as it is so charmingly referred to now, will return to civilian life, maybe even to renewed and more vociferous demonstrations against the right-wing Israeli government. Many will have nightmares as well as memories of heroism and historical necessity.  Many will  undoubtedly have regrets. Many will have to serve in the occupation of Gaza; occupation never goes well long-term. Think of the West Bank. Remember the intifadas, tame compared to the massacre of October 7.  Vengeance, massacres, occupation, refugees, displaced persons, suffering morphed into rage.

 

Soon after I  published Searching for Fritzi, I received an email from Mike Ramsey, a soldier in General MacArthur's occupying army in Japan. He was sent to Tokyo about fifteen months after the occupation began, one of two thousand soldiers managing the day-to-day needs of the army and the rebirth of a "democratic" Japan. There wasn't much left of Tokyo and there won't be much left of Gaza when the Israelis are done either. As for the hostages, praying for them may make us feel righteous, but it won't save them. Wild guess: they are in the tunnels underneath the hospital that is under siege as I write.

 

Most Americans can only imagine what it must be like to try to survive in a pulverized landscape. Residents of New York during 9/11 may have some idea, but even this tragic event does not compare in most significant respects, including the scale of destruction. When Warrant Officer Mike Ramsey arrived in Tokyo there were  beggars everywhere and very little shelter. The American soldiers and their Japanese employees did not starve, however. Food was flown in and the American PX was well stocked at all times.

 

Mike's official title was Medical Inspector but like other soldiers in MacArthur's army, he had authority when he was out in the field, beyond his specified duties, and beyond his assigned rank. If MacArthur was the American emperor, Mike and his fellow officers were MacArthur's viceroys. Free-floating oversight was encouraged. If Mike didn't like something he saw, he made  a report to his commanding officer. He could even call the MP's to make an arrest. Few complained about this undemocratic arrangement  at the time, least of all Members of Congress, the defeated Japanese people, or the bankrupted Allied Powers who were relieved America was taking on the job of reconstructing Japan. Who will reconstruct Gaza after the war with Hamas is already under discussion, and it's a contentious one, less so the discussions about Ukraine. Wars and post-war reconstruction are economic windfalls.

 

***

 

Mike's assigned task was to make sure the water supply in the city was sanitary and the buildings habitable. Electricity and much else was on strict ration and when Mike went around in a jeep with his Japanese driver/translator he made sure no one was cheating. The translator, Chui, was a former officer in the Imperial Army, wearing a haisen fuku—a "defeat suit," stripped of its insignia.  

 

It was a beautiful late afternoon when the two men set out for a hospital. There had been reports that the building was collapsing, and Mike was instructed to verify and recommend. It was a desolate part of the city where they were headed, far away from General Headquarters which was in the once fashionable part of town. Many of the buildings there had been left standing after the bombings. Elsewhere, some construction was going on, but not much.  The infrastructure of the city had to be stabilized first.

Mike spotted a strange light up ahead. It seemed unnatural, almost surreal, so he detoured towards it. The translator pointed to a partially bombed-out brick structure but did not reply when Mike asked what it was. As they drew closer, the vista beyond the brick looked flat and white. Incredibly, it was a good-sized ice rink and swirling around at the center in a graceful pirouette, there was a lone figure in a dark ice-dancing dress, the bottom flared out in a spin just above her knees.

 

Mike was more than perplexed, he was dumbfounded. It was summer, temperature in the mid-70's and humid, the ice of questionable consistency, and the rink was not an "approved installation." That meant someone was using rationed electricity which gave Mike "probable cause" to ask some questions. Who was this woman for goodness sake? Even from a distance she didn't look Japanese. She was short, true, but her hair was blond. More importantly, she looked robust. Clearly, despite the famine, she was eating well. How else would she have had the energy to skate?

 

Mike and the translator alighted from the jeep, stood at the barrier looking into the oasis of ice and beckoned, then shouted, to the woman. Slowly, she drifted over.

Mike's first impression was not complimentary. With her blond hair, blue eyes, and European features, this woman could only be a "Fraulein," the wife or girlfriend of a soldier or engineer sent to Japan to share technology and weapons. Surely the soldier or engineer was already in custody, perhaps returned to Germany for war crimes interrogation. Or—hypothesis  again—he might have been hiding out and only recently arrested, his wife or girlfriend left to fare on her own. Recently, Mike and his buddies had liberated a holiday cabin on Mt. Fuji decorated with alpine scenes. A young Fraulein had appeared during their visit and asked to collect her belongings. They allowed her this privilege, but also questioned her before letting her go. There was enough to do without holding someone who would be of no use to them.

