Outtake from the Revolution

President Nixon bowls with the winners of the 7th International Bowling Federation Tournament (not pictured)
Nixon bowling, 1971.

AFTER NIXON ANNOUNCED the invasion of Cambodia in April 1970, masses of students at all the respectable colleges in America went out on strike. Santa Monica City College, however, was not a respectable college, so while protests were escalating around the country, often into violence, and many campuses were effectively shutting down, at SMCC a few activists set up a table next to the lawn with fliers and stickers urging people, unsuccessfully, to stay out of class. I mean, they had to do something; it was embarrassing. Everybody at SMCC had an inferiority complex; in California, if you were with it in 1970, you were at Berkeley, or Santa Cruz, or San Francisco State, where there was turbulence and the feel of revolution in the air, where people were changing and growing and discovering and radicalizing their little faces off, or Sonoma State if you wanted to get mellow, or UCLA or plenty of other places if you just wanted to go to a good school with smart people. But SMCC? It wasn’t even a real college, it was a two-year junior college. (It had been called “Santa Monica Junior College,” then they’d changed “Junior” to “City,” and later they would get rid of “City.” Real social climbers, these people.) Its image was of a school for dumb white kids with good tans, for surfers trying to learn a job skill. So the student body couldn’t sit out the strike entirely, it would just confirm our reputation as losers.

Still, I was hoping it would peter out because I had no conviction for this. Chanting “on strike, shut it down”? Hollering at the school’s administrators, whoever they might be? Raising students’ consciousness to see the connection between SMCC and napalm? I was always absolutely against the war, and totally in favor of protesting it, but I never really got why we were supposed to target the schools we attended. Which put me in a bind, because for college students in those years, protesting the Vietnam War meant protesting your college. I wasn’t in favor of the strike, but I couldn’t bring myself to go against it, either, because that would have meant siding with Nixon and the war’s supporters, and because at age 19 I couldn’t think clearly enough and wasn’t brave enough to reach a conclusion and make a decision that could 1) put me on the side of my nemeses, the conservatives, and 2) turn me into an outcast.  So I was left with my confusion.

GOD, I HATED that school. It seemed more like a shopping center than a college, sitting on Pico Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in Santa Monica and West Los Angeles, wedged in between blocks of convenience stores, ice cream parlors, pet shops, burrito stands and traffic. In the middle of campus was a broad lawn where hardly anyone ever sat, and it was flanked by low-rise, peach-colored, plain modern buildings, which were flanked by bungalows, which were flanked by parking lots. The place had as much character and atmosphere as a Jack in the Box.

I was there for two years, and I remember exactly one class session, in economics, that I found interesting, the lecturer being a good one. How interesting that class was during the rest of the semester, I can’t say, because I hardly ever showed up. I cut classes like crazy. I dropped or was dropped out of so many courses that I lost my student draft deferment. (I wasn’t worried; anybody who wanted could beat the draft, which I did.) I had no business being in college; I didn’t know what I wanted to study, couldn’t concentrate in class, couldn’t read the books at home. I was there because I was afraid to outrage my father by quitting, and I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. I’d been the same sort of student in high school (except in literature and history), which I barely graduated, so I didn’t have the grades to get into a regular four-year college, only a two-year junior college, whose admission requirements were that you be a current California resident and be alive for at least 18 years. SMCC cost $6 a semester, it was close to home, so what the hell. When I did show up, I walked around campus feeling like that character on the bridge in the painting “The Scream.” I didn’t talk to or even look at anybody. When I did go to class, I sat in the back and daydreamed.

AS FOR THE student strike across America, it didn’t peter out. Nixon invaded Cambodia on a Thursday, and on Monday the National Guard killed four students at Kent State. Even at SMCC, things started to heat up. Meanwhile, my confusion about whether or not to strike classes became acute, turning into a feeling of paralysis. Loitering at the strike table, feeding my confusion all the more, I saw an old acquaintance from high school named Freddy checking out the material. Freddy had been one of those unassuming, unathletic boys whom the late ‘60s turned into a star: He’d become one of the kings of our high school’s dope-smoking scene. He smoked marijuana and hashish all the time, and developed a doper’s laughing eyes and anarchic sense of humor. He also sold dope, but never became a profiteer; he had a good soul. (Hamilton High School, in middle-to-upper-middle-class, heavily Jewish West L.A., had a very active dope scene, mainly grass and hash, when we were there. In 1968 or 1969 a survey found it to have the highest proportion of dope smokers of any high school in the city. The day this made the news, we walked around campus chanting, in imitation of UCLA basketball fans, “We’re number one, we’re number one…”)

Freddy, who at SMCC still looked like your friendly neighborhood dope dealer with his thin beard and granny glasses, never struck me as a political type, but he told me he’d stopped going to class. I don’t know, I said, and started describing my angst, and he said, C’mon, let’s go for a walk. We went into the campus’ new amphitheater, which was empty, sat high up in the bleachers and Freddy lit up a joint, passed it to me, and he began trying to convince me to join the strike. It didn’t matter about college, he said, forget that shit, the point is that something’s happening, it’s getting bigger,  and everybody’s gotta do his part, and then it’ll keep on getting bigger, and it’ll spread to outside the colleges, into business and all that shit, and little by little the straight people will join, and then Nixon won’t be able to run his fucking war anymore, get it?

Freddy was high as a kite, fairly ecstatic, which was normal for him. But this was my first time ever getting loaded on campus, high school or college, and I was now a different person. Freddy didn’t convince me, he converted me, he baptized me. I was imbued. I’d crossed over, become radicalized. The air was charged. Finally, I felt free. And I guess I was in the mood for a fight, because from there I went into my Psychology 1 class, which I especially hated because of the professor, whose name I can’t remember but who sticks in my mind as a slightly stockier, balder version of Ray Walston playing a comically pompous, ill-tempered prof.

The lecture hall was shaped like an amphitheater, too, there were about 40 students in there, and as usual I sat in the back, by myself. The professor, wearing his regular tan sports coat and tie, starts lecturing and at some point a student raises his hand, and the professor took the question, as he often did, by saying, “What’s your problem?” He wasn’t mean, he was just patronizing in a way he probably thought was cute. Or maybe he’d thought it was cute once, and now he just did it out of habit. The student got a little flustered, but he got his question out, the professor answered and went on lecturing, a couple more students asked questions, the professor again broadcast his impatience in taking them, again the questioners swallowed it, and this just went on. Nobody objected, they continued scribbling or flipping pages or staring into space. Normally I would have been staring into space, too, but I was really stoned, and thus hyper-aware of what was going on, and I couldn’t take it. I was scared, but I raised my hand, the professor recognized me, and I asked, very audibly, “Why are you always belittling people?”

The whole class turned around to look up at me, then they looked back down at the professor as he began denying that he was belittling anyone. “Yes you are,” I said, “people ask you a question and you say ‘what’s your problem’ and that’s belittling people.” The professor kept denying, kept defending himself – and then other students in the class started opening their mouths. A hippie sitting near me made the hippie point that it was all a matter of opinion, which only agitated the professor more. It was us against him, everyone talking at once, and soon the professor, who looked very small down there in the pit of the lecture hall, was pointing up at me, his whole self seeming to vibrate, his face screwed up in a rage, and he shouted at me, “Sit down!” Which surprised me – I wasn’t aware that I was standing up. I sat down, the fight dissipated and soon the class ended. On the way out, a couple of students congratulated me, and a few others smiled at me. Everybody was aware of my presence. I’d become class hero for a day to some, and class celeb for a day to the rest. Not bad! Well, between this and my radicalization an hour and a half earlier, it was clear I wouldn’t be attending any more classes for awhile. I was on strike.

WHAT DID YOU do in a student strike? You joined one of the strike committees. A big thing in those days was “relating to the community,” which meant the poor blacks and Chicanos of Santa Monica and Venice, and that always had huge appeal for me, so I joined that committee. I spent an afternoon in Venice swapping very ambitious ideas with the black guy who headed a local “grassroots organization,” and that was the last we ever heard from each other. Another time I took a ride with the white chairwoman of our committee to get some leaflets made, and she told me proudly, “I can only really be myself around black people.” The highlight of my “work” was attending a service at a large black church in L.A. and hearing the gospel choir sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” long known as the “Negro national anthem.” If there were a musical equivalent to hearing Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech up close at the March on Washington, that would have been it.

