The Planet’s Open-Door Policy

By Becky O'Malley
Thursday July 30, 2009 - 11:13:00 AM

In the city of Annecy, in Savoie at the beginning of the French Alps, there’s a beautiful Alpine lake in the middle of town. A grand city park surrounds the lake with everything there to delight a child: boats, merry-go-round, playground, picnic tables. When we were there last week I saw that there was also an elementary school and day care center right there in the park—how nice, I thought, it must be for the children who are students in the middle of a children’s paradise.  

Then I noticed a modest wooden plaque next to the door of the school, with a few sentences in French painted on it. Some sort of historical marker, I thought, and walked over to read it.  

I didn’t take notes—I couldn’t even tell the people with me what it said, or explain why I seemed to have tears running down my face. Roughly, I remember that it said that on a certain day in perhaps 1944, four girls (names listed, ages between 8 and 13, like my granddaughters who are traveling with me) were taken from this very school and put on a train to Auschwitz.  

Imagine that, if you will. You dress your daughter, braid her hair perhaps, and send her off to school one day with her bookbag, and she never comes back. All the mothers and fathers who leave their children at the Annecy elementary school on the lake can see this modest plaque every day, in case they are in any danger of forgetting the fragility of human life.  

While I was in London I had lunch with my old college friend Susan Hiller, who currently has a show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco that is another reminder. Reviewed a couple of weeks ago in these pages by Peter Selz, it consists of photographs taken all over Europe of the streets where Jews used to live before they were taken away to extermination camps. Susan told me that although she’s had many major shows with a historic bent (her piece on Freud is in the permanent collection of the Tate Modern in London), she hasn’t been interested in topics like this until recently. “I don’t come from a religious family,” she says. “My father wasn’t even Bar Mitzvah’d.” 

But she’s gotten concerned about the fate of Israel, and with exploring the meaning of her Jewish identity. Although she’s an American, she’s lived in London with her British husband for several decades. She was one of the original British organizers of Jews for Justice in the Middle East, formed in response to Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Now she’s preparing a show for exhibition in Israel featuring the work of women, including some Palestinian women. She reminded me that many of her friends in Israel are in the same position as many Americans were under Bush: strongly critical of their nation’s leaders but powerless to do anything about it. She said that she’d always supported a two-state solution, but that now she feared even that would be impossible without enormous and prohibitive removal of populations. Then she said that she just couldn’t bear to talk about it any more, so we dropped the subject. 

Many friends of Israel are starting to feel that way. Even though close to half of the current citizens of Israel are opposed to its current course, just as many of us here were in this country under Bush, they fear that they can’t do anything about it any more. They are in despair. 

That’s what makes the ongoing campaign of vituperation against the Daily Planet by a few individuals who pose as friends of Israel very sad. We’ve gotten reports from our sales staff that yet another missive has been sent to our few remaining advertisers, threatening dire consequences if they don’t pull their ads by Aug. 1. A couple of them have already canceled, one saying plaintively that it would just be better never to mention Israel again. 

We appreciate the nice ad taken by Jewish people supporting the paper, which we have been able to see on the Internet. It’s people like the signers who will eventually save Israel, if it’s still possible to save it. We plan to continue our open-door policy as long as we’re around, because really there’d be little point to doing any of this if we had to be censors on top of everything else.  

The publisher has jokingly suggested that we should auction off our position on Israel. A bid of something like $200,000, perhaps, could guarantee no mention of Israel in the Planet for six months. Unfortunately, a large percentage of our reporting staff and columnists might quit if we did that. We’re still working on shifting from being advertiser-supported to reader-supported, but that’s an uphill struggle.  

In the long run, completely suppressing mention of alternatives for Israel, in this paper and elsewhere, is bound to have disastrous consequences for the future of the country. If the country is to survive, it will need the best ideas of all kinds of people, not just the party line spouted by a militant group who has managed to take over the dialog for the time being. We’d like to continue to be able to do our small part in making exploration of alternatives possible, but it’s getting harder.