 

His mind clicking over with all the possibilities, Mike said, in English: "Fraulein, who the hell are you?"

 

He purposely did not speak in German at first, though this would have been easy for him. He wanted the message to be: I am a representative of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and you must obey my orders.

 

The woman clearly understood what Mike had said, but remained mute. When he spoke in German, however, she looked alarmed. Then she turned towards the translator and stared knowingly at him, waiting for him to speak. What was going on? Mike had no idea but he asked the translator to tell him. "And that's an order," he said impatiently. Reluctantly, it seemed, the translator said, "Mikimoto," but that was all.

 

          "Mikimoto pearls?"

          "Yes. She's married to Nishikawa and Mikimoto is his grandfather."    

    

 The pearls were valuable commodities, easily transportable, and there was concern in the early days of the occupation that they would find their way onto the black market. Memorandums went out to all occupation personnel alerting then to this possibility. New regulations had made it clear that all pearls could only be bought and sold through the newly-established Army Exchange Service.  Proceeds of all sales were used as reparations.

 

"She's an Olympic ice skating champion," the translator continued and then, in Japanese, he asked the little Fraulein to identify herself to the American officer. Finally, she did so—in  fluent, impeccable Japanese.

 

Back at General Headquarters, Mike reported the incident to Lt. Colonel Schellenberger, his commanding officer, and was told to leave the matter alone, he knew who the woman was, and would take care of it. Mike was a bit annoyed. Why was this Fraulein on the loose ? He felt like a fool when he recalled what he had said to her: "You'll be hearing from us."  Obviously, this wasn't going to happen.

 

Fritzi Burger survived. She eventually divorced Nishikawa and married an American who worked for Citibank in Tokyo. They probably met at her tennis club. I found Fritzi living in Gorham, Me. with her new husband  as I was researching my book. When I asked her about the fire-bombing of Tokyo she was insouciant and said it hadn't changed her life at all.  

 

Dedicated to all veterans including my husband, Jim, who served in the 7th Fleet out of Treasure Island, SF.

      

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Only Connect

photo © copyright Carol Bergman

The sign says, "Arms are for Hugging."

 

My daughter and husband on a peace march in Central Park, too many years ago.

 

                                 

 

Our ability to connect with others is innate, wired into our nervous systems, and we need connection as much as we need physical nourishment.

 

― Sharon Salzberg, "Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection"

 

The anguish of the earth absolves our eyes

Till beauty shines in all that we can see.

War is our scourge; yet war has made us wise,

And, fighting for our freedom, we are free.

 

-From "Absolution" by Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

 

 

I thought I was taking a break from the horrifying spectacle of our living room wars in the Middle East, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh. I immersed myself in a Miranda Seymour biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell, a pacifist during World War I, doyen of the Bloomsbury community. She was an inspiring activist, and I required inspiration last week. Biographies of artists and writers are my favorite genre when I am trying to recover and rest. And there  are so many inspiring, emancipated, brave people. Some are living, some are dead, some are famous, some infamous, some ordinary in the sense that I meet them in my daily life and am astounded by their good sense and goodness, fortitude, courage, and wisdom. They may be subjects of an interview for the local paper I write for occasionally, or they may be someone I meet in the locker room at the pool, or at one of the cafés I frequent, or standing in a long line at the supermarket, or they may be one of my students.

 

Everyone is struggling in one way or another, it seems to me, we have all been through so much these past few years, and it is best to be kind to everyone, kind and patient, interested and non-judgmental. How difficult it is to remain kind in these polarized angry times, so much of the world at war, and warring among ourselves. So, I am taking a deep breath this week and reminding myself to talk less and listen more. With years of interviewing experience, I sense when a stranger has a story, or is bursting with story. They may begin by commenting on the weather, or what they have chosen to eat or—as  happened this morning—the  shade of lipstick I am wearing. I had mixed two shades, in fact, I explained to a 50-something woman I met in the laundromat. Her name was  unusual—I won't divulge it here without her permission—and  she was soft-spoken, and hurting. She'd recently lost a son to Fentanyl, had just recovered from a ten-day bout with Covid, and she'd lost her job. Her plight, her desire and need to connect through her story, was as worthy of my attention as the soldiers in the trenches. And so I paid attention:

 

She has always wanted to write; she has always kept journals. Her husband is disapproving, even a bit denigrating of her ambition. "If you are keeping journals, you are writing," I said, "You are a writer." Then I gave her my card and asked her to stay in touch.

