The story involves a small group of mostly Jews at a rally, taking place in early 2009, in response to the horrific bombing of Gaza by the Israeli government. Many of the story’s minor characters were active in the Civil Rights Movement and are motivated to protest from their own experiences there. While the theme is a serious one, there are interspersed elements of humor and sadness in my piece.
I have altered the names of all the political organizations, so that they do not represent any real names. All of the events in my story happened to either myself or to others I personally knew.
The Wandering Jew at the Palestinian Human Rights Rally
It’s early January, two-thousand nine; heavy snows sweep down on us Jews and Palestinians alike, at the Water Tower Park protest, across from Chicago’s marble-faced Water Tower Place. Israel began bombing Gaza late December, murdering hundreds of innocent civilians. The Palestinians have bullhorns and microphoned loudspeakers. Flags are flying among the throng. We stand shouting:
“STOP ISRAELI BOMBING!”
“STOP THE MASSACRE!”
“ISRAEL, ISRAEL, YOU CAN’T HIDE. . . WE CHARGE YOU WITH GENOCIDE!. . . WE CHARGE YOU WITH APARTHEID!”
We’re Arabs and Jews together – just like back in the Civil Rights Movement! Black and white together! We shall not be moved! I see Ibrahim Ibrahim in the crowd. He flashes me a grin. Abe, he likes to be called, since people are confused with his first and last name being the same, sometimes shows up for our “Not In Our Name” Sunday afternoon peace vigils.
My back stiffens like an ironing board and I turn around toward Michigan Avenue with my placard. The protest is growing in strength and volume. Traffic is heavy; cars rumbling by, splattering salted slush up from the boulevard’s pavement. Bill stands to my left. Gentle Bill marched to Selma as a young medical student; he’s retired now, with a weak heart. I like his good natured jokes and sandy grey hair.
“Got your double long-johns on?”
“Yep,” he says, his face all rosy.
My friend, Millie, stands next to him – she’s been pried from her complacency, coming out for her first protest. I’ve convinced her there’s never, ever- since my joining the vigils – been any evidence of anti-Semitism. Our closeted gay guy, Buddy, is here – a nineteen sixty-four Freedom Rider to Mississippi. We all wish he’d feel safe enough to come out to us, but we keep his secret, even from each other. Pit-bull Joan and her apologetic husband, Andy, with his horn-rimmed glasses, are here. Harvey Garfunkel struts back and forth in front of us, like a colonel surveying his troops.
Across Michigan Avenue traffic, Water Tower Place rises before us like a grey monolithic god to higher-end fashion, expensive chocolates, exclusive condos and upscale dining, as throngs of shoppers rush through swiveling glass doors, past perfumed, gleaming lobbies; where sky-bound elevators whisk them toward the moneyed heavens, far from our noisy, grubby group, across the class divide on the other side of the “Magnificent Mile.”
I feel sturdy hands on my shoulders and turn around to Abe’s brown eyes crinkling at the corners. We’d had coffee once, and he’d shared how his family was driven from their home by militia, machine guns and tanks, with the advent of the “Nakba,” the Arabic word for catastrophe – when Israel became a state in nineteen-forty-eight.
“Hey!” he says.
“Hey,” I say, feeling myself blush a little.
“Quite a crowd,” he intones, his Oxford-educated syllables resounding above the throng. No, it‘s you who have the accent, Rebecca, he’d once teased when I’d asked if he got more respect with his expensively-bought enunciations. He seemed to like the repartee’. I find myself trying not to swear when he’s around.
“My students,” he says, pointing toward the group of wide-eyed, young Palestinians. He says he’ll see me later and rushes back to his charges.
“You two are like Romeo and Juliet,” Bill says, his eyebrows raised. “Capulets and Montagues. Very sweet.”
‘No we’re not! We‘re just friends.”
I turn around again toward traffic; an occasional driver honks his support, and others give thumbs up from inside car windows. Our group displays our various banners. Millie’s sign reads: “TWO PEOPLES; ONE FUTURE.”
I wave to Maureen and Colin, our Irish immigrant couple, former members of the IRA; they come every Sunday, lending us their support. Maureen is a little powerhouse, and Colin twinkles with delight as his wife waves her fist high, shouting slogans in unison with the crowd.
Suddenly, my ironing board back stiffens further, as if sprayed with heavy starch. Two matrons, covered head-to-foot in black chadors, have stepped in right next to me. They’re now hunching low at sidewalk’s end, eying my placard’s bold pronouncement: “THIS JEW SAYS NO! TO ISRAELI OCCUPATION!”
