I am walking along the wide leafy green street of suburban Chicago when the sign outside a grey building catches my eye. I cannot remember its exact words, but it may as well have said ‘we will have the land once called Palestine, whatever it takes’.
I feel ill, as if all the air has been sucked out of my day. It is one thing to build a place of worship, it is completely another to dedicated that holy place to an endless war.
I am catapulted back to a childhood memory. I am standing on wide stone steps outside a synagogue. It is a familiar place to me. I am dressed in white, as are the men around me. It is a loving memory, a gentle memory, a warm winds of childhood memory.
One day, a long time ago in easy chatter, I mentioned the synagogue to my mother, a ‘remember when . . .’ conversation. She stared at me blankly. I stared back, stupidly. There was no synagogue. As common sense would have told me, had I thought about it at all – I am an Australian with no Jewish heritage whatsoever. There was no question that my mother was right. Yet, even allowing for the flawed and corruptible memories of children, I remember that synagogue. It is a memory now categorised under the possibility of ‘past life’, for want of a simple explanation.
I am jolted back to the present by a car horn playing Yankee Doodle Dandy. I walk on, pondering my response to the sign, for I am one among the host of people outside the USA for whom blind defence of a land called Israel is not just untenable, it is shameful.
What is deeply pleasing to me, and delightfully surprising, is not a single Jewish person I have met in the USA supports Israeli aggression against the people of Palestine – pretty amazing, huh?
This pleases me because it is outside our story about the people of the USA. And it pleases me because it signals hope for the people of Palestine, who still wear the keys to their grandparents’ homes around their neck – the homes they left just for a few days while the new settlers blasted their way into homes and land that were not theirs for the taking, fueled with the bloodlust of glorified entitlement sanctioned by a blue banner blazing the Star of David.
I have had only one conversation in the USA with a man who supported the land we currently call Israel and that was with Bill, born ‘n bred Jackson, Mississippi. I met Bill on the bus to Meridien. He said, and I’m sharing this by way of placing Bill in the broader scheme of things, that there used to be three classes in America – rich, poor and middle class. A union man, he pointed out to me that the unions created the middle class. Before that, he said, there was rich and poor. And now, he said, there are four classes: educated, not educated, ignorant and rich.
Bill hasn’t flown in a plane since 9/11. I tell him ‘y’know where the safest place on Earth is these days?’ He looks at me, interested. ‘The airport,’ I say. He says ‘you’re kiddin’.’ And I have not forgotten the light in his eyes when I told him how I spent time among the people of Palestine. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said again. I tell him how helpful and respectful they were to me. ‘You’re kiddin’,’ he said.
Bill points to the insignia on his baseball cap. Somewhere on that silver circle is the name of America’s 42nd president.
‘William Clinton’ he says, ‘best president America ever had . . . stooped, dang stoopid, but a good president. He was a man of the American people, he was one of us. Why didn’t he just say heck yeah when he got caught with Monica? Then we got Bush, Bush embarrassed us all over the world. Every time he opened his mouth on tv I thought it may as well be me talkin’.’
Bill tells me that a while back, he went to Arkansas to see Bill Clinton’s museum.
‘It’s a library actually,” he said. ‘A redneck library, but a library just the same. It looks just like the trailer homes across the river.’
I tell him I heard Mississippi was last in everything, except teenage pregnancy. He nodded. ‘Yep, that’s us,’ he says. ‘That and fat. We’re the fattest people in America. Two things you can count on in Mississippi: poverty and mosquitoes.’
From here we segueway into feminism.
‘Let me tell yer about feminism,’ he said. ‘Okay Bill,’ I laughed, ‘you tell me about feminism.’
‘My grandmother was the biggest feminist ever. She divorced in 1939 with three kids and accordin’ to everyone else she was the biggest whore in Mississippi. She worked tables and bars and did dry cleaning, then WW2 came and she was the original Rosie the Riveter, building airplanes in Memphis. One day when I was about eight years old I was at her house when the power company men came to clip the trees under the lines near her house. My grandmother met them at the door.
‘We’re here to clip the trees ma’am,’ they said.
‘No y’ain’t’ she replied.
‘Well yes ma’am we are.’
‘Billy – she called me Billy – Billy go get ma rifle. So ah did. I went and got her rifle. Those power men went away and my grandmother went to see a lawyer and she got the whole power line rerouted away from her trees.’
I’m digressing, I know. I’m tellin’ you all this because in the USA talking about Israel publicly is like walking on proverbial eggshells. Let’s talk about anything but this. The possibility of backlash – and there will be a backlash – is as terrifying . . . as . . . well . . . the razor sharp bitterness causing uproar in a Zionist heart.
Or a synagogue dedicated to ‘whatever it takes’.