 

I came home to the news that an artist from Gaza is safe in London and posting on FB from there, but that she can't get in touch with her family. I came home to the news that an Atlantic reporter I admire has interviewed a water engineer in Gaza and that we can hear his voice on a podcast and that he is sick and exhausted. I came home to the news that an Israeli friend in England has been to a vigil for the hostages, and that another has been to a vigil for all the children in Israel and Gaza. And I came home to a warm apartment with running water and food in the fridge as the wars rage on. I came home to write this post.

 

Dedicated to the writers and artists at risk in all the war zones on earth, and to all the children in war zones.

 

 

 

 

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And They Will No Longer Study Warfare...

"Doves of Peace," by Malak Mattar who grew up in Gaza, with permission.

https://www.etsy.com/shop/MalakArtStore   

 

They shall beat their  swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not lift sword against nation and they will no longer study warfare.

 

-Isaiah 2:4

 

An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive, abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others."

 

― Bryan Stevenson, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption"

 

 

 

A child of war, I had never experienced an act of war until 9/11. I did not lose anyone close to me that day, but have friends, students and colleagues who barely survived. I know one or two people who signed up to become soldiers, to fight "for our country." Swords into ploughshares: one soldier eventually became a relief worker in Afghanistan during America's 20-year occupation, another disappeared into refugee camp in Chad as a medic and surfaced in Tunisia ten years later. I have Israeli cousins who refused to fight Palestinians and ended up in jail as conscientious objectors, others who are proud IDF warriors. I have Palestinian friends whose families were deracinated during the Nakba and are so bitter and distraught right now they have asked me to remove them from my blog blasts. "I cannot read what you write," one said, which is more a lament than a reason. 

 

We are all afflicted and conflicted, we are all in pain. 

 

I have been collecting quotes about war, peace, reconciliation justice and disarmament for a very long time. I pulled up a couple of them for this post in an effort to focus my thoughts this week which seem to be running with the wind and the falling leaves, a wild language only a Lenape can track and decipher, but they too are displaced. Because of all the rain this summer, it's not a brilliant autumn here; there are very few oranges and reds. The leaves turn yellow, then slightly orange, then brown, and fall. That seems the perfect metaphor for the war fever in the Middle East and the ongoing catastrophe in Ukraine with its ever increasing body count: what once was vivid and potent with life, has been destroyed by human stupidity and callous disregard, or been forced into violent self-defense and then offense, an unintended consequence of patriotism and nation building.

 

I am not sure if I am a Pacifist, with a capital P, or if I would take up arms against an oppressor, or if I would have the strength of a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King Jr. to lay my body down in the path of a tank. I don't think anyone can predict what they would do in a reign of terror. And I am sitting in a comfortable room in upstate New York where  there are no bombs, no soldiers, no air raid sirens,  and there is food in my refrigerator and water flowing out of the tap. So I can only offer my thoughts here today, and my feelings: I am utterly sickened by these wars. I am heartbroken.

 

#ceasefirenow

 

Vengeance, whatever its justification or cause, is a wrecking ball. The soldiers go off to war wrapped in their flags. The arms dealers and manufacturers continue to amass their fortunes. Diplomats in heavily curtained rooms speak in tongues, seemingly impotent to stop the war fever.

 

"Rules of war?" That's an oxymoron. Why even pretend that there are rules of war? Or try to enforce them?  

 

We are not dumb, we are not living in caves. We can see and hear and feel the government officials and diplomats who speak sense, and those who resort to platitudes and lies.    

 

#ceasefirenow

 

This post is dedicated to the innocent civilians in Ukraine, Israel, and Palestine. And to those who fight for peace, the only war worth fighting. 

