Thursday, August 22, 2019

the Israel dilemma

The hurricanes continue. Yesterday my brother came for lunch with his nice new girlfriend and his 12-year old son, on their way back from a trip to Israel. He is exactly as Jewish as I am - not, since our mother was not, or 50%, if you go by my dad's Jewish blood. But he feels much more connected to that side and has always been an unquestioning anti-Palestinian supporter of Israel, which has led to many disagreements in the past.

He went to Israel to see the situation for himself, he said, and I urged him to keep an open mind and try to speak to or visit Palestinians as well as Jews. He said he would. Anna, preparing for our lunch, said she knows he likes to bait people, so "I will not be baited," she said. My leftie daughter of course has strong views on Israeli apartheid and a good friend who's Palestinian.

But she was baited. He launched into a diatribe about the wonders of beautiful Israel, "like a breath of fresh air" surrounded by murderous Arabs. "Your Islamophobia is showing; you should be ashamed," Anna said. And the shouting began. He yelled that she "should take care of your own backyard first, before criticizing Israel." What did that mean? That First Nations people are as badly treated as the Palestinians and she should focus on that situation rather than the Middle East. (Which in fact, if he'd cared to listen, she already does.)

I told her to ignore him, and his son urged his dad to settle down, but the fight escalated, got very loud, until I shouted at him, "How dare you speak to my daughter that way?"

Needless to say, it did not end well. Unfortunately, the French conversation group I was once part of broke up for the same reason - one of our members was blindly pro-Israel, the left-leaning side could no longer abide his views, which were pro-Trump also, and vice versa. We had to stop meeting because somehow we always landed there and the arguments grew personal and ferocious.

Happy families, indeed. It has always made me sad that he and I, sharing DNA and upbringing, are so far apart on so many things, this being only one. I celebrate that we managed to take care of my mother and my aunt for years without much disagreement. But perhaps there's not much keeping us together now.

Ironically, I'd just finished a marvellous book, The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong, about her journey from the convent, which she entered at 17 and left 7 or 8 years later, to becoming one of the world's major writers about religion, especially about Islam. The book ends with her talking about compassion - that every religion at its core is about compassion, and any adherents who twist their faith to divisiveness and violence are deeply flawed. All that matters is leaving the ego behind and feeling compassion for the other.

But then that's the polarized world we live in now - really a lot of people screaming at each other, in person or on the screen.

The treat of my work life, when I can get past family trauma to get there, is exploring the past lives of my mother and father through their letters to each other. What a gift to discover the lively engaging letter writers they both were, my dad especially writing with humour and warmth, at least, in these early ones. I am getting quite a different picture of their courtship and our early years as a family. Later we were not happy, but at the beginning, it seems, there was laughter and love.

Though not always. Here's a very short letter written by Sylvia in London to Gordin in New York, both aged 25 in October 1948. They'd arranged for her to sail over, to visit her sister Margaret who'd emigrated the year before with husband Stephen, and to visit her Yank. I sense my dad was getting nervous about the impending visit, perhaps prevaricating about the paperwork she needed for her passage, and so she sent him this:
London 19.10.48
Wot the heck are you doing? If all the form-filling’s too much for that brain of yours, send it on to Margaret and Stephen – otherwise how the blazes do you think I’m going to get a passage before next summer while you go on like this? Or do you think I can anticipate with a thrill visiting some non-existent body who may not even be in the States for all I know?
            There’s not enough of my mind in this letter to warrant 20 cents postage, but there are times, Gordin Kaplan, when – to coin a New World phrase – you make me real mad – and this is very definitely one of them. Now for Pete’s sake pull a finger out and let’s have the score.

You tell him, girl! He did what he had to do and she was there by Christmas; they lived separately, then together, and got married during a camping trip in August 1949. But luckily for me, Dad travelled, and then they separated in 1956, and so there were letters. I am uncovering fresh facts about my family's past as I read them, and I wish I could share what I'm learning with the person who shares my DNA. But I doubt I will. As important as compassion is, we appreciate very different things.


  1. What a rich trove you have, the basis of a wonderful book. An annotated correspondence. Can't wait!

  2. Yes, it's a rich trove, it's just that I have to read them and figure out what to do with them!