In his book “The Sixties,” Todd Gitlin wrote that in the 1970 nationwide student strike, 30 ROTC buildings – the military Reserve Officers’ Training Corps sites on campuses, which had long been the focus of protests – got torched or bombed. At 26 colleges, violence occurred between police and student demonstrators. At 21 colleges in 16 states, the National Guard was called in. Back at SMCC, the climax of the strike was a march by about 100 of us along the sidewalk of Pico Boulevard, stopping for red lights, to City Hall, where we demanded that the mayor send a letter to the White House in which he would demand an end to the war in Southeast Asia, to repression on campus and to several other things. The mayor came out, heard from our leaders, accepted our written demands, smiled and went back inside. (This was when Santa Monica was still a pretty conservative town, shortly before the hordes of cool people arrived.) We marched back to campus for our closing rally, where one of our leaders read the statement from the mayor’s office, which said the mayor had sent a letter to the White House saying that we striking SMCC students demanded an end to the war, repression, etc. We cheered our victory, and the rally broke up. (It went unnoticed, or anyway unmentioned, that the mayor himself hadn’t demanded a thing from the White House, he’d just passed along our message. Whatever.)

SOMETHING ELSE I did during the strike, in response to the call by the leadership, was to try to convince other students to join. I thought I might still have a little pull in my Psychology 1 class, so I walked in one afternoon while it was in session, and took a stance in the middle of the aisle next to the rows of students. There were more empty seats than before; evidently the strike had had some effect. I’d made a tactical error, though – by this time, all the students had made up their minds one way or the other, and anybody who was still in class wasn’t going to come out now. Again, everyone was aware of my presence, including the professor.

“Yes?” he called out to me.

“I want to ask people here if they want to join the strike, if they want …”

“Leave this class right now.”

“I just want to ask them …”

“Leave this class, immediately.”

“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave.”

“I said leave this class!”

“If they want me to leave, I’ll leave!”

Then what seemed like all the students in the front rows turned around in their seats, and they were glaring at me. “Leave!” they yelled.

That had a disarming effect on me, but still I managed to say, with some defiance, “All right, I’ll leave!” and strode back up the aisle and out the door.

Summer was coming, so the strike couldn’t go on much longer. (Certainly not at SMCC, where you could smell the waves.) It didn’t stop the war, of course, but the antiwar strike of 1970 was still a memorable experience for all who participated. Toward the end, a new demand was raised by striking students at all the colleges: that they not be penalized for missing classes and tests, and be given credit for having passed those subjects. Most if not all the colleges agreed, including SMCC. For me, then, the big protest turned out, even academically, to have been worth the effort.

The Summer I Got My Union Card

The old Greyhound terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets in downtown L.A..
The old terminal at 6th and Los Angeles streets.

WHEN I WENT to work unloading buses at the Greyhound terminal in downtown Los Angeles, there were a few guys from the average white Christian suburbs outside the city who didn’t like me. I overheard one of them muttering to one of his buddies, “I hate guys like that.” What kind of guy was I? A verbal guy, a knowledgeable guy, a witty guy, an urbanite. (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and leave out “Jewish.”) A guy who they could see was out of place unloading buses at Greyhound. The foreman was one of them, a real redneck named Pete who loved playing the cock of the walk. Once when we were all sitting on the low railings at the unloading docks waiting for the next bus, he told us about a fight where he’d taken a tire iron to somebody’s leg and left it dangling unhinged from the knee. He described this with a toothy, ghastly grin, and his boys listened with dutiful admiration. One night Pete brought his date into the hangar where we worked, a vast, high-ceilinged, noisy, greasy, exhaust-fumed expanse, not a terribly romantic place to bring a date, but these Middle American jackasses came through for the boss. “Hey, Pete, how’re you doing, looking sharp, man …” and he just grinned and let his date presumably be impressed. He was a mean bantam rooster, and I was not his kind. Once I was five minutes late getting back from lunch break, which was standard for the unloaders, and I’m sitting on a bench in the terminal and I hear over the PA system, “Larry Derfner, report to door 11 immediately,” and it sounded like an emergency, so I hurried in, and Pete, waiting at the door, says to me, accusingly, “You’re supposed to be back at 8:30, where you been?” California cracker asshole.

This was in the early ‘70s, I was 22, and it was the first real job I’d ever had. Since pre-adolescence I’d worked at my father’s liquor store, which didn’t count, and later at a hot dog stand and briefly at a delicatessen, but those jobs were more or less for minimum wage so they didn’t count, either. Greyhound paid good money, it was a union job and not just any union, but the legendary International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union: “On the Waterfront,” strikers fighting cops, 1930s working-man socialists and communists, my idea of heaven. My ideal self. (That I couldn’t stand the actual white working-class guys right next to me didn’t disturb the image.) My father had been a communist in the 1920s and 1930s, gotten thrown in jail for it in Palestine and Poland, I’d come of age in the 1960s reading Steinbeck and James T. Farrell, but meanwhile my father had made good money at his liquor store in the black ghetto, moved us out to comfortable middle-class West L.A., and so I grew up not as a working-class kid, but as a cushioned kid, which I despised and regretted like nothing else. I’d hated college and dropped out the year before, decided I wanted to be an actor, but I was still working at my father’s liquor store – much longer than I’d ever thought I would. A close friend with a socioeconomic and psychological profile very similar to mine told me they were hiring at Greyhound, and we both got on, temporarily at first. Once he said to me how he and the other workers “sit around bullshittin’ when it’s slow,” with a smile that betrayed his glee at playing the role of the stereotypical working man – while getting paid like a real one – and likewise escaping his middle-class, educated, cushioned self. I didn’t smile back at him, though. This was something we were not supposed to mention.

The work was mindless, but that was fine – I was using my body pretty much to the maximum, tossing suitcases and heavy boxes around for eight or 12 hours a day. At worst, my lungs would burn a little at the end of a shift from breathing exhaust (on top of smoking a pack or so of cigarettes). After that first two-week Christmas trial period, I hired on for the following summer. Pete was gone, the other few white shitheads were gone, and I got along very well with everyone. I felt completely at ease. We all worked hard, except for one Mexican self-described “intellectual,” whom everyone held in contempt, including the two other Mexican unloaders, who worked like maniacs. Until then I’d always worked behind a counter or stocked shelves, using neither my mind nor my body. The shifts at Greyhound left me feeling spent, and feeling good about myself. Plus, the money was great. Also, I’d gotten the job on my own, and kept it. My father was impressed.  I’d always hated working at the liquor store and didn’t try to hide it. “This time it’s different,” he said to me.

THE HANGAR AT Greyhound was a man’s world. The only women around were the passengers who got off the buses, and the pretty ones naturally became the objects of our jokes and boasting, strictly among ourselves. (Occasionally we’d flirt with them, but I never saw anyone score.) For the most part, we talked like men do when they’re on a crew doing hard physical work out in the open with no boss sitting on top of them: We all acted like macho men to one degree or another. One night an assistant terminal manager, a black guy named Ed, came over and drew a crowd of us around him as he described what he did after his little daughter got raped by some 13-year-old boy in the neighborhood. “I went over to his house and told his folks that when I find him, I’m gonna kill him. Went home, got my shotgun, got in my car, and I see him walking around. I got out of my car,” he said, and mimed aiming a rifle. “Boom, boom, and that was it for that motherfucker. Killed his ass. Didn’t do a day in jail, either.” I was a little taken aback – the kid was 13 years old, after all. Ed didn’t seem too upset about his little daughter getting raped, either, he was just bragging about how he’d taken revenge. (Now that I think of it, he probably was lying. He didn’t do a day in jail? And he just kind of drops that story on us out of nowhere? Ed got fired later on for stealing, which puts his credibility all the more in doubt.) But I wasn’t going to voice any reservations in that crowd. There was one real intellectual among us, a junior college instructor with a master’s degree – and a daughter – making some extra money on the side. “I would have done the same thing,” he said. “Anybody touches my little girl, I’ll blow him away.” This was how we talked on the job.

