On the morning of Memorial Day I call my mother. She lives in a bed in Jerusalem, Israel. She gets up for bathrooms and meals, but has been unable to get out of her home for a few months.
“How are things?” I ask her, anticipating a dull, tired answer.
“Chavale,” she says, “it’s so terrible how people talk. It’s so terrible what they do to each other.”
“You mean, on TV?” She watches a lot of TV, mostly news, and Israeli politicians aren’t noted for extending courtesy to their peers in front of TV cameras. Yelling and interrupting are the norm.
“I am so proud of my family,” she says. “I am so proud of my children and grandchildren that we love one another. Even if we disagree, we don’t have to be terrible to one another, we don’t have to fight all the time and nurse grievances and humiliate people.”
“Are you watching the news, mom?”
“How can people talk like? I would be ashamed!”
She went on and on in this vein, and as I listened to her I remembered past family meals when she would give rein to explosive diatribes against Arabs and Arab-loving left-wingers, as she called them. I remembered her cursing out an Ethiopian Jew, a hospital parking attendant who wouldn’t waive a parking charge for her, denigrating not just him but also his family and people.
My mother had been politically right-wing for decades. When the Sinai Desert was returned to Egypt by Israel as part of the agreement signed by Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin (the latter no slouch when it came to right-wing politics), she proudly went to jail for putting up posters on Election Eve against the agreement. When I was there for the Sabbath she would alternate between disparaging comments about Palestinians (knowing I’d spent some time in the West Bank during the week) and a seething, irate, silence.
She’ll be 92 in a few months, and she’s not angry anymore.
“What good does it do to hate people?” she asks on the phone. “Instead of putting energy into argument, can’t we just help each other? Everybody needs help, everybody needs something.”
I listened to her quietly, felt it was my heart talking. Why indeed? I thought of people I know who go on digital safari eagerly hunting for an even funnier put-down of Donald Trump, an even more down-and-dirty humiliation of those who wish to re-open their neighborhoods. I thought of new labels being bandied about. I thought of the energy being wasted on endless snipes, putdowns, and rants.
On media—on both sides—that’s making bucketfuls of money on partisan, gut-grabbing headlines that keep even the best educated of us us bobbing indignantly up and down like millions and millions of puppets. On how, in this country, a medical pandemic that has united the citizens of other countries has here sundered the body and thrown us away like so many body parts.
I talked about it with my brother, who also lives in Jerusalem. The country is opening up. Individuals, of course, make up their own minds about how much they want to go out or not, but it’s not divided into principles: those who open up and those who won’t.
“We don’t have what you have there,” he told me. “We have huge political divides; don’t forget, we went through three elections before we could form a new government. But what you have is something deeper.”
What do we have here? Is it cultural? Is it geographical, i.e. rural vs. urban, heartland vs. the coasts? Globalists vs. nationalists? What have we wrought here, I ask myself. Since when have even the smallest actions—putting on a mask or not, going to a restaurant or not, raising a flag or not—become partisan political symbols?
I went to buy food cards this afternoon to hand out to undocumented families tomorrow, and on the way back, passing two local cemeteries, watched as cars turned in to pay their respects. There were small American flags planted by the graves.
I don’t care what Donald Trump did on this Memorial Day—golf, Twitter, a visit to Arlington—I care what I do. I light incense at the altar of Maria of Guadalupe and Kwan-Yin and vow to watch my words. I light incense at the altar of a sitting Buddha and vow to watch my thoughts. I light incense at the altar of a standing Buddha and vow to watch my actions.
Soon I will start cooking dinner, but who am I feeding? Gods or demons?