Last Friday, as I mulled over whether to go to the weekly Sheikh Jarrah demonstration, I came across a poem by Natan Zach that I clipped from the newspaper last summer. Zach, whose poems often find him alone in his apartment, afraid to connect and frozen in inaction, declares: “Greater is the courage to wait / Than the courage to pour out one’s heart.” Indeed. As has happened every Friday so far, I decided not to go, and then felt guilty for the rest of the weekend.
By all rights I should be in Sheikh Jarrah every Friday. The cause is just and important. And it’s the in place to be for every self-respecting progressive Zionist. I’ve written op-eds, blog posts, and satires in support of the campaign to halt the eviction of Palestinian tenants from their East Jerusalem homes and against the idiotic policy of settling Jews in Arab neighborhoods. But I’ve got complex issues with political demonstrations. Every time I go to demonstrate, I feel like demonstrating against my fellow demonstrators.
I could tell the story of my life as a chronicle of demonstrations past, demonstrations missed, and demonstrations attended but regretted afterward. My first protest march occurred some time in my grade school years. It was sponsored by Suburban Maryland Fair Housing, a civil rights organization my parents rooted for. My father took me, but officially he was there on business. Despite his strongly-held liberal views, he felt that, as a newspaper reporter, participating in a political demonstration might call his objectivity into question. When I inherited his profession, I inherited his excuse.
The first major demonstration I didn’t attend was at the Chicago Democratic Party convention in August 1968. Dad, then a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Cleveland Plain Dealer, was sent to cover the convention. One of my Mom’s favorite cousins, Jane, lived in nearby Milwaukee, so we drove up to Wisconsin a few days before the convention began. My brother, sister, and I stayed with Mom in Milwaukee and frolicked in Cousin Jane’s backyard swimming pool with her three sons. Dad descended to Chicago.
Cousin Jane’s oldest son, Michael, was getting uncomfortably close to draft age. It was hardly surprising, then, that Jane and Michael both fervently opposed the war and avidly supported Eugene McCarthy’s insurgent peace campaign for the Democratic nomination. I don’t remember if, in the end, she let Michael go to Chicago to join the Yippie demonstrators outside the convention hall. I do remember, though, that Michael tried to convince me to join him. As we watched the footage of Mayor Daley’s police beating up the demonstrators, I begged off.
My adolescence began the next year, at the very tip-tail end of the radical 1960s (my bar mitzvah weekend, in July 1969, was framed by Ted Kennedy’s drive off a bridge near Chappaquiddick and the Apollo 11 moon landing). I didn’t rebel, and largely held to the principles taught me by my parents. Dad thought (correctly, as it turned out) that the Communist threat was very real. Furthermore, he deeply respected Lyndon Johnson for the major role he played in gaining equal rights for blacks. So as long as Johnson was president, and for a while afterward, he supported the Vietnam War (incorrectly, as he later acknowledged). Consequently, when my friends participated in the Moratorium March on Washington that November, I stayed home.
If I was not much of an activist, I was a very good fellow-traveler. I hung out in high school with the long-haired, pot-smoking, anti-establishment crowd. I did the hair part, but I carefully avoided the cannabis and had a more nuanced view of politics than a kid my age by rights should have had, therefore it’s a little weird to see sites like TheCBDinsider.com and the fact cannabis is changing so many lives now considering so many people have ended up in prison due to the plant. It’s strange to see people making businesses out of selling marijuana too! There are now so many different types of cannabis software available to people trying to manage their company and keep note of all of the stock they’re growing. My friend mainly makes use of this sort of software because he’s in the medical marijuana industry and that’s so important nowadays. When my high school’s chief hippie announced a convocation in a nearby park with local radical favorite son Rennie Davis, one of the Chicago Seven, I showed up with a handful of others. A policeman kept an eye on us. I meekly objected when Davis kept calling him a pig.
