Yesterday was Memorial Day, 2023. A day not to shop but to remember those who gave their lives in battle for country and fellow citizens.

Already our local towns are filled with flags waving over streets on a gorgeous spring day, lullabied by cardinals, finches, and wrens. Butterflies are winging it, hummingbirds hum, birds build nests all over readying for birth. Little sign of death in the animal, bird, or plant kingdoms on the American human species’ Memorial Day.

These flags will be flying through July 4 and are actually quite beautiful. I remember attending a retreat with a Tibetan lama. He recounted arriving here and handing his passport to the airport agent. The agent stamped the passport, gave it back to him, and said: “Welcome to the United States, land of the free.”

“Thank you very much,” the lama said, quite emotional.

The rest of us chortled and he looked up in surprise. “I was very moved,” he said. “Why aren’t you?”

Why aren’t we? Lots of reasons, you might say, most of which end which ism: racism, sexism, ageism, conservatism, liberalism, elitism, populism, capitalism. Most of all, cynicism.

Memorial Day celebrates people who gave up their lives. But there are also people who give their lives over to something without dying, ready to lose a great deal for a clear purpose.

Last Tuesday, rather than joining our weekly zendo get-together on Zoom, I drove over to the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley to listen to Raja Shehadeh read from and talk about his book, We Could Have Been Friends, My Father and I:  Palestinian Memoir.

Raja Shehadeh, a Palestinian attorney, co-founded Al-Haq many years ago, a Palestinian human rights organization, primarily focusing on legal rights of Palestinians. It documents violations of human rights by Israel as well as by the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and by Hamas in Gaza, but its biggest work has been the use of international law to challenge the conduct of the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Shehadeh’s father, also a lawyer, had done similar work after the family was expelled from its home in Jaffa in 1948.

There were about 20 of us at the reading; I’d wished for at least 100. I already knew about some of Shehadeh’s work and the work of Al-Haq. His father had been among the first Palestinians, after 1967, to advocate for two different states, Israeli and Palestinian, at a time when the PLO and other Palestinian organizations refused to recognize Israel altogether, and had been persecuted for that position.

After an indifferent introduction by the store’s staff person, an elderly, frail man got up to speak at the lectern. A couple of years younger than me, he seemed tired. He talked about how enthusiastic he’d been in his 30s at fighting Israeli policies on the judicial front. He’d been a young lawyer, idealistic, convinced of the probity and integrity of other lawyers and judges, be it in Israel’s Supreme Court or in international courts, to review and overturn army directives against the Palestinian population in the West Bank. (Notwithstanding many Israelis’ stance concerning the sanctity of their supreme court, the facts remain that the Israeli supreme court has very rarely overridden the army’s directives).

He believed in the law, believed in peace, and wondered why it was that his father hadn’t been more supportive of these efforts. He also saw how many of the neighboring Arab countries used the Palestinians to act out their rivalries with each other, how much they did to foment their own political agendas at the expense of the very people they ostensibly were trying to help.

Only years after his father’s death, when he began to go through many of his papers and files, did he realize that his father had essentially done the same work he was now doing, challenging various governments in courtrooms under international law, suffering exile for 18 months, only he did this since 1948 and failed. Now, here was the son, in South Hadley, Massachusetts, older than his father had been when he died, tired and discouraged, just like his father.

He kept up a good front, speaking of mutual justice and respect, but you could feel the gestalt in the room, a man who had worked hard all his life and had few results to show for it, and who knew that his father had lived his life in the same way till his death.

I drove home that evening very sad, couldn’t get Shehadeh’s thin, pale face out of my mind. I thought of the many people, Palestinians and Israelis, who have held the space for peace all these years. The news highlights terrorist actions, rockets and drone assassinations, but all these years people have spent a substantial part of their lives and energy holding the space for peace and nonviolent resistance in their hearts and in their actions.

I think of my friend Sami Awad of Holy Land Trust in Bethlehem, Iris and Tani Katz in Israel, and so many who’ve struggled against the militarization of the conflict, against relying on coercion and weapons, against legal machinations and manipulations, continuing to work day after day on behalf of justice and fairness for all.

On Memorial Day I thought of those who died to plant a flag of victory on a mountain peak in a Pacific island or on a Normandy beach. And I thought of those still living who continue to give their lives over for the sake of peace over generations, undeterred by “facts on the ground,” the cynicism of the media and government, and the indifference of their peers.

I lit incense for them as well, thanked them, wished them luck

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