Another time we were all sitting around on the railing listening to two black workers engaged in a seemingly mild session of what black people used to call “the dozens” and the Sopranos called “breaking balls.” Some of the spectators were laughing and calling out when one of the jousters got off a good line. I was sitting next to my best friend at work, a 30-year-old black dude named Bill, who was joining in the chorus, egging the two on. I quietly told Bill to cool it, and pointed to the older, thinner one in the ring, and said he was about to go off, and you didn’t want to become one of his targets if and when he did. Bill glanced at me, not understanding, and turned back to the match. In a couple of minutes, the older, thinner guy pulled a knife out of his pocket, opened it up and threatened his opponent. The game was over, everyone dispersed, and Bill said to me with wonder, “How did you know that dude was going to get crazy?” I told him the guy was losing and he knew it, he was getting humiliated in front of a hooting crowd, and that’s a combustible situation. “Larry, man,” said Bill in his high-pitched, uproarious voice, “you are the most streetwise white boy I’ve ever seen,” which to this day remains one of my most cherished compliments.

Bill was a charismatic, silver-tongued, brilliant, funny guy, the center of attention at all times among the crew. He’d studied political science at UCLA, but was also a dedicated hustler of older women with money, and his success was a testament to his personality, because from the waist up he looked like Oliver Hardy. Any woman he wasn’t impressed with, or who was clearly out of his league, was a “fly-drawin’ bitch.” At one point he decided that “Bill” was too common a name, he wanted something with a classier sound, so he told everybody to start calling him Charles. Then he wanted to go for something more exotic, so he announced that from now on his name was Ahmad Ishmael. He didn’t drink, smoke or take drugs; his vice was gluttony. “I like to greaze,” he explained. He worked hard most of the time, sometimes crazily hard; he was 6’3,” strong and athletic despite his upper chubbiness, and when he wanted to, he could pretty much clean out a bus loaded with baggage all by himself in the time it would take three guys. When these fits of productivity seized him, he’d get motivational with me, saying, “Get involved, Larry Derfner, get involved!” He had one additional vice – money, which was emphatically not one of mine, so he tried to set me straight: “You got to start hanging around rich women, Larry, and the way to start hanging around rich women is to stop hanging around poor ones.” Once, in connection with my indifference to wealth, he told me, “You’re just a jack Jew.” My ears pricked up and I asked what he meant. “You’re just playing at it,” he said, grinning, and I had to laugh. One late night after work, we sat in the car and he went into a long monologue about racism in America, about what it had done to black people, and I was transfixed; he was gifted, inspiring. Another time a few of us were sitting in a bus, playing a genuinely friendly, harmless game of the dozens, and Bill told somebody, “Man, you look like you been whupped with a sack of quarters.”

There was another black guy I was friends with, Claude, who was a couple of years older than me, had a master’s degree in public administration and clearly a big future ahead of him. An evangelist about Jesus Christ and body-building, he was the nicest, squarest, steadiest, hardest-working guy you could find. We used to do Richard Pryor bits together. Yes, I had a special affinity for black people, going back to my childhood, which is another story, and which went together with my hazy notion of what I was doing and who I was becoming by working at Greyhound.

THE BUS TERMINAL was at Sixth and Los Angeles streets, a block from the heart of Skid Row. The passengers waiting on the benches in the harshly-lit, drab lobby and getting off the buses pulling into the hangar were mainly poor people, many of them Mexican. (The main exceptions were the Japanese tourists, with their conspicuously sparkling luggage.) I was the only guy on the crew who spoke enough Spanish to have a conversation with the two Mexican workers (not counting the “intellectual,” whom nobody talked to, and who quit soon enough), which I was proud of and which earned me a few status points. Of the two Mexicans, the insanely hard worker rarely said a word, while the other, merely extremely hard worker limited his conversation with the others to “mucho trabajo.” (Bill naturally started calling him “Mucho Trabajo.”)

We were masters of our domain. Like I said, nobody was watching over us, at least not closely; we could shout, curse, spar and honk with laughter as much and as loud as we wanted. The hangar was so immense that the noise we made echoed. We were free men, hard at work. Unloading buses had a rhythm – when they were pulling in one after another, you couldn’t wait to tear into one and get all the suitcases and boxes onto the carts and into the sorting room, then tear into the next one, then the next. We competed with ourselves to see how fast we could get them unloaded. But that’s when they were streaming in rapidly; when traffic was slow, you’d sort of sink down into the railing, get comfortable and then curse when you heard the sound of another bus coming up the ramp. The greatest day I remember at Greyhound was when the NFL playoffs were on TV, and it was a holiday, which meant there was both very little traffic and time-and-half pay. George, an ordinarily by-the-book assistant terminal manager, came over to the unloading docks and told a couple of us to stay there and mind the store while the rest of us went into the maintenance room to watch the games on a portable TV. At half-time the guys out working would switch with a couple of us in the maintenance room. That day I watched 1½ NFL playoff games and got paid very well for it.

But as free and open as it was unloading buses, there was another job in the hangar that was death: the sorting room. This department was run by Eddie House, a black man of about 60 who’d been working at Greyhound forever and who never talked, only screamed and cursed hoarsely. Actually it was kind of a yowl. Where should I put this package, Eddie? “Put it over there in that Riverside cart, goddamn it,” he’d yowl, storming past you. Nobody took it personally, and everybody, black, white and brown, imitated him behind his back. But Eddie wasn’t the problem in the sorting room, the problem was the work. You stood in one spot in front of a line of conveyor belts coming at you with packages, and you took the packages off one by one and tossed them into the carts standing next to you, one cart for Los Angeles addresses, another for Riverside/San Bernardino, another for Ventura, another for Chicago and so on. You stood there in one place taking packages off belts and throwing them into carts for two hours at a time, with lunch and two breaks per shift. They sent me in there one day and after two hours, I went up to Eddie and told him I couldn’t handle it, I was going crazy, I had to get out of there and go back to unloading. “Then go on, get the motherfuck out of here,” he yowled, and I almost swooned with gratitude.

Being master of your domain, though, can lead to what the late Senator J. William Fulbright called the “arrogance of power.” We saw the words “handle with care” written on packages, often in capital letters, underlined, with multiple exclamation points, sometimes augmented by the word “Please” and even “Of Sentimental Value.” Yeah, well, we didn’t go out of our way to bang those packages up worse than usual when we dragged them out of the belly of the bus and flung them into the carts, but believe me, we did not handle a damn thing with care. Myself, I took a perverse, mildly sadistic pleasure at treating those packages marked with pleas for mercy in exactly the same swinging, swaggering, concussive, rackety, chimpanzee manner as I did every other.

The worst thing I ever did at Greyhound: During Christmas season, people would send small, brandied Christmas cakes with nuts and raisins in them, packed to stay fresh and moist. During a slow stretch, a couple of guys took a pair of Christmas cakes out of the baggage hold of a bus, kicked back and ate them. Those gifts would not be arriving at their destinations for the holiday. I was sitting with the two guys, and they urged me to take one for myself, and I begged off. But when you’re working with men in a rough environment, you don’t feel comfortable when they’re breaking the rules and you’re playing Dudley Do-Right. Also, I love Christmas cake. So I pulled back the edge of a package and took a little piece. Then another, and then fuck it, I ate the whole thing and threw the package away. I have a friend, Catholic born, who loves Christmas and makes an amazing Christmas cake every year; I told him that story and he gave me a look like Karl Malden gives Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” for betraying his conscience and going along with the mob.

I WORKED AT Greyhound for a total of four months – two Christmas vacations and a summer, and in the summer I got my union card. I was thrilled. It gave me a feeling of security, and of solidity; I felt like a man. I wasn’t sure, but I was thinking that maybe I could work at Greyhound until I made it as an actor, or a writer. One day at the unloading docks, somebody mentioned a guy named Horace, and a couple of other guys kind of smiled, and I asked who he was. “You don’t know Horace? Oh, you should meet him, you’ll have a lot to talk about – well, he’ll have a lot to talk about, at least.” “Yeah, when he starts talking …” Horace, they said, was a Jehovah’s Witness who worked in the sorting room. I naturally had to meet him, so the next day or so I went up to him, introduced myself and asked why he’d become a Jehovah’s Witness. He was older than me, late 30s, and black. He must have seen a glint of mischief in my eye – another unbeliever who wants to come meet the freak – and he gave me a very flat, serious look. Answering my question, he didn’t talk about religion, he talked about life, a person’s life, what he wants to do with it. “Like you,” he said. “I can take one look in your eyes and see that you’re not going to be working here much longer.” Touche, Horace.

