“What brings you all here?” asked the librarian who ran the library’s Death Café.
As I gave that some thought, the woman beside me, who earlier flashed me her fellow geriatric’s smile of recognition, announced firmly, “The thinning of the ranks.”
It was like being jabbed with an electric prod. I’d experienced so much rank-thinning in recent years. My thoughts turned immediately to Alan Solomonow, the peace activist who died during COVID’s long season of dying. (Parkinson’s took him.)
We became friends in the early 80s around a notorious dispute: Israel-Palestine.
Solomonow would speak about peace and the path to peace at public gatherings. He’d respond to derision with kind smiles and hard facts. Previously an inmate at Allenwood Federal Prison, he was incarcerated for 13 months for publicly burning his draft card in protest of the Vietnam War. When I got to know him, he was roguishly involved as a back channel bringing together Jewish leaders in America with Palestinian activists in Israel and occupied territories.
During the 70s and early 80s, when many still saw the territories as bargaining chips to be exchanged for peace, liberal rabbis would flock to Solomonow like so many Nicodemuses in the night wanting to meet with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) moderates without wanting it to be known in their communities, fearing rebuke or outright ostracism.
Solomonow, founder of the Middle East Peace Project (MEPP)— he had his fingers in any number of peace pies over the years—thought it wise for people to learn about PLO thinking from the PLO itself. I worked for him as keeper and regulator of his files that seemed to have no beginning and no end. A mystical amalgam of paper that sometimes seemed to rise up in waves from the floorboards of a crumbling lower Manhattan building, which housed the MEPP.
We were both young, and as children of the 60s felt it was forbidden to grow old. Now in my 80s, part of me still adheres to that ridiculous dictum. The same part that refuses to make peace with the reality that old friends die, and with them, parts of ourselves that were young.
“At the end of the day,” my peacemaker friend would say, visualizing the end of shed blood and shared terror, “there will be two states, Israeli and Palestinian. There is no other viable solution.” Israel’s accelerated occupation and right-wing drift has rendered that solution all but unworkable now. A disheartening prospect to Solomonow in his final years. (He was 81 when he died.)
When I raised questions about Israel’s reliance on power to set policy, Solomonow would gently reply, “But Bob, what if the necessary guarantees for peace were put in place, enforced? Couldn’t you live with that?”
That was his approach: What can you live with rather than what can you die for. A question, with modifications more relevant to me now than then: What, as an old man, with time shortening like an asthmatic’s breath, can I live for before death takes me, as it took him?
Solomonow lived for reconciliation between all people. Unable to match up to that, I spin words and do my best. In no way a devout Jew, he based his Gandhian activism on the words of the prophet Isaiah: Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore. It was his equivalent of the Jesus Prayer of that nameless Russian pilgrim who made those words his life.
Sometimes, while I was sorting articles from worldwide journals (far from the ethereal pleasures of writing haiku in my old age!), the phone would ring, and the person on the other end would hang up. Solomonow would peek quickly out the window to check if there was anyone down below. Satisfied there wasn’t, he’d take a swig of whiskey from the bottle in his drawer, and get on with his day. I could never tell whether it was a gesture of self-mockery or self-congratulatory heroism.
Our relationship changed in the early 80s, when the Quakers of Northern California liberated him from his money-raising indignities on behalf of the MEPP, and put him to work as Middle East Program Coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee. We would try to meet whenever he returned to New York for visits. Talking about the conflict, there was the companionable feeling of going back in time, as the occupation didn’t change. Even the cast of characters remained more or less the same, along with their basic arguments. Did we change? I wished we had spoken more about change in ourselves than its absence in Israel-Palestine. We’d known each for so long. I knew he had colon cancer. He knew I cared for a mother with Alzheimer’s.
He spoke of leading tours of Jews and Christians to the Middle East, where they could meet and dialogue with Palestinian and Israeli peace activists. In looking for common ground for both sides to build peace on, he was, according to Quaker co-worker Wilson Riles, “attacked by people on both sides, which really hurt him.”
The peacemaker’s fate, one might say. My friend tried not to make much of it. But the subject had a way of coming up. Once a group of us were recalling the days he brought Palestinian activists to the U.S. to hold dialogues at synagogues, churches, college campuses. Among them was Raymonda Tawil, journalist and future mother-in-law of Yasser Arafat.
A colleague recalled: “Didn’t she call you ‘naïve’ in her book?” Solomonow screwed up his face and took the insult in stride.
The last time I met with him was at a Chinese restaurant in midtown Manhattan. He was beginning to suffer with Parkinson’s. I sensed it would be my last chance to ask him my unasked questions. He never spoke with me about his meetings with Arafat. What was he like, that legendary old man in his West Bank bunker with his powerful Semitic nose that seemed to punch holes into any notion of his imminent departure from the world stage.
Wrapping his arm around Solomonow’s waist, the waiter escorted him, brightly smiling in his woolen cap with its cheery pompom, to our table.
“So,” I said while we were eating, “tell me about Arafat.”
“Arafat was like a mukhtar. A village chief. He was mainly concerned with keeping his territory intact.”
That’s all he would say. Nothing about historic perspectives and legacy. Just those few words about a man safeguarding his life’s hard-earned acquisitions. In that way, little different from many ordinary men.
When dinner ended, my friend greeted a third, newly arrived older man with hugs and tears. Both peace activists had been together at Allenwood. They spoke in whispers, sayings things their ears alone could hear. I stood back, respectful of this intimacy of the few on behalf of the many.
Endings, I thought on my way home. Friends who mark and change us. Friends who put us to work, tucking away miles of newsprint for the sake of peace. Where did all that paper go?
Robert Hirschfield is a New York-based writer and poet. He has spent much of the last five years writing and assembling poems about his mother’s Alzheimer’s. In 2019, Presa Press published a volume of his poems titled, The Road to Canaan. His work has appeared in Parabola, Tricycle, Spirituality & Health, Sojourners, The Moth (Ireland), Tears in The Fence (UK) and other publications.