One minute at a time

Martin’s widow has a conversation with Irwin Cotler.

IRWIN COTLER addressing ‘Jerusalem Post’ editors 390 (photo credit: Steve Linde)
IRWIN COTLER addressing ‘Jerusalem Post’ editors 390
(photo credit: Steve Linde)

Just over a year has dragged by since Martin died, and as I sat down to write, a thought hit me in the face: There comes a point when it becomes counterproductive to focus on “poor widow me.” Believe me, I can write columns forever on the subject – the aching void, the indescribable weirdness – but enough is enough.

When Martin was so obviously going to die, and I was not at all sure how I could continue to breathe, never mind put foot in front of foot, I asked my lovely husband how I would be able to live without him at my side.
“Five minutes at a time,” he said, in his calm, wonderful way. “Just get through five minutes at a time.
Then say to yourself, ‘That wasn’t so hard. If I can do five, I can do 10.’ And slowly, you’ll learn to get through each hour.”
Martin wasn’t often wrong, but he was off with his timing. Five minutes is much too long. It’s minute by minute that you need to negotiate; a five-minute pain-free stretch means you’re doing well. But there are ways to trick the neurons in your cerebral cortex to send chirpy messages via the axons to the synapses and cause a few trillion of them to temporarily release some happy neurotransmitters...
though don’t quote me on this – cognitive science is not my strongest suit.
One way is a good café hafuch in an upscale restaurant, preferably with a delicious breakfast on the side. If you add to that a pleasant dining companion and some compelling conversation, you are well on your way to an hour or so of (almost) sorrow-free mellowing.
So, how lucky was I last Sunday to have not one but two hafuch gadols and a super-fancy poached salmon and egg delight in the trendiest mall in the country, with one of the world’s most interesting men. Canadian MP Irwin Cotler, former justice minister and attorney-general, took some time out of his hectic schedule to chat with me in Ramat Aviv, and I have to admit it was a lovely way to spend a morning.
Cotler is an international and human-rights law guru who acted on behalf of Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky, among others. Egyptian president Anwar Sadat summoned Cotler, in the 1970s, to take a letter to Menachem Begin proposing peace.
In the process, the messenger met his future wife, Ariela, a Jerusalem native who was then working for the Likud.
Not to be outdone, Syrian president Hafez Assad called Cotler to Damascus in 1976, but this encounter did not end in a treaty.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Carter,” said Assad.
“Mr. Cotler,” corrected Cotler.
“Yes, Mr. Carter,” replied Assad. “A pleasure to host you as my guest.”
Cotler clarified that he was not Carter: neither Jimmy nor his brother.
The president was unimpressed by his guest’s own enormous attributes and unceremoniously kicked him out of the palace.
Cotler’s quest to make the world a more equitable place is driven by specific values. His father, also a lawyer, inculcated the talmudic injunction “Justice, justice shall you pursue” into his young son. His mother, whom Cotler describes as a tzadika, or holy woman, enjoined him to “feel” the injustice in the world, not just as a philosophical or theoretical affair. The notion of zachor – remember – is central to his thinking. Cotler’s first pro bono work was on behalf of Holocaust survivors, and Holocaust remembrance is a vital issue for him. He has devoted energy to combating hate speech all over the world. Rwanda, Darfur, the former Yugoslavia are only some of the countries about which he has been outspoken and in which he has been active in bringing war criminals to justice.
In Israel, Cotler is beloved for being one of our most passionate and eloquent defenders. He articulately deconstructs the new narrative that Israel is an apartheid state in a way that has to convince all but the most rabid critics of our country. Together with his good friend Alan Dershowitz, Cotler is a rare voice of clarity and pride in the international arena, advocating in an unmitigated fashion for Israel. That alone was enough to cheer me up enormously.
Cotler is horrified at the release of Palestinian prisoners with blood on their hands, whom he considers “terrorists” and not “political prisoners.” He claims that it’s wrong as a matter of morality, as well as weakening the worldwide war on terror.
“It’s a country’s legal responsibility to bring terrorists to justice and hold them accountable,” he explains. “It undermines the legal system and demoralizes society to free them, as well as undercutting international efforts to combat terror.”
The worst thing, he adds, is to free them without the context of a peace agreement. According to Cotler, when freed terrorists are feted on their homecoming, this makes a mockery of negotiations and the peace process.
Cotler has much to say about the culture of hate in Arab countries. He informed Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, that it is a form of child abuse to educate the next generation for war.
He thinks there is far too much hate speech in Israel, too. He believes that the issue of African migrants has been bungled from the beginning. Although he agrees that Israel cannot become the gateway for Africans seeking to escape poverty, he favors a legal process for the refugee problem. He regrets the language of some of Israel’s leaders that leads nowhere except to more anti- Israel incitement, and he is well aware of the myriad of complicated issues that the Jewish state is up against every day of the year.
“But I take the long view of history,” says Cotler as we tuck into our toast.
“The Jews are the only prototypical aboriginal people who still embrace the same land, the same language, bear the same name and honor the same prophets and God as they did millennia ago. Having survived all the onslaughts of Jewish history, there is now a Jewish state. We’ll survive all this, too. The best is yet to come.”
There’s one more thing. As I wondered how I would tie a morning with the Honourable Irwin Cotler into a “Wading through Widowhood” column, he gave me my lead.
“I was in hospital here once,” he recounted in the course of conversation. “I thought it was for my gall bladder. Everyone kept talking about love-love, and I was so impressed at how friendly and warm they all were – all this loving.”
Only after he was released from hospital did he discover that lavlav is the Hebrew word for “pancreas.” He’d had severe pancreatitis, from which he thankfully recovered completely.
My beloved mother and husband both died of pernicious pancreatic cancer; I never thought I’d live to see the day when I’d laugh about that particular organ.
But there you go.
Dr. Pamela Peled lectures at IDC and Beit Berl. She can be contacted at