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My Part in the War

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Urgent E-mail fills my in box.

Friends, acquaintances of my parents, people I don't know but whose names I recognize as Jewish, my rabbi--all forward pleas to stand with Israel, fly to D.C. for a rally, sign on-line appeals.

My electronic solicitors emphasize how easy it is to enter the fray. A little typing is all. Activism for dummies. For lazy dummies. I'm asked to "sign" the Simon Wiesenthal Center's on-line petition that they'll forward to George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Jean Chretien. I'm told to fill out a CNN poll on Israel's right to defend itself. I'm given explicit instructions to double click on the CNN on-line home-page hot link, scroll down three-fourths of the way until I see the opinion poll column on the right side, then double click the Yes box. It'll only take a second and costs nothing.

I'm beseeched to forward the messages to 10 or 20 or more like-minded people, preferably Jews. I think, hell no, I'm sending this to my entire address book. I click, click, click on everyone I've got and then think twice about seeming overwrought to the Liz Zitos, Kelly MacNeils, and Cara Chows. So I click, click, click again and only send to the Birdie Siegels, Mark Hinerfelds, and Lev Shapiros.

Another message urges me to contact the White House. Phoning and faxing are most effective, it says, warning that "Muslims and jihad sympathizers" have outphoned and outfaxed Israel's supporters more than two to one. Don't E-mail the president, that's ineffective: a computer program dumps these messages, there's a kill file for anything with "Israel" in the subject line. Great. All us virtual Jews in a kill file for Israel.

I phone the White House and hear, You will experience silence while you are waiting. Thank you for calling. Your comments are important to the president. I experience silence while I wait. I experience clicking as I forward the White House opinion-switchboard number to the Jews in my address book. I experience birds chirping and my two-year-old calling mama as she wakes from her nap. I wonder what an Israeli tank rolling by my front door would sound like, how far the sound travels when a suicide bomber detonates her backpack. I experience the dripping of the leaky faucet in the guest bathroom of my comfortable Victorian, which I own courtesy of a trust fund accruing interest on money earned by my grandfather. By the time the White House opinion-switchboard operator answers my call, the trust has earned an extra ten grand and I've already hung up. My two-year-old couldn't wait.

How many of us receiving these transmissions will do anything? I'm told Never Again depends on you. Please act NOW! Some of the E-mails compel me to act. Others do not. It depends on whether I have to type in a URL address myself. It also depends on the speed of my modem and whether a Java script error has occurred. As for rallying in D.C., I couldn't begin to think of leaving the children for the day. Not to mention that the idea of a rally seems too uncivilized, too much like Ramallah on September 11, what with the masses of people pumping impassioned fists in the air and bonding over nationalism and hate.

Someone forwards an article from the Jewish press written by an Israeli. He recounts his experience of first hearing about the Jenin ambush. He talks about looking around Jerusalem, his hometown, and seeing shock and, worse, resignation among the people he knows and strangers he can't help but love. He says that the number of army reservists killed--13--is staggeringly huge for such a small country. Proportionally, that's the equivalent of 500 Americans.

I read his story and try to conjure Israel. All I come up with is the place I visited for the last time when I was 20. My mom had an apartment in Jerusalem--she still does but doesn't dare go near it these days, preferring to wait things out in Milwaukee--that my brothers and I visited every two years or so. In her building, one story down, lived a family that made aliyah when their kids were in grade school. The son, three years older than me, became my Israel boyfriend. Like all Israelis of a certain age, he was in the army. And while my friends dreamed of dating professional athletes and rock stars, I had my very own, very real soldier boyfriend.

Once I visited him on his base. I close my eyes and, for an instant, remember how my Israeli soldier-boyfriend's uniform smelled as I hugged him from behind and pressed my nose to his back. The warm, sour, khaki-in-the-hot-sun smell, an odor foreign to my nose. I try to imagine pressing my face to the bloodied uniforms of the 13 reservists.

Inevitably, the ambush news flattens out into one more "item," albeit a breathtakingly awful one, coming as it did on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It settles in with all the other reports--suicide bombings, the age and gender of the latest "martyr" and the ages and genders of the victims, temple desecrations in Belgium, President Bush's tempered condemnation of the Jerusalem "homicide bombing." I'm moved by each event, disgusted and saddened and frustrated. But ultimately I throw my hands up, fret, and keep on keeping on.

The Israeli author of the news story serves in the army, carries a gun, and wears a uniform. I carry a vague memory of the exotic boy I used to fuck. He is part of a movement. I pick and choose my involvement. I don't ignore what is happening, but I can tune it out by turning off the TV or staying away from the computer.

I think about forwarding his particularly poignant account to some of the others in my address book, especially the Catholics who may have vestigial twinges of religion-based discomfort, but hesitate. Will I come off as a whiny Jew? Is supporting Israel tantamount to supporting Milosevic (as a Palestinian spokesman declared on Fox News) or Hitler (as a Palestinian spokeswoman averred on MSNBC)? Should it matter that Palestinians--not Iranians, Sudanese, or North Koreans but Palestinians--were the ones whooping it up in the streets of Ramallah on September 11? The planes exploding into the World Trade Center, those unbreakable and immovable structures imploding, and those animals (that's what I couldn't help but call them, to my husband and to anyone else who listened) honking their horns, clapping their hands, dancing, singing, doing that Arab whistle thing. I decide I'm right, not whiny. I also decide not to bother my Catholic friends.

I always wondered what I would have done as an upper-middle-class German Jew, circa 1930. Would I have sensed what was coming? And if I had, what form would my resistance have taken? Organizing? Protesting? Hightailing it out of Germany? Or would I have wanted to do something and looked to find the least inconvenient thing? Like forwarding E-mails and signing on-line petitions. Where would that have gotten me?

I add my name, city, and nationality to electronic forms, then forward them, unhappy that this is my only effort and guilty for thinking that my personal data will be added to some kind of comfortable-upper-middle-class-urban-Jew list. At the very least, I'd like to feel the petition's clipboard in my hands, the stickiness of the pencil used by my cosigners. Instead, I sit at my desk, in the house afforded me by grandparents who were never to forget the sting of frozen ground through threadbare shoes or the fear that drunken cossacks would arrive at their door. Their immigrant insecurity with the language I use as a substitute for "real" work, their fluency with the backbreaking labors I've avoided, an irony that makes me wonder whether they'd be proud or ashamed. The superhuman reserves of faith that allowed them to try again, to reproduce, to build a life and livelihood in a new country leading up to this.

I hear the clicking of the keyboard as I add my voice to the mix. A tiny noise I'll experience while waiting.

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