What did he see in my eyes? Intelligence, too much for me to be unloading buses for a career. Maybe sensitivity. Maybe innocence. Maybe a basic sense of well-being, a fundamental, unthinking trust that everything will work out for me, that even if I fall, somebody or something will be there to catch me. No, I wouldn’t be working at Greyhound much longer. Later I would lose that innocence, and realize that I really could fall – for good, beyond anybody’s ability to catch me – and I decided to take my intelligence and do something with it. I’d always regretted that my father had worked his way into the middle class, always wished I’d grown up poor so I’d have to struggle like he did, and when I finally did have to struggle – when I reached my late 20s, saw I was nowhere and that ultimately there was no net underneath me – I fled, terrified, from a future in anyplace like the unloading docks at Greyhound.

I have some highly enjoyable memories of my time there. It also showed me something about the world and its people that you don’t see from inside the bosom of the educated middle class. And I love being able to say I once unloaded buses at the Greyhound terminal on Skid Row in downtown L.A. – it impresses the chattering classes. A lot of the times, it even fools me.

Thank You, Jesus

IT WAS DARK inside Phillips Temple C.M.E. (Colored Methodist Episcopal) Church, except for the light coming from the stage. The church, in the black part of Berkeley, had previously been one of those cavernous old movie theaters. It seated 1,500 people and on this Easter Day, 1972, it looked full. The pianist was alone onstage, pounding out the opening with those glistening, ravishing gospel chords. In a little while we started singing, wordlessly and low – over a hundred of us standing in the lobby that late morning, ready to enter the church’s dark interior. “Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh … ooh-ooh-ooh-ooooh-ooh-oooooooh …” We were three gospel choirs massed as one – two all-black church choirs, and California State University at Hayward’s Afro-American Ensemble, which included a smattering of whites, including me.

The crowd could hear us inside, of course – that was the point, to build up the anticipation, the drama. We made them wait, and then, after the pianist signaled loudly and urgently on the keyboard, we came in, one by one, through the curtains at the back, starting up the aisles in a slow, rhythmic march, singing full out, “We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me! We’ve come to pra-a-aise his na-a-a-a-me!” Over and over, until we all made it to the stage and onto the risers. People in the audience were getting up out of their seats, applauding and calling out. Some of those near the aisles turned around to see us, shouting encouragement and reaching out to pat our arms and squeeze our hands as we went by. Choir and congregation together, we filled that great, dark space with glory.

In my mind I still often sing that song, and still replay that scene, 45 years later. I’m an aged Jewish dad living in an Israeli suburb, and on my way to and from work I’m likely to be going crazy in the driver’s seat listening to The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, or the O’Neal Twins, or the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir or whoever. I love all kinds of music but nothing gets in my blood like gospel. White gospel is gorgeous, too, but black gospel is the ultimate. I don’t think I was aware of that when I joined the college choir; R&B had always been my favorite music, I grew up on Motown and it went on from there, and I knew, of course, that all the great soul singers came out of the church, and that gospel was the source of their music. But I didn’t go out of my way to listen to gospel, and I certainly didn’t know what it was like to sing in a gospel choir.

It turned out to be not just a musical experience. I also saw people giving themselves to a freedom, an abandon, a wild ecstasy that I’d never known, and that still has a pull on me. I never joined a cult in the ‘70s, but I couldn’t help feeling some envy for those people who, as the saying went, seemed to be high on life, whose minds had reached a freer, certainly more joyous plateau than mine. I just couldn’t cut the rope; I couldn’t surrender my independence of mind, and didn’t want to. It was the same thing with gospel in this way – I had no desire to become a Christian, I just loved the music, and so I had no problem singing about Jesus because I knew I wasn’t going to “get the spirit” and lose control. But in those churches I saw people losing control, and I wanted that to happen to me, too, or at least something close to it – just without the Jesus part.

Then there was my lifelong affinity for black people. Part love, part adulation, part pity. I’d gone to school with them, played ball with them, fought and laughed with them, worked with them, known some of them very well, but ultimately I’d lived in a white, notably Jewish, America, apart from theirs. In culture and style, they were magic. I’d always wanted to get closer to them – but I’d also wanted to go on being who I was.

IN THE CHURCHES and halls where we sang I saw people screaming and crying, writhing on the ground.  Once, when I was watching a choir from the audience, a song ended as they often did, with the energy cranked up so high that nobody could bear for it to end, so the music just kept going, the singers no longer singing but shouting, the piano player bashing the chords with all his strength, people in the audience falling out – and at one point the men’s section of the choir shuffled off the risers, their feet moving incomprehensibly, inhumanly fast. Their feet were moving something like mine do in my happiest of dreams, the ones where I find myself gliding down a staircase or escalator with a freedom and grace that I have known only in my sleep. There was one white guy among them and he went off the risers self-consciously in little clumping steps in time with the music; there was no way he could do that otherworldly shuffling thing. How could he? He wasn’t raised in a black gospel church.

In our college choir there were six whites and one Japanese-American along with about 20 blacks. The early ‘70s were a time of black militancy, but not at nondescript, vibeless Cal State Hayward. There was no black-white tension on campus, and so none in the Afro-American Ensemble. But then it wasn’t just the campus; it was also the particular black students in the choir: Nearly all had grown up in the church and many were still in it, so they were not likely to be black militants and tended to be very good-natured, friendly people (though by no means goody two-shoes types). I never felt a trace of antagonism from any of them because I was white; the pecking order in the choir was based only on musical talent, with Gregory Green at the top, in a class by himself, then Johnny, then Linda (more about them later), then the other soloists, then everybody else, including me.

What brought us six whites and one Asian to the choir? Two of the girls, as far as I knew, just liked the music and probably saw it as an exciting, exotic experience, which is basically what drew me. One guy was a recent exile from a Christian monastery looking for a new spiritual route. The Japanese-American boy was a piano player and singer, and in with the choir leaders. Then there was the fellow who’d gone clumping off the risers; it seemed the main if not only reason he was there was to look after his wife Linda, who was another story altogether.

A Christian like her husband, she was a soloist in our choir as well as in the Voices of Christ, both of which were directed by Helen Stephens, one of the leading lights in the history of Northern California gospel. Linda was an extraordinary singer, and blind. She sang as simply as could be, right on the beat, not changing or adding a note, no improvisation, just singing it straight every time – and once her singing literally made me shiver, which I can’t remember any other music ever accomplishing. She had a thin soprano that sounded fragile, yet didn’t break. Her voice had purity and innocence – and she killed audiences, black and white. Okay, maybe she got a point or two for blindness, but it can’t be we were all just imagining that tenderness and vulnerability, that beauty, and reacting the way we did because she was blind. The proof was on the Voices of Christ’s second album, “Fill My Cup,” with Linda singing the title song as evocatively as ever, and on record you didn’t know she was blind. I don’t know where she was from, but she sang “white,” musically and verbally, in a completely black musical setting, and there was no problem, no clash of styles at all. Her singing was so pure I think it would have fit in anywhere.

But a couple of years later I heard the Voices of Christ’s third album, “I’m Glad,” again with Linda singing the title song – and it was a disaster. Suddenly she was trying to sing black. She was playing around with the melody, she put a bit of the South into her pronunciation, she was trying to wail, she threw in “yes he did” a few times – and it was so inauthentic. She was trying to give the impression of being spontaneous, of surrendering to the freedom of the black way of singing – and every trill and every “yes he did” sounded rehearsed. Was this her idea? I can’t believe it was Mrs. Stephens’ idea; she was too serious, she had no tolerance for gimmicks and nonsense. But for whatever reason, Linda, the most real singer you could ever hear, started singing like an imitation black person. She couldn’t be herself, couldn’t stay herself, in that surrounding. Not even Linda.

NEITHER COULD TIM, the Japanese-American boy. He’d be rehearsing his solo with the choir and start wailing “oh lawd,” and it was just wrong. He’d get into the song and start carrying on at the microphone like Mick Jagger or somebody, and Mrs. Stephens would have to stop him – gospel singers, certainly hers, sang it very upright and dignified.

The ex-monk, whose name I forget, was about the squarest young man in the San Francisco Bay Area of the early ‘70s – short hair, straight-legged pants, a placid smile always on his plain-featured face, a perpetually pleasant, earnest man in his 30s starting over, trying to find his way, and he’d come looking in the Afro-American Ensemble. At first he tried to convert me to Christianity – he’d tell me what was coming over him, how in all those years as a monk he’d had to keep his vow of silence, and now he felt like a baby learning to talk, he was becoming a whole new person, a Christian in a way he’d never been before,  he was discovering joy. After awhile, though, he changed. He’d attached himself to some of the young black people in the choir, and it turns out they were very cynical about religion, the church and its leaders – and the ex-monk adopted their attitudes and language. Now he no longer believed in Jesus or any other God. He denigrated the black preachers as phonies or “fags.” He’d begun to curse. One day he told me with that glowing smile of his that “nobody loves their children like a black man.” All right. So the ex-monk bit the dust, too – like me, he was drawn to this world because of its unsurpassed beauty and freedom, but ultimately he had to erase himself, or felt he did, to become a part of it.

