I got upset on the commuter train the other day. There’s a woman in my town I run into five or six times a year. She’s social, and she’s conventional. The best schools, the best causes. She’s the soul of convention. If they were having charity slave auctions in New York, she’d be primping the centerpieces at the tables as the wranglers pulled the wives apart from the husbands in chains. And smiling, with her good lipstick and hairdo.
Anyway, last year she invited me over to her house for dinner to talk about Palestine before she went on an Ivy League alumni tour to Israel and Palestine. I didn’t see what was coming: I drank her wine and gobbled the chicken and laid out my serious concerns about the politics of the place. Then when she got back, I found out that she hadn’t visited Palestine for a second. They’d gone to one high tech factory after another, with the alumni spooning praise over Israeli high-tech wizardry, marveling at their intelligence and resourcefulness, in the very worst neighborhood in the world. And I felt disgusted with myself that I had been a party to it; I’d offered her preemptive atonement by talking Palestine with her sitting there nodding. Then she’d gone off with her fancy friends and felt, all is right with the world.
Well I ran into her on the train the other day, and she said that she had been to the Other Israel film festival, hosted by Carole Zabar. You would like it, she said. There are all kinds of films there, in Hebrew and Arabic.
And I said, “I’m sure I’d like some of the films. But it’s hosted by Zionists.”
My friend’s smile froze.
“A Zionist,” I went on prosecutorially, “is someone who believes in the need for a Jewish state. You’re a WASP, right?”
“If you wanted to set up a Christian white state in this country, I’d have a real problem with it.”
“So would I,” she said, chirpingly.
“Well good, we agree,” I said. “And my people have set up a Jewish state in a land that has got a sizeable population of non-Jews. It’s not fair.”
My friend was now trying to edge away into her seat. I decided not to let go.
“And my people– we were at the forefront of the civil rights movement and many other liberal movements; we helped move this country forward. But on this issue, we’re by and large reactionary—and that’s why I’m engaged on it, as a Jew.”
My friend had a curare look, as if I’d shot a poison dart. I imagine she will gossip about me now: that I’ve gone nuts. And that’s fine. The issue is too important for me to be polite. Not when socially aspiring Americans find that sucking up to Israel burnishes their date books.