 

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A Maze of Sorrows

 

As these squalls to which we have been subjected are signs that the weather will soon improve and things will go well for us, because it is not possible for the evil or the good to last forever, and so it follows that as evil has lasted for a long time, good must now be close at hand…

 

-Miguel de Cervantes, "Don Quixote,"  1605

 

As a major in the reserves, it is important to me to make it clear that in this already unstoppable new war, we cannot allow the massacre of innocent Israelis to result in the massacre of innocent Palestinians… Palestinians and Israelis must denounce the extremists who are driven by religious fanaticism.

 

-Nir Avishai Cohen, NY Times 10/13/23

 

 

This is, in small part, a story about one writer, a child of Holocaust survivors, struggling to navigate the shoals of biblical hatred, fear, rampage and retribution. She is neither Palestinian, nor is she Israeli; she is an American. And yet her Israeli and Palestinian friends insist she write about their "side" of the story, without context, without history, without opinion. She has felt her friends' impatience and coercion in the midst of their despair, pain and fear. She has been threatened, she has been unfriended.

 

A maze is not a labyrinth, though I have confused them often. A labyrinth is a continuous spiral with beginning and end. There is entrance and there is escape. A maze, on the other hand, has insurmountable obstacles that must be demolished or overcome to escape.  Because the sweetness of life, however fleeting, has been obliterated in both Israel and Palestine, the sorrow I feel is a maze.

 

As many of you know, I compiled and edited a book of stories by international humanitarian relief workers. I am still in touch with some of the contributors to that anthology. When war or natural disaster strikes, they are on the ground trying to save lives. In those dire moments their country of origin, ethnicity, and religion is irrelevant as they work together. They remain my model and my hope.

 

One of the most prominent organizations is the International Rescue Committee. They sent out this message after the rampage by Hamas and the Israeli siege of Gaza:

 

We are dismayed by the dramatic escalation of violence in Israel and Gaza this weekend and mourn the lives lost. We are currently assessing the situation on the ground and the IRC's capacity to ensure critical, life-saving humanitarian relief reaches affected civilians. The IRC calls on all parties to uphold their obligations under International Humanitarian Law and ensure humanitarian access to those affected.

 

 

1/  I stand with international humanitarian law and humanitarian corridors.

2/ I stand against all atrocity, persecution, and senseless killing.

3/ I stand with Palestinian children and Israeli children.

4/ I stand with the Israeli demonstrators who once out of uniform will continue their struggle. May the soldiers return unharmed or permanently scarred by battle—physically and psychologically-- so that they can create a modern, inclusive Israel and accept the reality of a Palestinian homeland.

5/ I stand with the peaceful residents of Gaza. May they survive the Israeli onslaught and live in peace. May the Hamas fanatics retreat to their caves and tunnels, and stay there, never to surface again. May all the hostages  return home safely.

6/ I stand with the freedom to write what I feel, experience and observe.

 

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Pretend You Are a Refugee

 Photographer and/or artist unknown.

 

 

 

Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil…

 

  -from the St. James Bible, "Exodus"

 

… a conference was convened at The Hague in 1899. Twenty European powers attended  along with the United States, Mexico, Japan, China. Siam  and Persia. The Russian proposals for freezing armament levels were defeated, but the convention did agree on rules of warfare and established a permanent court of arbitration… the International Court of Justice…

 

-Robert K. Massie, "Nicholas and Alexandra"(1967)

 

 

The refugee agency sent my parents to Wyoming. They were doctors and could use their skill to find work, they were told. They had no choice. Refugees rarely have choices. Not at first, anyway, not just after they've landed and been shuttled somewhere or other. Pretend. Imagine what it feels like to be at the mercy of broken systems, callous border guards, and opportunistic Governors running for President.

 

My mother got a job as a nurse's aide, studied English, and tried to get visas for her parents. No luck; they were killed. My father got a job as a "ghost doctor," shadowing ophthalmic surgeons and sharing his particular expertise in still fractured English. The Latin medical words were the same, at least. He tried to get visas for his parents. No luck; they were killed. Meanwhile, the refugee agency scattered his siblings. One of them landed in Canada, another in California. Close enough to stay in contact over the years  so that the word "family" still held meaning. My mother, an only child, had a cousin or two left, but everyone else was killed.

 

And so it goes if you are a refugee. What has been taken violently shall not, cannot be replaced. Every reparation, restitution, or truth and reconciliation commission, is inadequate, a mere gesture, a token, however comforting. The past is past and cannot be retrieved or rewritten. Life may begin in an olive orchard and end in a tent city.