I nod at them and, clearing my throat, turn back to traffic – one eye locked in a gripping embrace with the thrusting chin of my nearest completely covered companion.
Both women are still gawking at the word “JEW” on my sign. The shorter one begins waving her huge Palestinian banner; its thick horizontal black, white and green stripes are overlaid by a red triangle issuing from the hoist. She shifts her meaty mitts and changes the pole’s direction, swinging it at me, slapping me in the face with snow-soaked canvas.
“ISRAEL, ISRAEL, YOU CAN’T HIDE! . . . ”
The chants continue, the crowd growing by leaps and bounds.
She swings the heavy flag away; then pulls it back around again.
“WE CHARGE YOU WITH GENOCIDE!”
My teeth clench, and I look for Bill and Millie. The wind, snow and wet canvas slapping me block the view of my two compadres’ faces.
“This is different,” I say, once Millie’s pained expression comes into view. I ask where Bill has gone and she replies he’s looking for Harvey. She pulls back a glove, glancing down at her wristwatch.
I turn back around to the fucking oppressed woman, (I mean potential ally), and say: “Would you mind not belting me in the face with your flag.”
Her beady eyes bore into me; her nostrils flare, like a bull in a nun’s habit, hidden hooves grinding and scraping slushy sidewalk, ready to charge me. Her flag continues slapping me and my exposed, immodest Jewish hair. I duck back, and occasionally, she misses her mark. So, I’m wearing my blue beret, tilted to one side, for such an day as this? Perhaps if I plead: “Look here, I’m sorry I’m a Jew! I’m really, really sorry I’m a Jew!”
I take some slow, steady breaths. I know it wouldn’t work to say: “Hey lady, my mother had a poster of the First Intifada on her wall! A Mother’s Day gift from me!”
Perhaps, when I catch my breath, I might say: “We’re both Semites, aren’t we?”
I clench my teeth to stop myself from screaming something unwise like: “You fucking backward bitch, get your fucking flag out of my face.”
I suppress a wild desire to punch her in the face – the bigger issue of Israel’s brutality toward the people of Gaza stays my hand. Instead, I grab hold of her flag’s front edge and stop her further flailing in my direction. Her grim painted lips compress, and she yanks the flag from my hands.
Garfunkel, the “leader” of our fifteen-person group, waddles over.
“Maybe we should move to another location,” he advises. His plump, goateed façade hides layers of unease.
We few sidle sideways in the slush, toward the stage where an angry young man is screaming something into a microphone. I can’t quite hear him over the din; but Millie has turned ashen.
“Oh my God!” Her voice is quivering, her eyes bulging.
I turn around. There, on either side of the screaming guy at the microphone, above the shouting throng and waving fists, are two blue and white banners, swinging back and forth. Back and forth. Something about what the man is shouting, something that, for an untold moment, causes me to sit like cement, my body losing its strength or will to move. Did he just scream “Kill the Jews!”–? Did he just scream that?
Something is funny about the flags, too. They continue waving back and forth, but something is incongruent. Then I see. They’re flying Israeli flags! What are Israeli flags doing at an anti-Israeli demonstration?
“Oh my God!” I gasp, echoing Millie’s mantra. In the middle of the two flags, instead of blue Stars of David, are blue swastikas! Swastikas? Swastikas. I stand hammered in the middle of the fray.
Garfunkel shuffles up next to us in his brown army boots.
“We should cross the street,” he orders, jerking his jowl toward Water Tower Place. “It’s better over there.”
“Better over there?” I ask, trying to overcome my dizziness and not wanting to sound sarcastic. “You said there was no anti-Semitism with these people.”
Garfunkel ignores me, and we begin moving away from the platform, away from the Palestinian lady with her flag, and away from the swastikas.
When the traffic light turns green, our little group scuttles across Michigan Avenue with our signs, while the wish, on the other side of the street, to kill us Jews grows more palpable. We stand at the marble monolith’s corner, hoping a policeman doesn’t come along to shoo us away. I’m shivering in my grubby boots, but at least now we’re safe to make our political statement and have people realize not all Jews are anti-Arab racists.
We stand there a good ten minutes, when mid-distance away, I notice a knot of shabby-looking, squat, bearded men with signs among the post-Christmas shoppers. Oh no, I say to myself.
Harvey is marching back and forth in front of us.
“We’re gonna to have to move again,” he shouts over Michigan Avenue honking of horns and ringing of Santa’s bells. The hairy, religious men brandish blue fists, inside yellow, six-pointed stars, which they rattle in our direction with faces clenched. Their banners shout:
“NO SURRENDER TO ISLAM!”