Where was I in all this? I was one of the hoi polloi, a baritone with a pretty good voice, but that was it. My moment of glory came when Mrs. Stephens asked me to sing a couple of bars to see if I was getting it right, and I sang, and one of the black girls said, “Ooh, you’ve got a pretty voice.” Once I somehow got the crazy idea to suggest to Gregory Green, in passing, that I’d like to do a solo some time, maybe “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem.” We were standing in a school rest room and as I recall, he smiled and said, “Yeah, that’d be great,” and headed out the door.

As for the spiritual or emotional side of gospel singing, I have to admit I was very pleased when, during the time he was trying to convert me, the ex-monk said he could see from the expression on my face that I was being carried away up there in the choir, and so why not take one more step and accept Christ? A couple of my friends who came to one of the concerts said the same thing – not about accepting Christ, but about the visible effect the music was having on me while I sang. All right, so I wasn’t Sam Cooke, but I wasn’t a completely hopeless, stiff-assed white boy, either; I did have at least a little bit of soul.

OUR COLLEGE CHOIR wasn’t as good as the Voices of Christ, who had about twice as many singers as we did (and who, as far as I’m concerned, were even better than the Southern California Community Choir, which was the headliner at that Easter concert I described, and was chosen by Aretha Franklin as the choir for her legendary “Amazing Grace” album, and was led by the premier gospel music figure of his generation, Rev. James Cleveland). But we were real good. We sang at churches around the Bay Area, and we shook those congregations, some of them white, some integrated. We lifted them like they weren’t used to being lifted. “You can come back any time you want,” a church leader said at the end of our concert, and the congregation laughed because it was such an understatement. We’d lit a fire in that place.

Our closing number was “Witness for My Lord,” with Johnny, a talented all-around musician and the unofficial class president, singing lead. By the end of the song, it was like we were flying: “My soul is a witness … my soul is a witness … my soul is a witness for my Lo-o-o-o-o-o-rd!” We had several soloists who were every bit as good as most R&B singers you’d hear on the radio. But Gregory Green was on a different level entirely. I don’t know if he wrote and arranged songs, and even if he did I’m sure he wasn’t as good at it as Stevie Wonder – but he was a better singer and a better pianist than Stevie Wonder. He sang baritone and tenor with equal genius, and did a brilliant falsetto, too. Power, grace, warmth, verve that reached ecstatic dimensions – he was the best singer I’ve ever heard, certainly up close.

Once we sang at Cal State Hayward’s main auditorium, which seated several hundred, and Gregory was at the piano, playing and singing “The Name of Jesus,” and the microphone went out. He just carried on singing without it – and it was like you could see his vibrato rolling out into the audience. He didn’t look like a star – thin and plain-featured with short-cropped hair and a hint of a mustache. He didn’t act like one, either, being awfully well-behaved and friendly. But around Mrs. Stephens he had this naughtiness about him – he’d obviously grown up as the golden boy of the church choir, adored by all the matrons, and it left its mark on him. He felt at home in gospel music. I have no idea what happened to Gregory. I’ve checked from time to time, and as far as I know he didn’t become a professional gospel or R&B singer; I like to think that whatever day job he held in the decades after college, he went on making magic in a church somewhere.

AS FOR ME, things would take a bad turn. The only reason I was going to college was to please my father, and one day I went to campus high on marijuana, the first time I’d ever done that, and, being under the influence, it became so palpable to me how much I hated being there, and I took myself to the administration building and dropped out of Cal State Hayward. I was miserable, lost, loveless, balled up inside. I started dropping in and out of college and working menial jobs, trying my hand at acting, getting nowhere. I’d studied journalism and done some freelance articles in the past, and one day I saw a notice that gave me an idea for one. Rev. Milton Perry, whom I’d never heard of, was coming to the Los Angeles Convention Center for a revival meeting – with special guest Rev. James Cleveland. I would go there as a writer, but at the same time I was tempted by the possibility that I would end up – to a limited, safe extent – being a participant, too.

On revival night in the sterile, harshly-lit conference room, there weren’t more than 20 people in the audience, all of them black. Cleveland opened the meeting with a song, which he prefaced by telling his listeners, “It’s not about Milton Perry, it’s not about James Cleveland, it’s about giving praise to Jesus.” The biggest name in gospel music showed up to sing and preach humility to an audience of 20 people.

Then Perry started preaching and singing in front of an instrumental trio, and soon the spirit started moving in the audience. A stiff, seemingly repressed black woman of about 40 sat by herself in a prim blue suit, looking like Shirley Chisholm or a Salvation Army lady. She didn’t move a muscle for the first 15 minutes or so – and then, in an instant, as the chords of the organ rose, she lost her mind, exploding out of her seat, shrieking like she was being slaughtered, convulsing violently and helplessly. It took a good while for her to calm down, with the help of a couple of other believers who’d gotten down on the floor with her to make sure she didn’t hurt herself. Afterward, she didn’t look so stiff or repressed anymore. She looked like she’d had history’s greatest orgasm, which in a way might have been what she’d had.

PERRY’S ASSISTANT TOOK over at the podium, telling the audience that at the end of the night the reverend would be calling people up who were suffering, and he’d heal them. “That young man in the blue shirt – I know you’ve had your eye on him, Reverend,” the assistant said. He was talking about me. Why did he single me out? I don’t think it had anything to do with my being white, it was the misery I’m sure I was projecting, one brought to the surface by all the shedding of misery and rising of joy in the room.

In a little while, the sermon and songs over, people started lining up to get healed. There weren’t many of us, and I’d been chosen especially for this  gift, plus I was the only white person there, so what was I going to do – say, “No, that’s all right, I’m fine, you just go ahead without me”? It would be such an affront, such a betrayal of our instant fellowship, and such a mood-killer – I couldn’t do it.  So I waited my turn. Perry was telling people one after another that they had agonizing pain in their legs, they had a debilitating intestinal disease, they were suffering terrible guilt and sorrow, and one by one they nodded their heads yes, many of the women crying. Then Perry told each one that they had to give their lives to Jesus, and were they ready to do that? And when they nodded or cried that they were, he suddenly smacked his palm on their forehead, and they fell to the ground, writhing, whimpering, wailing.

Now it was my turn. “Go on up there,” those around me urged. With everyone’s eyes on me, I stood before Reverend Perry – and felt absolutely nothing. I think he must have sensed that because he looked a little puzzled – he couldn’t get a line on me, couldn’t get a vibe about any ailing part of my body, which was an accurate reading because nothing was wrong with me physically, I was just visibly miserable and lost. So he worked with that. “You’re searching for your path, you haven’t found it. You have a great work ahead of you – but you have to make a very strong decision for Christ,” he told me. And I nodded my head. Then he slapped his palm on my forehead – and what was I going to do? I fell to the floor and started writhing and kicking my legs; maybe I made some noise, I don’t remember. After a decent amount of time, two or three minutes, I stopped kicking, lay there until they started helping me up and congratulating me on letting Jesus into my life. I thanked them, tried to look beatific, sat around until it was over, shook some hands and left.

That’s one journalistic article I sure as shit never wrote. And it was the last time I toyed with the flame of spiritual surrender, because I really do not want that fire to consume me, so who was I trying to fool?

SOME YEARS LATER I started to settle down – gave up acting, became a journalist, a supposedly serious person. I even became less miserable. But gospel music still drove me crazy. In the early ‘80s I went to a concert at the Greek Theater to hear the Walter Hawkins Singers and Al Green, who was then singing strictly gospel. Once again I was by myself, this time not the only white person in the crowd, but one of the very, very few. It was a midweek night, so the adult, workaday audience was pretty low-key. Walter Hawkins couldn’t rouse them, and Al Green hardly tried – until the last couple of songs. Al Green is a volcano, and when he finally erupted, I found myself jumping up out of my seat and shouting “yeah!” and “all right!” with everybody else. No playacting, no pretending to be anyone but who I was, no faking of unruly passion. Maybe that’s all the spiritual experience I was ever really looking for.

