Necessary stories: For Whom the Pole Knells

Somehow, whenever we get onto the issue of Israel, instead of reason and reality, our conversation gets governed by esoteric tropes and perverse principles of poesy.

October 20, 2010 14:34

Penguin in the antartic. (photo credit: Illustration)


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MY FRIEND FRANK IS A MAN UNTO himself, a person apart. He stands up for what he believes. He always tells me: “I countenance no compromises in the venue of values. I care about the indigent in India, about the glaciers in Greenland, and about the war-weary in Waziristan.”

He is involved in mankind, but as a Jew he is particularly troubled about how Israel is falling short of his ideals. “I cannot be unconcerned,” he says, “about the ultimatums of the ultra-Orthodox, the subjugation of the Sephardim in Sderot, and the plight of the Palestinians.”

And he’s got a way with words. Sometimes his rhetoric sweeps me away and lodges in my head like a leitmotif that doesn’t let go. Still, Frank is sincerely concerned about my moral fiber, as a good friend should be.

“Every time you pick up your phone in benighted Baka to engage me in enlightened LA,” he always assures me, “I’ll be ready with compassionate counsel about how you should be living your life. I’ll keep you in line, ensuring that you’ll be a better human being and a more genuine Jew.”

While by now I’m used to Frank catching me off guard with precipitous pronouncements about how I should better my behavior and polish my priorities, he staggered me when I Skyped him last week to wish him a sheine Shmini Atzeret.

“I’m worried about your well-being,” Frank fussed. “And I’ve come to a conclusion.”

“What’s that, Frank?” “You must emigrate from Israel,” he said seriously, “and reestablish residence in the Western world’s most progressive polity, the United Cerulean States of America.”

“But why, Frank?” I gasped.

“Because the Jewish state has jettisoned the very values on which higher humanity is based. It has become a bastion of backwardness, a fen of fundamentalism, and a welter of warmongering know-nothing nationalism. To fret is fruitless. Every right-thinking representative of fairmindedness and freedom should dial Delta and purchase passage to the land of liberty.”

“Please, Frank,” I pleaded plaintively. “I mean, I’ve lived here for 32 years. I’ve raised my family here. I have friends, a career. I don’t want to leave. And anyway, it’s not so bad as all that.”

“Not so bad? NOT SO BAD? It’s dire and dreadful!” Frank was furious.

“Let’s take it from the top. Israel reprehensibly rules over two and a half million Palestinians while depriving them of democratic rights simply because they are ethnically external to the Hebrew hegemony. It’s a primary principle of right-thinking regimes that they rule by the sanction of the citizenry.”

“Hey, Frank, you know that I’m a progressive Zionist who deplores the violation of Palestinian rights. But I seem to recall that the United States has a large disenfranchised population who have no say in making the laws they live under.”

“Utterly unthinkable,” said Frank. “In our land the law rules and requires respect for each and every individual inhabitant. Our Bill of Rights and Barack Obama set sublime standards of fairness and freedom.”

“Um,” I said.

“‘Um’ is an ungrateful and rude remark regarding such sterling sentiments,” Frank fumed.

“I was just thinking,” I said, “that when I was a child, Barack Obama couldn’t have drunk from the same drinking fountain as me.”

“Due to rabidly racist sinful Southerners,” he agreed. “But they were, as Americans, aberrations.” “But at the time,” I objected, “it was the law of the land, upheld by the Supreme Court – laws that had been in force for nearly a century.”

“At the heady height of the seminal 1960s, right-thinking radicals recharted America’s course.” Frank waxed wistful. “I recall my own role in the autumn of affection and the February of frenzy, not to mention SDS, SNCC, and even fleeting flings with SWP and CP-USA. We, the meticulous minions of McCarthy and McGovern, turned the tide of backwardness and bigotry and enforced equality for all.”

“McCarthy and McGovern lost,” I pointed out. “Lost big.”

“Bliss it was in that breakfast-time to breathe,” he blathered, “but to be puerile was particularly pleasant.”

“Wake up, Frank.”

“So sorry. Against whom was I inveighing?” “You were saying that, unlike in Israel, in America the law and the Constitution guarantee equal political rights for all.”

“Racism may still rage,” my amigo admitted, “but the law is lucid.”

“So what about the four million Hispanics in Puerto Rico and the 600,000 residents of the District of Columbia, most of whom are black?” “OK, OK,” Frank fulminated. “Tiny tweaks really are required. But let’s look at your ludicrous electoral system, which holds your governments hostage to idiotic ideologues and religious radicals.”

“Certainly we have a problem,” I humbly acknowledged. “But let me just point out that Wyoming has two senators and one member of the House of Representatives even though it has a smaller population than D.C. And that all three are conservative, white Republican Christians, whereas if D.C. and Puerto Rico were given representation, they would probably send mostly liberal democrats of color to Congress, which would have made it a lot easier to pass health care and a decent stimulus package. Come to think of it, a representative from Guam might help with a climate bill that would seek to counter rising sea levels.”

