Reviewed by Chuck Fager
These two autobiographical memoirs should be much more different. They ended up in a stack of books by my recliner, and I was soon struck by a kind of spiritual resonance and counterpoint between them, across seemingly vast gaps of culture and personality. Neither is by or about a Quaker. But if they are not both closely relevant to Quaker life and concerns, especially in the U.S., then very little else is either.
Clare Hanrahan was raised Irish Catholic in segregation-era Memphis, Tennessee; her father was an alcoholic lawyer. Larry Derfner came from working-middle class LA, the son of an immigrant communist-turned liquor store owner who had escaped (but just barely) the Holocaust.
One parallel between these authors is that despite living in segregated neighborhoods, both had plenty of youthful cross-racial interactions; Clare’s parents were “Catholic liberals” who helped desegregate their parish church. Derfner says that in all his childhood years, in and around his father’s liquor stores, he never heard an anti-semitic slur from the many black customers.
Both were also marked by the Vietnam War. Clare was the more scarred: she lost two brothers, twins Tommy & Danny, who came back from ‘Nam loaded down with trauma, Agent Orange and alienation that took them to isolation and early, lonely deaths. At the time they signed up, younger sister Clare had been an enthusiastic war supporter. These personal losses and the hard learning it put her through shook her permanently out of any tolerance for war, especially the ongoing American imperial variety.
Derfner took a very different, but quite familiar path: “I was 100% against the Vietnam War, as fervently as anyone,” he writes, “and when I turned 18 it seemed by happy coincidence that my political principles and my self-interest – staying the hell out of the army – went hand in hand. And since I didn’t feel any responsibility to go to prison for years, or become a medic, or serve in a hospital . . . I went out to beat the draft, which I never had any doubt I could do.” And indeed he did, by managing to hike his weight just over the upper limit.
It took Derfner another decade of growing up, and exposure to the agony of veterans he hadn’t known in his salad days, before:
“I realized that what I’d done when I was 18 was shameful. I should have gone to jail, or been a medic or done something to pay my dues to the country I lived in, and to prove that I really was acting on principle, instead of skipping off to find myself, or whatever it was I’d been doing.”
It wasn’t entirely the impact of war, but both Clare & Larry soon became emigres, even refugees, from this homeland: for Clare, exile was domestic: she wandered for years mainly across the Southeast, before settling in the city-from-another-planet of Asheville, North Carolina. It was a mere 504 miles east of Memphis, on the map a straight shot up Interstate 40, but culturally several universes removed from her childhood.
Derfner upped sticks in 1985, and went from California to Israel, not from any Zionist fervor but for a reporting job, an adventure and, eventually a family. He found all four, and stayed; though his fervor took a contrarian direction.
Clare worked for many years with the homeless and has long been a stalwart of antiwar protests. She spent six months in the Alderson, West Virginia federal women’s prison after one act of antiwar civil disobedience. Just this past year she was part of a weeks-long, 200-plus mile trek, legal but arduous, to highlight and protest the plans for a gas pipeline which is tracked to cross much of the southeast. Clare sees environmental destruction as part and parcel of the cost of burgeoning militarism. She has long kept her income below the taxable level, to deprive the war machine of her few dollars.
Larry took a careerist path, and soon became a prominent journalist and columnist in Israel. Although he abhors the Israeli occupation, he is fiercely proud of having served his stint in the Israeli army; it was, he concedes, what a real man and citizen does. He lost jobs because of his outspoken opposition to the occupation, but found others.
He and his family have long lived in Modi’in, a showcase middle-class town midway between Jerusalem & Tel Aviv. It has among other amenities, clear views of occupied Palestinian territory:
“on the other side of the pre-occupation border a few hundred yards away, past the army checkpoint on Route 443, the Modi’-to-Jerusalem highway. This highway runs through the West Bank but is off limits to Palestinians. It is often referred to, imprecisely but fairly enough, as one of our occupation’s many ‘apartheid roads.’”
In 2010, the Israeli Supreme Court said this exclusion was illegal; the ruling made no difference.
Despite all this, and Derfner’s fervent hatred of both the Occupation and the dominant rightwing politics that sustains it, he has come to love his life in Israel, not only for himself, but for his sons. Although not religious, he feels keenly his Jewish identity and, is proud that his family has come to be in a Jewish setting.
A few years back, Clare found her way into an Asheville subsidized senior housing project, in a venerable high-rise building, once given over to luxury tenants. Since then, she spent several years on this autobiography, between activist and community work. Her hope was to come to terms with a tangled and tragic family history, and put it in its context of a racist, war-mad American culture. But this is not a book of theory or ideology; she lived out and through these issues, and paid plenty of dues along the way.