The last time I heard gospel music in person was before Christmas in 2005, in Israel, on the Jordan River near the Sea of Galilee at a place called Yardenit, where hundreds of thousands of Christians go every year to get baptized. I went there to write a story about the scene, but you didn’t have to have a special attraction to religious ecstasy to be affected by the spirit at that place. Congregations from Mississippi, New Jersey, India, Colombia and elsewhere were wearing white robes, waiting their turn to wade in and be reborn. As the members of a Toronto church, a thoroughly integrated procession of blacks and whites, entered the water in silence, the church’s trio of black gospel singers sang them on their way. It was sunset, and the hundreds of people sitting on benches waiting to go in stopped what they were doing and listened or sang along. I started singing too, out loud and free:

Precious Jesus, sweet rose of Sharon,

There’s peace and triumph when we speak His name.

Loving savior, my sunshine in the midnight,

My guiding star that’s shining all the day.

Since then, the only gospel music I hear is on recordings, usually when I’m driving alone. I’m standing up on the risers with the choir. The piano and organ sound the opening chords and they go right through you. In the darkness the audience is ready, they want it. The choir director looks at me, and I start making my way down through the rows of singers, who are shouting words of encouragement at me. I reach the stage and walk up to the microphone. The crowd is fired up. It’s Larry Derfner, the white phenomenon of black gospel music. They love me, they accept me as one of them. And we sound like heaven.



A litmus test of Israel’s character

If you don’t live in Israel, you don’t have the right to criticize.

If you live in Israel but don’t serve in the Israeli army, you don’t have the right to criticize.

You mustn’t shut down Israeli speakers – don’t you believe in freedom of speech?

You mustn’t boycott Israel – instead, come engage with us, come have a dialogue with us.

These admonitions have been repeated by spokesmen for Israel, professional and amateur, for decades. And they’ve been hugely successful in shutting up would-be critics of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.

But just hold those Israeli “principles” up against the treatment that Netanyahu and his henchmen, or in this case henchwomen, gave Breaking the Silence earlier this week. Netanyahu refused to meet with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel when the latter insisted on also meeting with the anti-occupation soldiers’ NGO (and with the anti-occupation human rights NGO B’Tselem). Then the Likud deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, said on Army Radio that Breaking the Silence “is an enemy that harms Israel. Unequivocally.” Then Likud Culture Minister Miri Regev asked the mayor of Haifa to shut down a gathering with Breaking the Silence at a local art gallery.

This is just the latest in the full-court harassment of Breaking the Silence by the government, which is trying to hound it out of the Knesset, the army, the schools, the community centers – to hound it out of existence, with law after regulation after directive.

Breaking the Silence is an organization that was started by Israeli reserve soldiers and has taken testimony from over 1,000 IDF combat troops about the abuse they’ve seen the army deal out to the Palestinians.

Do they live in Israel?

Do they serve in the Israeli army?

Are they Israeli speakers?

Yes, yes and yes, and the Israeli government, followed obediently by the mainstream media and most of the Jewish public, hates Breaking the Silence like it hates no other anti-occupation movement.

It hates them not just because they go after the country’s holy of holies, the army, but because they do it with unimpeachable credibility. They’re telling what they saw with their own eyes and did with their own hands. They’ve proven their patriotism – they’ve risked their lives for Israel. They have no reason to lie. And there are more than 1,000 of them.

Breaking the Silence provides a litmus test of Israel’s character, a test this country has failed abjectly. If Israel can’t listen to the truth from Breaking the Silence, it can’t listen to the truth from anybody – yet not only can’t Israel listen to Breaking the Silence, it’s Breaking the Silence that drives Israel the craziest.

Nope, it doesn’t matter if you live in Israel, if you serve in the army or even if you’ve been a combat soldier for the occupation – if you level serious moral criticism at the way this country treats Palestinians, you are a traitor and an enemy in this country’s eyes. In fact, if you’re a combat soldier and you speak out against the occupation, you’re the biggest traitor, worse than the Diaspora Jewish liberals and our goyishe “friends.”

You mustn’t boycott Israel – instead, come and engage with us, come have a dialogue with us. Really? Look how Israel treats its own fighting men and women who do engage and seek a dialogue with it. So take a lesson – go ahead and boycott. If Israel calls you a traitor or an enemy, you’ll be in good company, in fact the best.


Breaking the Silence website





Elor Azaria, the ‘Hebron shooter,’ got a fair sentence

Netanyahu government, 2015
Netanyahu government, May 19, 2015 (GPO/Avi Ohayon)

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders are imprisoned for their role in oppressing Palestinians, when Israel stops treating Palestinians as inferior beings, then it will be fair to sentence Elor Azaria, the “Hebron shooter,” to several years in prison. But since Netanyahu and the others are not only free but all-powerful, and since Israel shows no inclination to end the Palestinians’ systematic abuse and killing, the 18-month sentence Azaria got on Tuesday was the right one.

Everybody else on the left evidently thinks he got off way, way too easy for executing Abdel Fattah al-Sharif last March 24 as al-Sharif, who had stabbed an Israeli soldier with whom Azaria served, was lying all but motionless on the ground, having been shot several times by soldiers 11 minutes before. It sends the message that it’s okay to kill helpless Palestinians, and the injustice of it just screams when compared to the multi-year sentences Palestinian teenagers get for throwing stones, goes the left’s consensus argument.

But spending 18 months in prison, on top of nearly a year under arrest, in custody and on trial in a military court, is nothing any Israeli soldier wants to go through. So the 18-month sentence is clearly a deterrent on other soldiers who might get the idea of dispatching a Palestinian attacker who’s no longer a threat.

Furthermore, if Azaria were to get 18 years in prison instead of 18 months, would that make the sentences of Palestinian stone-throwers, or Palestinians period, any fairer? Should this soldier, who was 19 when he killed the 21-year-old al-Sharif, be made to pay for the legal tyranny imposed on Palestinians for the last 50 years – when nobody else is?

The reactions of Israeli politicians and the public to this affair show that Azaria, in executing al-Sharif, did not break the true, de facto law of the land, even while violating the official, written one. He was a soldier doing what his society considered legitimate, if not heroic, whatever the law on the books said.

So it would be hypocritical to make him serve several years in prison, as the left is demanding. It would also be cruel; a 19-year-old conscript should not have his life blighted like that when no other Israeli is paying the price of the occupation, and millions are benefiting from it in one way or another.

And one very important thing that needs to be remembered but that so many of my fellow leftists are forgetting is that Azaria didn’t commit murder. He didn’t kill an innocent Palestinian bystander, either. He was no Baruch Goldstein.

He didn’t plan to kill anybody. He didn’t even plan to go to Hebron; he was sent there, and when he arrived he learned that a Palestinian lying wounded on the ground had stabbed an Israeli soldier whom he knew, he reasoned that “this terrorist was alive, and he needs to die,” and he fired the fatal shot.

That’s a wrongful killing, obviously, that’s a very serious crime – but it’s not murder.

I don’t have any sympathy for Azaria as a person – from his previous Facebook postings, along with his warm words for Kach leader Baruch Marzel, he strikes me as a run-of-the-mill young Israeli fascist. But you don’t give people time in jail for their political beliefs.

The most important thing that the sentencing of Azaria needed to do was deter other Israeli soldiers from following his example, and 18 months did it. Beyond that, I cannot see singling him out for “blind” justice when the occupation’s real killers, beginning with Netanyahu but hardly ending with him, get to be the kings and queens of Israel.


How the settlers win, how the peace camp loses: Lessons from Amona

Settlers vs. Israeli security forces, Amona 2006.
Female settler goes up against Israeli security forces in West Bank settlement outpost of Amona, February 1, 2006. Photo: AP/Oded Balilty

That mob of teenage settlers in Amona throwing rocks and bleach at the police on Wednesday was another illustration, another reminder of why tyranny has triumphed in Israel and liberalism is powerless: because the tyrants – the settlers and their supporters – are willing to fight, and we liberals aren’t.

That’s the story of the settler movement from the beginning – they gather their forces to break the law, to raise hell, to scream and cry and curse, to physically assault Israeli police and soldiers, to make their removal so arduous and to use their “agony” as emotional blackmail against Israeli Jews and their leaders, until they get their way. Amona, built illegally on private Palestinian-owned land according to one Israeli High Court of Justice ruling after another, took a decade to evacuate. And in return for their so-called pain and sacrifices, the settlers will get reimbursed by the Netanyahu government many, many, many times over.