“One doesn’t learn a lesson from way out wilds like Wyoming,” Frank fretted.

“But Frank,” I gently reminded him, “major party candidates for the Senate and House in many large and populous states are fundamentalist Christians who want to repeal every American law passed since 1932.

Many of them are probably going to win.”

“Sad and scary,” Frank confessed. “But still not as serious as the frightening fact that a minyan of MKs in your putative parliament have their votes vetted by a caftan-clad, wizened and whiskered termagant Talmudist.”

“Glenn Beck might not have a beard, but it looks like he controls the votes of a lot more than 10 American legislators.”

“Let’s put breaks on this bamboozle,” Frank averred avuncularly.

“I’m aware that it’s agonizing to acknowledge the complete corruption of your cause, but it’s coming from a compadre: Israel is a belligerent blot on the world. It consistently confronts crises with military might, instigating incursions into neighboring nations.”

“Well, you’ve got me there,” I said. “It’s true that America doesn’t invade its neighbors – although it invades pretty much everyone else.”

I saw on my screen how Frank flourished his forearm as if fending off a fly or irritating insect. “And what about social sicknesses? Is not Israel responsible for trashy treatment of abject aliens, for unemployment in Umm al-Fahm, for illiteracy among immigrants, for cramped conditions in refugee camps, not to mention malnutrition in Ma’alot?” “Ills which are, of course, unknown in America,” I sighed.

Via video-streaming, Frank directed a grimy glare my way.

“Can you counter this query?” he asked. “Could you imagine a Muslim as head honcho in Israel?”

“That,” I sighed resignedly, “could only happen in America. But, hey, most of our leaders weren’t born in our country, either. And many of them were socialists!”

“Your tendentious tone is irritating,” Frank said sullenly. “You should be craving to comprehend my critique rather than crafting clever obfuscations.”

“You’re a fine friend, and I comprehend your concern for me,” I said sincerely, sensing with alarm that I was vaulting into the vortex of his fatuous phraseology. This is the danger of debating with friends like Frank. You get drawn into their discourse and taken over by their terminology. In a matter of minutes your individual voice vanishes in a clabber of cliché and you find that your faculty for formulating your philosophy has gone feifen.

I cleared my throat and tried to get my head straight. “Frank,” I carped, “somehow, whenever we get onto the issue of Israel, I have this hunch that, instead of reason and reality, our conversation gets governed by esoteric tropes and perverse principles of poesy. Damn, I’m still doing it.”

Frank considered carefully.

“Look,” he said. “In America we endeavor. Perhaps we don’t always live up to our noblest notions but we have, century by century, decade by decade, jacked up the justice in our jurisdiction.”

“And you serve as an excellent example,” I acknowledged, “one that Israel, for all its irritating injustices, finally follows.”

My pal pondered. I marked the moves of his mouse.

“Hey, Frank,” I said. “Whadya doing?” “I’m e-mailing Expedia,” he said. “Finding a flight for Friday.”

“Love to have you visit,” I smiled.

“Visit? Your fascist f***hole? Forget it. But I’ve finally fathomed that not just inhabiting Israel is insidious. America is also awful. To inhabit it is to be implicated. It behooves me to bail out and live my life in the lone land of definitive democracy and unfettered freedom, that rare realm where oppression is passé, poverty precluded, gastarbeiter gratuitous, injustice inconceivable, and war unworkable. I require a residence where my righteousness is not ruined by reprehensible reactionary rabble. Antarctica, ahoy!”

“But Frank!” I exclaimed. “Remember what the poet said! ‘No man is an island entire of itself!’”

“A sinister citation. Donne, that dead, white, incipient imperialist!” Frank sounded sarcastic. “No individual is an island! Every man is a clod off the continent, and every dude, when he dies, diminishes you!”

“Those weren’t his exact words.”

“You, an expert equivocator, play at preaching to me? You dare declare that we are enjoined to engage, that concession is a sine qua non of citizenship and that companionship requires compromise?”

“Well, yes, if you put it that way,” I acknowledged. “I mean, does the pursuit of justice really require us to confine ourselves to the company of penguins?”

Frank was fed up. “Don’t bother ICQing me on the ice. I don’t want my pristine principles tarnished by tergiversators. I’ll live out my moral life on the unsullied snow of that immaculate land mass.” And he hung up.

I tried him on his land line, but there was no answer. I guess he didn’t hear. Or perhaps he figured it wasn’t ringing for him.

Haim Watzman is the author of ‘Company C: An American’s Life as a Citizen-Soldier in Israel’ and ‘A Crack in the Earth: A Journey Up Israel’s Rift Valley.’ He blogs at

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