Her book concludes with the death of her mother, which brings a kind of completeness to it. Yet she has had many other adventures – for instance, peace work among Catholic and Protestant militants at the peak of the bloody “Troubles” of Northern Ireland – which aren’t mentioned here, but could fill at least another volume; let’s hope she gets to that.
There’s a paradoxical character to Clare’s present situation: she clearly loves Asheville, and its strong bohemian/resistance culture; yet she is still appalled by where her native country is going. And she can’t really escape the fallout from the system, which despite Asheville’s charms, lingers only barely below the radar. As she tells of one not unusual incident:
“Recently, as I went to Asheville’s Pritchard Park to give more thought to this book, the space was almost fully occupied by homeless women and men. . . .They were taking up nearly all the available benches. I raised their ire when I tapped a man sprawled out on a bench and asked if he would sit up so I could share the bench. He angrily complied, accusing me of having no compassion for people without homes. . . .
‘We have to find some way to share this space,’ I countered. So I sat reading amid their taunts as one after another approached me, first with a challenging posture, then sitting down and opening up with their story of woe, so similar to the stories I had heard in Memphis, in St. Petersburg, and in Alderson, Federal Prison. . . .
I didn’t dare engage the angry Iraq veteran who railed aloud about fighting the war to secure our ‘so-called liberties,’ only to become another homeless person . . . . I’m a veteran,’ he asserted. ‘Hell if I’m going to give up my bench.’
. . . As I pedaled home, I stopped to greet some friends living in the nearby Vanderbilt senior housing. Both are Viet Nam war veterans. One, an Apache raised out west on a reservation, wore a T-shirt with the slogan, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” The other, a West Virginia musician . . . wore his “Bronze Star” Viet Nam veteran hat. ‘We’re still suffering from that Viet Nam War,’ he said. Oh yes. Yes we are.”
Wars, past, present and future, are also dominant in Larry Derfner’s life as among Israelis; yet the wars are now strangely in the background. In Israel, he grimly laments, “We are in a post-political era in this country. The central, overriding political fact of national life, the occupation, is no longer a subject for discussion. As far as the public and the major parties are concerned, it’s settled (in more ways than one).”
Derfner abhors the occupation. But he sees that Israeli public opinion, left to right, appears to have accepted it. “The 2015 election campaign matched the pattern of contemporary Israeli political life,” he writes. “The only change is in the hardening of the status quo: the country gets more paranoid, more racist, more aggressive.”
Derfner is, if possible more opposed to the occupation now than ever before. He even supports the BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) movement (which is still politically toxic in Israel, and to many Zionist groups in the U. S.), as a possible way of building international pressure (The South African approach) which could someday breach the solid internal support for the occupation. Yet he is able to ask:
“So how do I live with this – being a liberal, a believer in equality, in a country that is not only far less liberal and equitable than the one I left, but that is decisively illiberal and inequitable, that’s running the world’s last colonial military dictatorship, and, worst of all, that offers slim hope of ever changing? I live with this by keeping hope alive . . . .”
But if Derfner is settled in Israel, he’s still unsettled. One way for him to “keep hope alive:” is to hedge his bets:
“I have been not so subtly indoctrinating my sons to leave the country sometime after they finish the army. They have American passports, and I mean to see if I can get them European ones, too. And this is strictly because of the political situation here . . . .”
That “political situation” has taken on a distinctly populist edge: there are many poor immigrant Jews from Africa and other areas, who are solid supporters of the farthest right elements of Israeli politics.
As Derfner powerfully puts it,
“the mindset here is is very much like that in red-state America. I think of Israel as a small, Hebrew-speaking Texas, with Tel Aviv the country’s answer to Austin. Like Israel, Texas used to be split between its liberal and hardass wings, but in recent decades the hardasses have taken over completely there, too.”
This comparison was written before the 2016 U. S. election; it’s even more trenchant now. And it brings back the image of Clare Hanrahan having to struggle and negotiate to find a place to sit in a public park, packed full of those who are discarded and “disappeared” in plain sight by our own society. Could even Asheville, North Carolina’s Austin, be joining what seems to be emerging as an American version of Derfner’s Israel?
The haunting phrase is Derfner’s: “the country gets more paranoid, more racist, more aggressive.” He wrote it about his new country. But is it now true of his old country too?
If so, these two memoirs may become more than gripping personal stories; they could turn into poignant memorials to some-thing lost – and reminders of the haunting question that Derfner grapples with in his last few pages: in these increasingly parallel settings, how do you “keep hope alive”?
*No Country for Jewish Liberals, Larry Derfner. Just World Publishing. 268 pages.
The Half Life of a Free Radical. Clare Hanrahan, Celtic Wordcraft. 292 pages.