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The Elephant in the Room

Fighting the spread of the coronavirus pandemic—in America fighting ingrained racism too, and in Israel the threat of annexation—I myself am facing the extra burden of walking, eating, and sleeping with an elephant. No kidding, stay with me please. It’s not only in my room, mind you, it goes everywhere with me. The few people I interact with these days, and those I pass by on my walk in the park, don’t seem to see that I walk with an elephant by my side. And after reading, hearing, watching millions of words being spoken, coming from the mouths and minds of people much wiser, educated, and knowledgeable than me—some of whom I truly admire, though none can equal Albert Camus, whose ‘The Plague’ I’ve read in my teens and again in my twenties—I’m still completely baffled by the fact that no one ever mentions the existence of ‘The Elephant in the Room.’

Why so? I wish I knew. Though this much I do know: This Elephant belongs to all of us. Only most people, for reasons that escape me, cannot see it. Or are too scared to admit seeing it. So let me tell you also this: I see them, too, and I hear them. I know where most of these people are coming from. After all, this world of ours suffers greatly from our collective misbehavior and ignorant. Our abuse of nature and wildlife—especially our cruelty towards animals and species of all kinds, not the least our own kind—is well documented. This teenage girl from Sweden, Greta Thunberg, who keeps shouting that “the emperor has no clothes” is my hero long before she’d been named Time’s person of the year.

Which brings me to admit this: If it were up to me, I would elect a triumvirate of women—say Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen—to lead the world in this epic, pandemic war. Their brains are much superior to any man leader alive today, and their hearts are in the right place. We can add the doctors, the specialists—most, but not all, are still men—to work under them. To be their soldiers. Let these women generals command the battlefield in our fight against nature’s long-overdue revenge. Because only those who are capable of compassion and compromise, have the faculties to deal with this enormous challenge.

But what’s worrying me, and keeps me awake at nights, is that even they might not see this Elephant. Or that if they would see it, they might not acknowledge its existence. Because otherwise, how can one explain that this, the most wondrous of animals still walking the face of the earth, also represents our downfall? It leads us, obediently so, to the edge of the cliff. And why, you may rightly ask, I don’t mention it by name? That’s a good question, I give you that. But you see, the nature of the ‘elephant in the room’ metaphor is that when you mention it by name—since it’s so obviously available for all to see—it disappears. And when it disappears, we have the tendency—being human and all—to believe it has never existed.

Yet it does. And it carries on its wide back the climate change crisis. Racism and injustice, it carries too; abuse of natural resources, starvation and desolation, it carries too. Income inequity, class divide, abuse of power and resources… you name it, it carries. Our elephant, beautiful creature though it is, is also the foundation for all the ills in this world. It’s very prominent, for instance, in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities of New York, London, Jerusalem and elsewhere. In these communities in particular, where the commandment to procreate (“be fruitful and multiply”) is so fundamental (it’s common rather than the exception there to have seven/eight children in a family), the coronavirus has inflicted an unusually great amount of suffering and death.

In one television newscast I watched lately, there was a story about how people are suffering economically in America due to the pandemic. A poor, down on her luck woman who lost her job was complaining and crying—my heart was aching for her, believe me—that she’s a single mother with seven children. How can she feed them all? How indeed! And yet, the reporter didn’t see the elephant standing so tall behind her, and had asked her not a single question about it. Neither did the anchorwoman in the studio. But I saw it right away: A single mother with seven children to feed, to clothe, to educate. Help me here, people: How is it possible? Even allowed?

They have their share of elephants in Africa and India, of course. And they have many hungry children and adults to feed there. But they too don’t see the Corona Elephant in their midst. No wonder they keep trying to infiltrate Europe and find a decent living for themselves and their families overseas. I guess they simply don’t want to see it. And BTW: I love children, don’t get me wrong. But we are doomed if we don’t see this elephant and take appropriate action. We will destroy this planet, or it will destroy us. Maybe the three ladies, the leaders I’ve mentioned above—who share three children between them, and also share some of the lowest rates of deaths due to the pandemic in their countries—would see it. Would understand it. And would do something about it.