They make me sick, these brainwashed fascists who’ve taken over the country – but I can’t help but envy them. If the peace camp had shown a fraction of their daring, of their commitment, maybe we could have given the occupation a fight. If we had mobilized crowds to physically block settlement construction, if we’d been willing to go to jail, to fight the cops and soldiers, to fight the settlers, maybe the Right wouldn’t have rolled over this country like it has. Even if we would have lost – and who knows if we would have? – at least we would have put up a struggle.

But we haven’t. With no more than a handful of exceptions, the Jewish Left in Israel doesn’t fight, doesn’t go to jail, doesn’t break the law, doesn’t disturb the peace in any way. Even if we could get hundreds of thousands of people into the street today (which is a joke), it wouldn’t make any impression on Netanyahu and the Right – we’ll go home peacefully and orderly, and the occupation regime will go on with its work without missing a beat. They face no resistance.

I don’t mean to preach – I’m no braver than anyone else. I’ve never been to jail, never gotten dragged away by cops, never been in a scuffle with soldiers or settlers, and the thought of doing it doesn’t thrill me at all. But I don’t believe that we of the peace camp are going to be able to overthrow this 50-year-long tyranny with opeds in Haaretz alone, or even in the New York Times as well, or even opeds plus petitions and peace rallies. The occupation is a vast, powerful, violent, poisonous force, and for us in the opposition to think we can bring it down without making any personal sacrifice, without paying any personal price, is a lie we tell ourselves to ease our consciences, so we don’t have to face the truth that as dissident movements in history go, the Israeli Jewish Left has been notable for its gentility and timidity.

As long as that doesn’t change, Israel isn’t going to, either.


Further reading: 

Amona evacuation (Haaretz)


Netanyahu replays one of his oldies: The Mexican peril

Caricature of Benjamin Netanyahu
Caricature by DonkeyHotey.

Bibi Netanyahu has a thing about Mexicans. Given his dual American Republican-Israeli Likudnik mentality, he seems to identify them with the Arabs (“demographic problem”) and African refugees (“infiltrators”), the hordes clamoring outside the gates of the villa.

His tweet on Saturday in praise of Trump’s plan to build a wall on the U.S.- Mexican border (“President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel’s southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great success. Great idea.”) was only the latest example. There are two other, much more in-depth, detailed instances of Netanyahu fear-mongering to Americans about the Mexican peril.

In his 1993 magnum opus, “A Place Among the Nations – Israel and the World,” which was first published in English, he writes about what he calls the “Palestinian Principle.” He describes it as the idea that any ethnic minority has a right to carve out its own state on the land where it resides, regardless of the effect on the established surrounding state, and even if another state already exists where that ethnic minority is the majority. (At the time, Netanyahu was fighting against the Palestinian statehood campaign with the argument that “Jordan is Palestine.”)

After depicting the chaos that would ensue if the “Palestinian Principle” were applied in Europe, Africa and Asia, he writes on page 150:

“The United States is not exempt from this potential nightmare. In a decade or two the southwestern region of America is likely to be predominantly Hispanic, mainly as a result of continuous emigration from Mexico. It is not inconceivable that in this community champions of the Palestinian Principle could emerge. These would demand not merely equality before the law, or naturalization, or even Spanish as a first language. Instead, they would say that since they form a local majority in the territory (which was forcibly taken from Mexico in the war of 1848), they deserve a state of their own. …

“[This scenario] may sound farfetched today. But it will not necessarily appear that way tomorrow, especially if the Palestinian Principle is allowed to continue to spread, which it surely will if a second Palestinian state comes into being.”

And that was only the mild, written version of Netanyahu evoking the Montezuman threat facing Americans to win their solidarity against the Mohammedan threat facing Israel. In person nine years later, he would be more blatant in his pandering.

In April 2002 he spoke to a Dallas audience at an event sponsored by the National Center for Policy Analysis. Then-Washington Post columnist Ruben Navarrette Jr. wrote, “The idea was to get Americans to feel Israel’s pain. But, as a Mexican American in the audience, all I felt was nauseated.” Navarrette continued:

“When asked for a historical overview of Middle East turmoil, Netanyahu mentioned how Jews migrated back to the Holy Land in the early years of the 20th century, set up farms and businesses and turned a desert into a desirable destination. So desirable that soon there were hordes of Palestinians trying to get in and enjoy the fruits of Israeli labor. Then, Netanyahu turned to the crowd and offered this bit of sarcasm: ‘Now, you here in Texas wouldn’t know anything about this phenomenon.’  …

“Asked about why Israel is reluctant to allow Palestinians living in refugee camps to enter into Israeli society, Netanyahu mentioned security concerns but also said that a mass migration would ‘flood’ Israel. ‘You know about this,’ he said. ‘This is the reason you have an INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service].’”

The Dallas crowd, however, was not impressed. Navarrette:

“The good news is that, judging from the audience’s reaction, Bibi made a boo-boo. The ethnic pitch got no applause, only uncomfortable looks and nervous laughter.”

So this is what Netanyahu thinks of Mexicans – about the same as what he thinks of Arabs and Africans. He’s an Israeli-American, multi-directional xenophobe. A good old-fashioned white man. Expect many more admiring tweets to go flying back and forth between Senor Bibi and El Jefe Donald as they go riding out into the sunset together.

The Azaria verdict: A reminder of why Israel is worth fighting for

Tel Aviv Gay Pride Parade
Gay Pride Parade, June 8, 2012, in Gan Meir park, Tel Aviv. Photo: U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv

When the verdict on Elor Azaria started coming in on Wednesday, I had a feeling I didn’t recognize at first because it’s become so rare in me: national pride. I was proud that in my country, a panel of army judges convicted this soldier of executing a gravely wounded Palestinian prisoner who had stabbed a soldier in Hebron – convicted him despite awesome pressure from the political powers that be, from the vicious right-wing street, from Azaria’s loudly outspoken family, and from the public at large, two thirds of whom, according to a reputable poll, believed Azaria had been justified in killing the Palestinian, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, last March.

In fact, this pride in Israel that was engendered by the verdict – one that demolished every ridiculous argument raised in Azaria’s defense – led me to think of other things about Israel that make me proud:

The justice system. It’s independent (though not, by definition, the military justice system), which takes some doing in the present political climate. It may even end up bringing Netanyahu down for corruption;

The military-intelligence brass. It’s consistently more sober and liberal than the politicians and public, which is rare for a military-intelligence brass in any country. If it wasn’t for them, Netanyahu and his henchman of the time, Ehud Barak, would have bombed Iran early in this decade;

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. He was the country’s leading voice of reason and decency throughout the recent “lone wolf intifada,” and is now a marked man for bucking the tide on Azaria. He’s easily Israel’s best leader.

The education system, especially the universities. It’s absolutely chock full of liberals and leftists.

On occasion, the media. One occasion was certainly the reporting of the Azaria verdict. On Channel 2, which dominates TV news, all the journalists – especially superhawk military affairs correspondent Roni Daniel – took a very simple line: Justice has been done.

Good guys vs. bad guys

What am I saying? First I’ll explain what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that all this good stuff balances out the bad stuff, because it doesn’t. Israel is still dominated by the likes of Netanyahu, the Likud, the even further right-wing parties, the settlers and the right-wing “street,” such as the classically fascist mob that massed outside the military court in Tel Aviv, baying for Eisenkot’s blood (and, fittingly, waving Trump banners). The bad guys set the direction for this country, and have for nearly all of the last generation.

I’m not saying, either, that the court system, the military-intelligence brass, Eisenkot, the education system and the media are good enough – far, far from it. The court system has allowed the occupation to thrive; the military-intelligence establishment, led now by Eisenkot, enforce it, and are also full partners with the government in the periodic attacks on Lebanon and Syria; the public schools in general are a key player in the nationalistic indoctrination of the country’s youth; and the popular media are indispensable in continually gearing the country up for war.

And even in the Azaria verdict – you can’t avoid asking whether he would have been arrested, indicted and convicted if his shooting of Sharif hadn’t been caught on video by a Palestinian worker for B’Tselem, and if that video hadn’t gone viral. Further, the case against him was so strong – he killed Sharif 11 minutes after the latter had been shot several times and was laid out on the ground, all but motionless; commanders and officers at the scene testified against him. Would Azaria have been convicted if the evidence wasn’t stacked so overwhelmingly against him?