 

On bad days I try to remember how fortunate I am to have American citizenship despite the scary fascistic insanity here at the moment. And if I can't face my daily challenges, I say to myself, "Think of your parents. Think of the Afghans, Armenians, Palestinians, and so many others. Pretend you are a refugee."  How does this help? It keeps me humble. It keeps me hopeful. It keeps me determined. The United States of America was once a safe haven. And so it shall remain, I say to myself.

 

Why am I pretending to be a refugee today? Because it's been a challenging day and I am feeling sorry for myself. My car needs new tires, it has sprung a leak and needs to go into the shop today and then again on Monday. I had to drop it off early this morning and walk home under a thunder-threatening sky on a road too busy with traffic. And it was foggy. Okay so I am tired and have work to do, my knees hurt and I am not supposed to walk too much this week. Big deal. Get on with it. Stop complaining. Pretend you are a refugee. Your problems are nothing compared to the refugees who are drowning off boats in the Mediterranean, or cowering inside containers at Le Havre, getting caught and thrown into cells, treated like cattle until they feel so dehumanized and frightened they can hardly answer questions: "Where are you from? Why are you here? Where are your papers?" 

 

My father's parents were killed en route to America, the promised land, shot dead in the mountains, their bodies left for the coyotes. Using their life savings, they had hired a human coyote, in fact, and he didn't make it either. All dead in the mountains. My grandparents' bones are in a crevasse and cannot be retrieved for a proper burial.

 

And so it goes if you are a refugee, trying to escape a war zone, or persecution because of your sexuality, or because you are a young woman living in Iran threatened with imprisonment after getting arrested during a demonstration, or because you are a Palestinian and have grown up in a refugee camp in Jordan and cannot return to what should be a shared homeland with the Jewish People if the words peace and reconciliation meant anything.

 

Pretend you are a refugee, just for an hour, just for a day. And then get out the vote for people who are competent, people who care, politicians who see beyond our borders to the world beyond and all its struggling people.

 

This post is dedicated to Narges Mohammadi, winner of the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize, who is still imprisoned in Iran. Her husband and twin sons are refugees in Paris.

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The Buck Stops Here

Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.

 

-from the Bhagavad Gita as quoted by Robert Oppenheimer who turned 

to Hinduism after the first detonation of an atomic bomb at Los Alamos on July 16, 1945. He regretted ever after not walking away from the "experiment."

  

I had a conversation this week with John and Johnnie as they were emptying the  refuse dumpster into their massive truck.  All through the summer they'd been leaving a mess and I'd spotted a rat more than once rummaging in the odiferous scraps. Johnnie—spelled with an ie he told me—was the boss, a handsome Black guy with a white goatee and an outgoing persona; John was his slim, quiet much younger white sidekick. They pulled out the dumpster as I stood and watched. There was plenty of garbage underneath left from the last pick-up. "Any way you can clean up that mess?" I asked.

 

"We got you that new dumpster," Johnnie said, defensively, trying to save face maybe?

 

"Right, the animals were getting into the old one. The lid was bent. Thanks for replacing it. BTW I'm just a tenant here."

 

"But you reside here," emphasis on the reside, a preacher's intonation, trying to impress or just a bit flirtatious, fine with me at my age. But we both knew that my residency had nothing to do with the garbage John and Johnnie had been leaving behind. Slim John looked at me sweetly and pulled out a shovel. In two minutes the underside of the dumpster was spotless.

 

"Glad you've got a shovel on board. Much appreciate it, John," I said.

 

That's when I noticed the gold or gold plated medallion hanging on Johnnie's orange sweatshirt. I could see what it was but asked anyway.

 

"That's Jesus," Johnnie said. "You believe in Jesus?  You pray to Jesus? He's going to watch as the world ends and then maybe save us, if we believe, if we pray," he said.

 

"Or maybe it is for us to save ourselves, be good to each other, do the right thing, like you are doing today," I said.

 

But my conversation with Johnnie was not over. He was a performer,  par excellence. Slowly, he pulled his hands over his face and added narration: "Skin and bone melting, contorted bodies collapsing into the desert dust. Sound familiar?"

 

"The nuclear apocalypse," I said.

 

"Exactly," he said. "All predicted in the 'Book of Revelations.' God watches as we destroy ourselves."

