It is rare for me to talk about my personal life as it pertains to my immediate family and I know that grates on some people. There’s a reason for that, explained perhaps most clearly in this article I wrote for The Debutante’s Ball upon the publication of my first novel. Every now and again, however, if it is important enough, I will speak of it, or, more importantly, of children. This is one of those times. Perhaps it is because I’ve been immersed in the history of these two peoples for so long, perhaps it is because I just read this piece on the US targetting of civilians in Iran, or because I listened to Omar Barghouti speak at the University of Pennsylvania last Tuesday.
This morning I had a conversation with my oldest daughter, she who is already one foot and half her heart out the door, she who is poised to leap off the tall building and take flight, safe in the knowledge that wherever she goes, no matter how far away and under what circumstances, a depthless store of love waits to welcome her back. It was a discussion about politics, but more importantly, about what it means to take a stand about an issue.
Some history. A month ago she had decided (this math and science child who talks about how she is not a writer – like you? oh my god! – yet is an editor of her high school newspaper), to write an opinion piece about Palestine. Needless to say she met with a lot of resistence all aimed at (a) whittling down the space she had to write, and (b) providing rebuttals. Given the many, unrelated, struggles she has had to overcome over the past several years, I eventually asked her as kindly as I could if she wanted to withdraw her article. I explained that she didn’t have to fight the battles I take on, that she was 16 years old and didn’t possess the knowledge that she needs to speak about this particular issue, and that life could become tough for her at her mostly Jewish high school. I explained, only half-jokingly, that one of our dearest friends had told me that he only began speaking out about this issue after he got tenure and decided that he didn’t need any more friends. “If everybody did that nobody would say anything,” said she. Of course.
I’m an adoring mother but not an easy-going one. Thus it was that once she did her research and wrote that article and received the backlash I knew she would (before it even went to print), and when she hid in the bathroom because she was going to backtrack, and didn’t want to tell me, I held her feet to the literal fire. This is what it means, I told her, to speak out about something. You want to do it you better be sure you are going to stand your ground. Either you don’t speak, or you speak and refuse to be muzzled. It was an ugly morning, full of tantrums and tears including mine, though mine were private, shut up in a stall at a swim meet, where I cried for the weight of never knowing if what I say and do will make them stronger or imperil their lives. It is now February. The article appeared and was discussed in classrooms by the more enlightened teachers. The students in those classes greeted it with divergent opinions but were united in their appreciation for the research she had done and the courage she had displayed. Nothing she said was particularly controversial, and much of what she said I – and many Palestinian activists – would have trouble with. Nonethless, it seems, a “friend” of hers (whose previous effort was an attempt to block the formation of an Amnesty International chapter at the high school on grounds of anti-Semitism), launched an insidious attack on her – not under her own steam but that of her older brother, long gone from the high school.
So we had a talk this morning. The talk came full circle to what our responsibilities are when we choose to take on a cause. I don’t believe that her fellow editors are ill-intentioned, that theirs is a malicious attempt to thwart her, but thwarted she will be if she says nothing. I spoke again of our tenured friend, the one who has taken many difficult stands over this issue, a few of which have included the sacrifice of professional acclaim. Will she lose her editorship, she asked. I didn’t think so (and man, if she did I’d fight that battle to the bitter end). But it allowed me to mention what it is we talk about when we talk about taking on a cause. You cannot take on a cause and remain impervious to what the cause demands of you. You cannot take on a cause yet back down when it becomes uncomfortable for you personally. And perhaps more important to understand than both those things, is that every cause is bigger than the people who choose to speak for it and that the moment you speak, it is no longer about the stand or the personal risks you take, but about the people for whom you speak.
Omar Barghouti spoke last Tuesday about the PACBI and the need for American academics and artists to support the boycott of Israel. Several artists, including Alice Walker and Sarah Schulman have done so. Some others, like David Grossman, have called upon writers to join in the call for peace – a peace that may or may not be the peace desired by Palestinians who rightly point out that peace within a system where there are lesser humans and more perfect humans is no peace at all – and the text of the declaration makes assertions that are problematic at many levels, but at least they are refusing to remain silent.
I don’t know how this particular life lesson will play out for her. I am glad that she forego a chance to stay home and study for the ACTs or tend to half a dozen other academic demands, and accompanied me to U Penn last week. I am glad that though she rolled her eyes at me for being directionally challenged, and complained about the freezing cold, and uttered a disdainful “never!” to the young guy who walked us to our destination and asked her if she was considering Penn for college, she still sat and listened to that talk, and had the humility to reveal the depths of her ignorance by whispered questions (to me), about the most rudimentary of details.Perhaps she will determine that speaking out about difficult subjects – something this reserved child, so unlike her mother, has embraced, and for which I remain forever in awe, for it is harder for her than it is for me – is not the particular gift she has to give the world. Maybe this article will be the sum total of her contribution to this cause. But if it is, I hope it is not because she fears for her own physical or emotional comfort. For if that is the rationale, no matter how justified – given her youth and her commitments to multiple other areas of her life – I hope that she will ask herself this question: if she were a child in Jenin who had the choice to risk death by bouncing a rock off the hull of an approaching 66 ton Merkava whose driver has not been occasioned the opportunity to set much store by her humanity, or risk a degree of reprobation and perhaps even ostracism by speaking out against injustice at an elite American high school she will soon leave behind, which would she choose? Which would you?