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A Parable for Councilmembers

John Gertz
Friday January 23, 2004

An open letter to Berkeley City Councilmembers Linda Maio, Kriss Worthington, Margaret Brelund, Maudele Shirek, and Dona Spring: 


The five of you have brought pain to many Jewish members of our city with your insensitive vote this past October (you were in the 5-4 majority) to demand an investigation into the accidental death of Rachel Corrie by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, Gaza. You demand to know if negligence was involved (no one suspects murder). What pains us is that you explicitly have chosen to ignore the deaths of the almost 50 other Americans, most of whom were Jewish, who have been killed by Palestinian terrorists during the current intifada. You did this even though you knew that Corrie had intentionally walked into a war zone, had burned an American flag in front of reporters, and was guarding Hamas’ weapons smuggling tunnels. You knew that among the 50 Americans you ignored was Berkeley’s own Marla Bennett, who was blown to pieces as she sat eating in a cafeteria on the campus of Hebrew University. And you took this vote just hours after you learned that another Jewish American, Dr. David Applebaum, who as head of an ER unit in Jerusalem had treated hundreds of terror victims, was himself murdered along with his 20-year-old daughter. She was to have been married the following day. They were blown up in a cafe. 

I have heard all sorts of excuses as to why you chose to canonize Rachel Corrie at the expense of Marla Bennett, David Applebaum, and the others. My favorite for cynicism is that we do not need to investigate anyone else’s death but Corrie’s, since the others were victims of suicide bombings (actually many were shot, knifed, or killed by remotely detonated bombs), and by the very nature of that crime we know who did it and the perpetrator is dead. The White House used this very argument right after the Watergate break in. Burglars caught, case closed. I would think that you would want to know who indoctrinated and recruited these very young suicide bombers, and you would want to know who trained them, who chose their targets, who prepared the explosives, and who transported them to their civilian targets in Israel. Most of all, you would want to know who issued the deadly orders, and you will want to follow the chain of orders up the ladder. Oh brave city councilmembers, you will not fear to go wherever the evidence may lead, even if it is into the offices of Yasir Arafat and Hamas leader Sheik Yassin. And while you continue to spend city time and money on your Middle East foreign policy, maybe Emeryville, in its admiration of your courage, will fix our budget deficit. 

Perhaps a parable can help you understand our pain. Imagine a city of Berkeley’s size, but in Alabama. While the high school band plays patriotic tunes, and with appropriate ceremony, the mayor removes the tarp from a new marble memorial to the city’s Vietnam dead. Most in the crowd applaud, but a few notice that the stone is engraved only with the names of the white soldiers who had fallen. Blacks have been left off the memorial. Particularly troubling to some is that one of the white soldiers listed on the memorial, Richard Corrie, had taken part in the Mai Lai massacre, and would certainly have faced court martial had he lived, while one of the black soldiers, Mark Bennet, was shot while fixing the roof of an orphanage he was building in his off duty hours. One member of the city council, Linda May, who is also the local chapter president of the Daughters of the American Revolution, lamely pleads that she had received a letter from Corrie’s mother supporting the monument, but had received no such letter from Bennet’s mother. One city councilmember, Chris Worth, is quoted in the local press as saying that this omission must be all right since the blacks in town hadn’t (yet) openly revolted. Another city councilmember insisted that she had just last year approved a zoning plan for a new black church, so there is nothing wrong in honoring only white folk at this time. Yet another city councilmember insisted that he is not a racist, after all “he loved his mammy almost as much as he loved his own mother.”  

Jesse Jackson, along with five outraged members of the city council of faraway Berkeley, California show up in Alabama to protest. One city councilmember notices that the leader of the Berkeley protesters is Linda Meyer (poor sighted, he had misread the name, Linda Maio) and concludes that a Jewish conspiracy is afoot. The others nod knowingly. 

I don’t know exactly how my parable ends, except that the city’s fallen black soldiers were eventually added to the memorial. But was it because those Alabama politicians got it in the end, or did they just cave in to unremitting pressure? 

John Gertz