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Friendship in Time of Conflict

goldsborobooks.com

Let me tell you a story. A story about friendship, a story about war and peace, a story about a book. I’ll start with the friendship: When I arrived here in Sacramento almost twenty-four years ago, right away I got involved with a small group of people from different backgrounds (but mostly Jews), who called their group ‘The Middle East Peace Project,’ and who were dedicated on educating the public at large about all aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and more so even, on spreading the word that peace was possible to achieve.

Among the group activists was a Palestinian named Akef Shihabi, who was a mild-mannered, middle-aged man, educated and very pleasant to be around. We struck friendship soon after I joined the group, I visited his house and he mine, and though his family was expelled from East-Jerusalem in 1948; and though my parents arrived to then the British Mandate of Palestine in 1946, refugees and survivals of the Holocaust, we not only fast became friends, but on behalf of our group we began appearing together around the city and county, universities, congregations, Jewish and Christians and Muslims, where we shared our different experiences but common belief in the possibility of peace.

At some point we drifted apart, due to life’s other obligations, necessities, and misfortunes. Also, due to my realization that at some point we were just treading water, and had exhausted all the open venues in this area. Still, on occasions I would think of him. None more so than nowadays, when for the last three weeks I was consumed by a new book—’Apeirogon,’ by Colum McCann—which was published last month to great acclaim and much interest. So much so that one book reviewer I’ve read, in ‘The Guardian’ of London, concluded by saying that if ever a book can bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this is the book.

I was immediately intrigued: Can a book bring peace? Not only that: At the center of the book—the author is calling it a novel, yet it’s really a novel in name only since it’s mostly a nonfiction, biographical, historical book using real people, real names, and real incidents—are an Israeli and a Palestinian, from Jerusalem and Jericho, who both lost young daughters to the conflict. They form an everlasting friendship, first through an organization called ‘The Parents Circle,’ and then through an organization called ’Combatants for Peace.’ Both organizations are also real and active presently.

At the core of the book is the story of these two men. How their daughters were killed—the Palestinian man, Bassam, ten-year old daughter, Abir, was shot in the back of her head by a rubber bullet from an Israeli soldier riding in a Jeep, just as she came out of a small shop on a break from school, a candy in her hand; the Israeli man, Rami, his daughter Smadar, only fourteen, was walking with her two best friends on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem when three suicide bombers exploded themselves one afternoon. The book tells their stories, their families’ and daughters’ stories, how they deal with the constant grief and loss, how they became friends and active in peace and reconciliation efforts, appearing and lecturing together not only in Israel-Palestine, but in Europe and America.

This ancient conflict, they believe, won’t end until we talk. (A side bumper-sticker on Rami’s motorbike says just that in Hebrew : (זה לא ייגמר עד שנדבר. And the book indeed talk. And talk for long about them and about other things. It’s all those other things, unrelated to their friendship, peace activities and personal stories that obscure and dull the effect of the book somewhat. They hold our attention, the two men; their stories original and painful enough for the book to sustain interest and emotional resonance throughout. The author though, it seems, wanted to write the “ultimate” book about the Middle East at large, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. Which takes away from the impact at the core of his book.

Nonetheless, it’s an admirable effort. But can it bring peace? No, it cannot. Still, it’s an important book. And it’s important not only because it shows the historical depth, and current magnitude of the conflict—as other books had done already (not to mention the Bible)—but also because it gives voice to the possibility of friendship in time of conflict. The possibility of shared experiences and shared humanity and efforts working, united, for the common good. And it makes clear that peace is possible to attain.

Therefore, in conclusion, I suggest that anyone who’s connected to this conflict in any way, to the ‘land of milk and honey’ and to its people, whether closely or remotely, would surely find this book of great interest. As Rami thinks to himself when he first joins ‘The Parents Circle’—an organization of bereaved parents from both sides—“It is not a decree of faith that we should live forever with a sword in our hands.” And equally so Bassam (who experienced seven years of humiliation and torture in an Israeli prison) thinks that “The only revenge is making peace.” So ultimately, and persuasively, their story renews the hope that someday in the future, sooner rather than later, driven by the people more than by their leaders, a peaceful resolution to this endless war would be found.

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