“JEWISH PEOPLE ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE!”
“JEWISH PEOPLE! BUY YOUR WEAPONS NOW!”
“Harvey!” I yell, trying to hide the fact that my limbs are shaking.
“Rebecca,” Bill comes close. “Let’s get outta here.”
“Don’t blame me!” Harvey shouts over cat calls of “traitor,” “fucking bitch” and “self-hating Jews” – emanating from the mouths of the motley right-wing crew. The men wear bobby pin-held yarmulkes, their bright ears blazing in the freezing frost. White fringes flutter from their prayer shawls under dark winter jackets. There are no women in their crowd.
“Stay and fight these assholes?” Harvey sputters, his face like a bruised cauliflower. “Or cross the damn street!”
Only then do I notice Millie’s furrowed brow. “You didn’t say nothing about Jewish Defense Union showing up!” she cries.
I try to say I didn‘t know, but can’t speak.
Millie hands me her “TWO PEOPLES, ONE FUTURE!” sign and staggers off, her boots sloshing through Michigan Avenue slush. I feel a thickness in my throat, my body heavy with fatigue. Foot traffic floods in and around us; a few more Jewish Defense Union types wander over to their group, shaking each other’s hands, grabbing signs, and turning their glare on us.
“Let me take that,” Bill says, reaching for Millie’s sign, his eyes squinting in the wind. “Last week? Israeli Consulate? Remember, Rebecca?”
“What about it?”
“Palestinian families with kids thanking us? Remember?>”
“Yeah Bill, I remember,” I nod, covering my face with my gloves, trying to get my nose warm.
“It’s just Harvey’s shtick,” Bill whispers close to me. “Don’t pay attention to his bullshit.”
“I don’t like lying to my friends, Bill – even if I didn’t know it was a lie.”
Garfunkel marches back to us.
“Come on,” he growls.
Our group scuttles across Michigan Avenue again, to the other side of Pearson Street, where the fancy chocolate shop is parked. The blizzard has lifted. Fat snowflakes flutter down to salted earth. Rich smells of cocoa drift along the arctic air current. I want to put my sign down, right there on the street, and retreat to a hot chocolate with extra whipped cream, waiting for me. . . calling to me. . . in the little confectionery shop, just a few feet away. Only the knowledge that my comrades will see me, stops me shaming myself.
We stay another twenty minutes or so with our “Not In Our Name” contingent; protesters meander off to nearby train and bus lines. Maureen and Colin wish us all a good day. Bill goes to get his van; Harvey, Buddy, and the others gather up signs and follow close behind. Across Pearson Street inside Water Tower Park, Abe seems to be arguing with the “Kill the Jews” guy, and the man finally puts down his microphone on the speakers’ platform. The Nazi Israeli flag flyers roll up their banners. Abe crosses Pearson, coming over to me as I’m getting ready to leave. I nod and lower my gaze for a moment.
“Don’t have much control over these extremists,” he says, his husky voice breaking; his tall lanky body bending toward mine. Months earlier, after telling his “Nakba” story, over thick Turkish coffee, I’d shared my Babi Yar story. In late September, nineteen forty-two, my great-grandfather was shoved into a mass grave with his granddaughter. The Nazis pushed babies in first, to save on bullets. A hundred thousand Jews were killed there in two days. Abe had stared down at his coffee when I’d told him, then reaching across the table, he’d taken my hand.
“You’re not coming back again, are you?” he asks, pulling me into to the present.
I shake my head without speaking. My toes are quite cold now.
Across the street, the Jewish Defense Union has been joined by a brigade of evangelicals calling themselves: “Christ’s Children for Israel.” They’re moving to storm Michigan Avenue. I say goodbye to Abe and turn, walking heavy-footed away from the dwindling crowd and pumped-up crazies. He catches up to me half way down Michigan Avenue, grabbing my arm.
“Rebecca. . . Rebecca. . . Would . . . would you like to have dinner with me sometime?” he asks, to my surprise.
I look into his crinkling eyes. His thicket of black curls, sprinkled with grey, is fluttering in the bitter wind. Snow continues its oblivious drifting to earth. His hand slides down my arm and he seems to be holding his breath. I feel as if my body is floating as I look up into his open face and ask: “When?”
L.S. Sharrow has been a storyteller most of her adult life, has had short stories published in The Chicago Renaissance Court 2012 Anthology, and on several fiction websites. She lives in Chicago, and is currently working on a collection of inter-connected pieces.