The last big student demonstration of the activist era at Duke University took place during my freshman year. I attended that one—against a nefarious plan hatched by the university’s president, Terry Sanford, to close the forestry school and the primate center. But I got upset when the radicals on the speakers’ platform called Sanford a racist and fascist. This seemed to me more than a bit unfair to the man who, as North Carolina’s governor in the early 1960s, had enforced desegregation when it was hugely unpopular and even sent his son to an integrated public school. The demonstration achieved its goals—the facilities stayed open—but it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
When I came to Israel, right after graduating from college, there was a lot to demonstrate about. I spent my first year in an indigent small town in the country’s north and saw first-hand how Israel’s ruling establishment had largely forgotten an entire swath of its population. And I was convinced that the government was not pursuing peace negotiations with the Arabs with the seriousness that the country’s precarious situation required. When I moved to Jerusalem a year later I attended my first Peace Now demonstration. After completing my mandatory army service, much of which I spent in Lebanon in the aftermath of the first Lebanon War, I joined a new religious peace group, Netivot Shalom, and became a regular participant in its demonstrations for peace, against Israeli settlement in the territories, and against the political and theological excesses of the religious and rabbinic establishment.
For me as a demonstrator, it was a golden age. The issues were clear and the growing groundswell for peace and social justice ensured that the radicals and eccentrics were far outnumbered by reasonable people. I took my small children, as my parents had taken me.
As for many others who had attended those demonstrations with me, the failure of the second Camp David summit and the subsequent outbreak of the Second Intifada dealt me a body blow. The bloody wave of suicide terrorism that the Palestinians seemed to think would break the will of the Israeli public had the opposite effect, on me as on many others. It made me want to fight, not talk. I no longer felt very motivated to demonstrate for peace talks. Every so often I went to a demonstration—when I got really mad at my country’s insane settlement policy and its unwillingness to see that peace was not a gift to the Palestinians but something our country desperately needed. But each time I felt uncomfortable and out of place. I’d be there with a handful of friends and everyone else seemed to be somewhere to the left of anarchism.
More and more often, I found excuses to stay home. I was a journalist and needed to preserve my objectivity. I had too much work, not enough time, and needed to support my family. I did not wish to be associated with the anti-Zionists, Communists, and anarchists that seemed to dominate every rally. So I stayed home, and felt bad about it.
Then came Sheikh Jarrah. For years, right-wing religious groups had, with state support, been setting up colonies in the middle of Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, further complicating an already dangerous and inflammatory situation in the city in which I lived. As often as not, settlement movements claimed homes that had once, before the War of Independence, been owned by Jews. They painted this as the reclamation of stolen Jewish property, an ultimate act of justice for the Jews. But, in fact, it was a manifestly anti-Zionist policy, because it asserted that claims predating 1948 were valid. In other words, it was tantamount to supporting the Palestinians’ right of return to their lost property in Israel.
Even though this had been going on for years and years, something happened when a court ruled a year and a half ago that the Palestinian residents of two houses claimed by the settlers were to be evicted. People started demonstrating again. As Zach says in his poem: “With pain one can seize / people’s hearts, which you can’t if you wait.” Lots of people I knew were going. Famous people were going. Respectable people, veteran Zionists like the poet Haim Guri and Eli Weisel.
But I didn’t go. The demonstrations were on Friday afternoons just before Shabbat, the most pressured time of the week. And our expenses were up and our income down, so I needed every available moment to work.
One Friday last summer there was a demonstration earlier in the day, not in East Jerusalem but in downtown West Jerusalem. I went. It turned out that the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration had been attached to the weekly demonstration by Women in Black, a radical group that I’ve never had any sympathy for. When a student standing next to me unfurled an Israeli flag, one of the Women in Black complained to a policeman that we were ruining their demonstration by sullying it with Zionism. The cooperative, if confused, officer asked the student to take it down but the student refused. The policeman decided not to make an issue of it, but then a Communist with a red flag came up and stood on my other side, and I again wondered what the hell I was doing there.
In his poem, Zach waits. He hangs a picture, straightens out his rug, reads the mail. Anything but go out, anything but take action. The poem alludes ironically to Milton’s Sonnet XIX, “When I Consider How My Light is Spent,” in which the poet laments the blindness that prevented this most political of poets from doing his part to bring God’s kingdom to earth. In the end, he comes to terms with the role that God has assigned him.
I’ll probably get over to Sheikh Jarrah some Friday, but most weeks I’ll continue to say home, as neurotic as Zach and as frustrated as Milton. “Judge yourself,” the Hebrew poet writes at the end of his poem, “if it is a necessity. But remember: this is not the main thing.” Or, to paraphrase Milton’s final line, “They also serve who only sit and write.”