 

"We do it to ourselves. I couldn't agree more," I said, relieved that we'd had what I'd read the diplomats call "a meeting of hearts and minds," however fleeting and imperfect. Then he invited me to his church to sing and pray—John  is a member too, he said.

 

"I'm a non-believer," I told him. "I don't believe that prayer will help stop war though I accept all blessings. Did you bless me?"

 

"Not yet," Johnnie said, "but I was planning to."

 

There wasn't any time to ask these guys if they were registered to vote, which is what I usually do with strangers I encounter, young people especially. Maybe Johnnie was old enough to make up his own mind and it was none of my business if he voted or not.  Or, maybe I dreaded the answer, so I just ended the conversation with, "A pleasure talking. Thanks for your hard work. Have a good rest of the day."

 

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The Persecuting Spirit

 

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.

 

-Joseph Brodsky

 

 

 

We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little crazy children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!

 

― Arthur Miller, "The Crucible: A Play in Four Acts"

 

South Carolina English teacher Mary Rose Wood has gone through an ordeal that's sadly familiar to many high school teachers, college professors, librarians, and school administrators: she is being attacked for a book she assigned for her AP English class, for the stimulating open discussions she's facilitating in the classroom, and for her continuing, forceful insistence that her well-practiced pedagogy works; her students do well.

 

Ms. Wood teaches at Chapin High School in Chapin, South Carolina, a nearly all-white school. She assigned Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a nonfiction book about the Black experience in the United States. 

 

After a complaint from a student, District officials ordered Ms. Woods to stop teaching Coates' book which has been the target of censorship campaigns across the country. In other words, along with hundreds of other books of note, Between the World and Me has been banned.

 

Transcripts from a Lexington-Richland 5 School Board meeting  obtained by a reporter reveal that school officials were worried that Ms. Wood's choice of Ta-Nehisi's book might be a violation of new state laws preventing schools from using state money to assign a book that might make students feel "discomfort, guilt, or anguish" because of their race. South Carolina is one of five states where book bans have been the most prevalent, alongside Texas, Florida, Missouri, and Utah. Chapin, South Carolina is in Lexington County which has a vocal, well organized Moms for Liberty chapter that has backed school board members among other officials. They recently published a "campaign package" for inexperienced moms who want to run for elected positions. 

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, to his everlasting credit, traveled to South Carolina to  attend the School Board meeting, and sat next to Woods for support. Though neither of them spoke, their presence was a defiant presence. It is not clear if they were asked to speak, or refused to speak. Ms. Woods is still teaching the book and speaking openly to the press about the attempt at censoring her and the books she chooses to teach. Kudos to her! 

 

If this sad saga seems insane, it is. The attacks were angry and threatening, targeted at Ms. Wood's and Mr. Coates' personhood more than their professionalism. The targeting is very familiar to me: I was denounced and reported to administration by a student during my student teaching days in a gerrymandered school district in Oakland, California, and again more recently at New York University where I taught nonfiction writing for more than two decades.

 

I wasn't the only professor in the city, or the country, experiencing persecution by militant students on the left and the right in 2020 and 2021. I knew of at least two others—one at Columbia University, one at City University of New York. We all had been demonized by a student mob who reported on social media that we'd been misguided or culturally or gender insensitive, among other defaming slurs, then pilloried in front of a kangaroo –academic – tribunal, terminated and/or shunned by frightened colleagues. I was grateful, at least, that in higher education there are no angry parents to contend with, or young students complaining to their parents, or incited by their parents.

 

When did students acquire so much power? Where are the adults in the room? Why didn't the South Carolina Education Association(the South Carolina teachers' union, affiliated with the National Education Association) attend the school board meeting and advocate for Ms. Woods? Where was ACT-UAW, the NYU Adjunct's Union, when I was pilloried? Present but mostly silent.

 

Like every other American citizen, a professor employed by a university, or a teacher in a public school, has a right to due process, the right to face her accuser and defend herself, a right to be called to testify openly and without constraint. A school board meeting is not a HUAC meeting, it is not a Salem Witch Trial. Or is it?

 

For more information:

 

https://academicfreedom.org/

 

https://pen.org/issue/book-bans/

 

If you are local, please join me for a a Banned Book Club at the Gardiner Library. November and December will be virtual.

 

October 12: Ashley Hope Perez, Out of Darkness
November 9: Art Spiegelman, Maus
December 14: George Johnson, All Boys Aren't Blue

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