Words II – the Obama edition.

About 14 years ago, on a chilly fall day, I was somewhere in Chicago, counting the days til my wedding.

My fiance and I lived in Israel, but in deference to my American family, had planned our ceremony for my mother’s living room. I was having a knock-around-the-city day, sorry to miss the big peace rally taking place just blocks from my Tel Aviv home, but giddy with love and possibility. We were getting married at the best time in Israeli history, we felt: A time when peace was finally possible.

I called a cab, it took for-freaking-ever to arrive, I finally climbed in, the driver had the radio on, and a handful of minutes later, I don’t remember how many, I was sobbing uncontrollably, weeping almost before my brain had actually taken in the news: My Prime Minister had been assassinated. It was November 5, 1995.

The warp and weft of history in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder is full of moments that might have been different if he had been here, but we can’t really know — “if” is a big word. What we can know is what happened in the warp and weft leading up to that bullet penetrating Rabin’s body as he walked toward his car, the lyrics of A Song for Peace tucked into his breast pocket.

Words. What happened was: words. Words, and the lack of words.

When Rabin was shot, he had been vilified by the Israeli far-right in the most ugly of fashions for weeks, months — I don’t rightly know how long, because I wasn’t paying attention because, you know, those people were crazy, and who wants to listen to repulsive lunatics?

The lunacy had reached shrill heights, however. On Yom Kippur that year, a radical West Bank rabbi stood outside Rabin’s home and performed a “pulsa de’nura”  ceremony, cursing him and making plain that Rabin should be killed for negotiating a land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians. The vast majority of the country’s right said nothing. The second incident took place the very next day: hard-right polititican (and current Prime Minister) Benjamin Netanyahu attended a rally opposing the peace process where a large sign was held aloft depicting Rabin as a Nazi, and people screamed in a frenzy: “Death to Rabin!”, “Traitor!”, and “Judenrat!”. Warned by a center-left politician that he had better “restrain his people”  or “someone will be murdered here!”, Netanyahu said nothing, taking the stage to thunderous applause.

For months, many reprehensible words were said, and they were not countered by anything responsible. A month after the opposition rally, Rabin was murdered.

Today, in this country, we have a President who is supported by many, democratically tolerated by some, and loathed by a few. Those few believe, quite genuinely, that Obama is leading this country to ruin — either because he’s a closet socialist, or doesn’t love America enough, or, simply, because he’s Black. Or some combination of these and any number of other nonsensical reasons. These few will attack him in any way they can — the canard du jour is that the man was not born in America, and thus is not “really” our President.

On one level, this is funny, because so ridiculous. On another, it is repulsive lunacy, because it takes all of America’s ugliest traits, bundles them up in a neat package, and hurls them — flaming turd-like — at the overwhelmingly elected President of the United States of America. On a third, it is deadly serious and terribly dangerous.

But what is the opposition party doing in the face of these words? Distancing themselves, or saying nothing, or in the case of some worryingly deluded members of Congress, actually lending the gobbledygook credence. Nine Republicans have signed on to Rep. Bill Posey’s (R-FL) bill to amend federal election law in order to require Presidential candidates to provide birth certificates, and last week, Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe actually said of the “birther” movement: “They have a point. I don’t discourage it….”

I’m sorry, what was that Senator Inhofe? You.Don’t.Discourage.It?

Ok, he clarified today: “The point that they make is the Constitutional mandate that the U.S. president be a natural born citizen, and the White House has not done a very good job of dispelling the concerns of these citizens.” In other words: “I’m not sayin’! I’m just sayin’!”

The truth is that Americans don’t need to look to Israel, circa 1995, to know that incendiary words act to create an atmosphere in which lunacy can become murderous intent. One need only look to Dr. George Tiller, murdered for performing a legal medical procedure after having been called (for weeks, or months, or years, I wasn’t really paying attention…) a baby-killer. All of two months ago.

I’ll be honest: I grew up in 1970s America, a time and place still reeling from a decade of assassinations. I have feared for President Obama’s life since the day he announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois. But I recognize those fears as knee-jerk.

The whipping up of frenzied crowds, however, with words of hate and sedition, this is real, and it is happening now. If the Republican Party is truly a party of patriots, its leaders need to stand up and say: Enough is enough. We will tolerate no more of these repugnant lies.

I can’t even bring myself to write what I fear will happen, if they don’t. All I can think of is the blood on the song sheet that Rabin carried with him that November night.



  1. It has always been thus, for causes just or unjust, that words have been uttered to bring many like-minded individuals to a boil, to foment action where there had only been apathy. Thomas Paine wrote stirring words, to inspire and unite his fellow compatriots to revolution. Jerry Falwell used rancorous words to decry homosexulaity and bestow on gays a “plague of God,” known as AIDS. Martin Luther King, Jr. used spirited words to infuse those concerned with civil rights with a hope that one day the color of someone’s skin would not matter. Adolf Hitler used hateful words to blame Germany’s problems on a small class of people who had no significant effect on the nation’s defeat in WWI. John F. Kennedy used earnest words to impel a nation on a “race to the Moon,” because he knew it would give us back our confidence.

    Yes, there are those who hate President Obama. Among them, there may be one, or more, who, given encouragement or false courage, might decide to rid the country of the menace they claim to see. While I do not believe for a second that anyone would be successful, the fear is always there.

    In the end, it is we, the people most concerned with truth, justice, and compassion, who will be forced to stand and to say to our fellow humans, “Enough!” We must stand, we must talk, we must write, we must counter every prevarication and half-truth with all the power of logic and reason at our command. We will have to withstand the slurs, the taunts, and the ignorance. Withstand them, we will. The time of reason will come again, if we but persevere.

    It has always been thus.

  2. Lau

     /  July 27, 2009

    NN, I think your words are lovely, but I wonder whether you aren’t too optimistic. It seems to me, as a poor student of history, that most of human existence is firmly in the camp of unreason. As I have said before on other fora, for many years I felt the need to reach out to the other side, to try to invite people over to my way of thinking. I do think it is in part the Bush years, though I can’t just blame his administration, but I’m no longer there. I simply no longer want anything to do with these people. As Emily rightly points out, we genuinely can’t avoid (even at least) the most radical, but I’ve come to a point of refusing to deal with those who aren’t generally open-minded and compassionate. It makes me feel a little like the lefty version of wacko conservatives, since they are always self-cloistering. But I genuinely want nothing to do with that faction.

    • And you don’t have to have anything to with them, per se. What you do have to do, is speak your mind. This kind of hypocrisy, hatred, self-aggrandizement, and ignorance can only be countered by other voices. As I’ve said about the anti-choice forces, they are being heard, because they are the only ones speaking. The “birthright” crowd are being heard, because they are the only ones speaking. If we are to cut ignorance short, stop it in its tracks, then we must make our voices heard, in any way we can.

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