So, no, the verdict is not cause for a parade, and the court system, Eisenkot, the universities and the rest do not cancel out the occupation, the wars of aggression, the systematic discrimination against Israeli Arabs and persecution of African refugees, and the general spirit of belligerent Jewish triumphalism that dominates the country.

The decent minority

What I’m saying, though, is that these institutions and the military chief do, at least, stand in opposition to the reigning national spirit. And there are millions of Israelis who stand with them.

We are clearly the minority in this country. And the majority, for its part, keeps gaining political power, especially as the parliamentary “opposition,” led by Yair Lapid and Isaac Herzog, cozies up to public opinion. Also, we of the minority are not anywhere near militant enough. The absence of any spontaneous demonstration in support of the Azaria verdict, in support of Eisenkot and in opposition to the rabid right is no accident; we’re afraid of being attacked by the Brown Shirt types who ran wild in Tel Aviv.

So Israel’s glass is not half full and half empty; it’s mainly empty. But not completely. There is still a substantial minority of the population, along with powerful institutions that, while badly lacking what it takes to change the country’s direction, is still a legitimate source of pride. There is a substantial part of Israel that is decent. The political leadership and most of the public are headed down the slope of ultra-nationalism, but a big part of the Israeli body politic really is not going for it. The Azaria verdict was a reminder that they exist, too.

We who want to change this country’s direction must never forget the existence of this decent Israel. It’s what makes the country’s steady, steep moral decline a tragedy – if there was nothing good about this place, the fact that it’s going to hell wouldn’t be such a great loss. But there is something good about Israel – and that’s what makes it worth fighting for. The Azaria verdict is a reminder that there is something here worth saving.


Further reading:

Azaria verdict – Haaretz 

Public opinion on Azaria – Peace Index

Netanyahu corruption case – Haaretz


Why Israel’s peace camp must hit the streets against Trump  

Post-election anti-Trump rally, NYC.
Post-election rally against Trump, New York City, November 12, 2016. Photo: mathiaswasik

The high politics of America is the whole world’s business. When a racist, conspiracy-theorizing sociopath like Donald Trump gets elected U.S. president, that’s the whole world’s urgent business – including Israel’s. And when this strange, menacing figure also says he wants settlements to “keep moving forward,” and that his “number one priority is to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran,” when he’s glorified by the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis and inspires an upsurge in hate crimes against Jews and Muslims,  among others, then his rise to power should be urgent enough business to send the Israeli peace camp into the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

The world thinks Israel is delighted with Trump’s victory. Bibi Netanyahu is delighted, Sheldon Adelson is delighted, Israel Hayom is delighted, Naftali Bennett is beside himself; even Isaac Herzog and Yair Lapid of the “opposition” sound pleased. Among Israeli political leaders, Meretz’s Zehava Galon, who said after Trump’s election that he’d won on “fear and hatred” and given “legitimacy” to “hate groups,” has been a voice in the wilderness.

But obviously she’s not alone; millions of Israelis, Jews and Arabs, are sickened, horrified and now enraged by Trump’s election. Why don’t we show it in the streets, and in public statements signed by masses of people? Where are Meretz, Peace Now, the Joint List, the progressive wing of Labor, the NGOs, the liberal youth movements, the culture heroes?

Across the United States, as the New York Times put it, “a national resistance among liberal activists is rising in response to the election of Trump in a way not seen in modern presidential history.” Yet there have also been anti-Trump protests in London, Manila, Berlin and Mexico City. Based on what he’s said about Israel and the Middle East, on the politics of the Republican Party, on his debt to Adelson, on his Islamophobia and on his natural affinity for white bullies like Netanyahu, Trump’s entry to the White House stands to affect Israel more than it will most other countries outside the United States.

So this is the Israeli peace camp’s fight, too.

The protests, which in the U.S. are building up to a show of strength on Inauguration Day, January 20, are of course not going to keep Trump out of the White House. Despite losing the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a growing margin expected to reach upwards of 2 million votes, he won the electoral vote and has the legal right to assume the presidency.

Instead, the protests are first a simple outpouring of emotion, a natural cry of “no” to everything Trump is and stands for, and second a gearing up of the opposition for the political efforts ahead to stop a President Trump from trying to realize any of his monstrous visions.

For the Israeli peace camp, joining the anti-Trump movement would have two additional, specifically Israeli purposes. One, since Netanyahu, the Israeli right and the right-lite of Herzog and Lapid have applauded the U.S. president-elect, it would be a mass statement of “not in my name.”

Two, it would send an important message of solidarity to the Democrats who want the United States to stop enabling the occupation and start using its  power to end it. As Mitchell Plitnick wrote in Haaretz the day after the election, “This will be one of the issues party activists will try to advance to bring the Democratic party into line with its stated ideals, and, thereby, make it a party that can promise and deliver real change.” The Democratic party is almost certainly moving left; the Israeli peace camp is a natural ally of that process, and should show it.

Millions of Jews and Arabs in Israel feel themselves, their families, their country, their world and its future to be in danger ever since the night of November 8. We’re not leaving this place; even those who were thinking about it can see there’s nowhere left to go. All we can do anymore is fight. And we will not be alone.

Originally published as “Israel’s squalid embrace of Trump: Not in my name” on Haaretz.com, November 14, 2016.

Hitler was elected, too — Down with Trump

Trump at Conservative Political Action Conference, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore
Trump at Conservative Political Action Conference, 2011. Photo: Gage Skidmore

There need to be millions of Americans in the streets shouting “Not my president” and more. “Impeach Trump,” “Down with Trump,” “Fuck Trump,” whatever works. There can be no recognition of his leadership. He has the legal right to be president, he doesn’t have the moral right to show his face in public. He’s an evil creature, personally and politically, and there can be no reconciliation with evil.

His presidency, his ability to act as president, has to be fought by every non-violent means that can only be imagined. Mass protests, general strikes, shut-downs of college campuses and any other public institutions that can be shut down – all this should be on the agenda (and at least with college campuses, I’m pretty sure it will be).

Because of who he is and what he stands for, Trump would be illegitimate as president even if he won 100% of the vote. But the fact is that most Americans rejected him and a plurality of them voted for Hillary Clinton. As of this writing, she’s leading him in the popular vote by about 200,000. And the legendary Nate Silver (who this time around got it much less wrong, at least, than the other election-data analysts) says that once all the votes are counted, Hillary “should eventually win the popular vote by 1 to 2 percentage points, and perhaps somewhere on the order of 1.5 million to 2 million votes …”

1.5 million to 2 million votes. That would be three to four times as big a margin as Al Gore had over George W. Bush in 2000. This is mind-boggling. The miserable U.S. electoral vote system says Trump gets to be president, but he’s an imposter. Many more Americans voted for Hillary than for him, and most of those Hillary-voters, it’s safe to assume, are sickened and terrified by him. A mandate to lead? He has a mandate to shrivel up and disappear.

After the 2000 election I, like probably most Democrats, thought the Republican-appointed majority on the Supreme Court robbed Gore of the presidency. But once Gore conceded, Democrats from top to bottom very grudgingly but decisively accepted Bush as the new president. Democrats have accepted the legitimacy of every Republican president-elect, no matter how much they disliked him.

This, however, is different, and it’s not because of Hillary winning the popular vote. It’s because of Trump. He is way, way, way beyond the pale, like no big-party American presidential candidate, let alone winning candidate, ever was. He is the worst major contender for power in a genuinely democratic country since Hitler in 1932 – and if you think that’s an exaggeration, name somebody worse. And now this individual is headed into the White House.

That’s his legal right. His 60 million opponents, meanwhile, have the legal right to try to impeach him, to go in masses into America’s streets and shout their fury and absolutely justified hatred of the president-elect at the top of their lungs, to shut down as much of America as they can shut down, to paralyze Trump’s ability to govern – and beyond their legal right, they have the democratic right to civil disobedience, to break the law non-violently in this cause.

Let it happen in the streets, and let it happen in the Senate, the House of Representatives and every level of U.S. government.

Everyone’s asking, What will the new face of the Democratic Party be? Let it be this.

Remember Trump’s multi-year campaign to wrest the presidency from Obama on the racist lie that he was born in Africa? Remember the alt-right’s monstrous conspiracy theories and verbal violence against Obama from the time he became a candidate for president – and against Hillary Clinton for the last 20 years? We are no less enraged today; the difference is that we don’t need conspiracy theories, we have the truth. It is time to pour out our wrath.