The New President and My Old Marching Shoes

Diana Bletter with Robert Raynor and Jennifer Charm, left.
Diana Bletter with Robert Raynor and Jennifer Charm, left.

I went to my first protest march when I was twelve. It was 1969, and I walked down Great Neck’s main street in favor of a proposal to bus children from a low-income area to Great Neck schools. Wearing plaid bell bottoms, I carried my own handwritten sign, “They won’t hurt you, why should you hurt them? Give them a chance, too!” (There were even smiley faces in the letter O’s.)

As demonstrators march for and against President-Elect Donald Trump, I’m reminded of all the marches I’ve attended since that first protest. Moreover, I value demonstrations which don’t incite hatred or violence because they are hallmarks of a healthy democracy.

My mother, a first-generation American, instilled in me the belief that if I thought something was wrong, it was my obligation to speak out against it. In between long drags on her cigarette, she shared the Jewish adage: if you save one life, you save an entire world. Her interpretation? With your one life, try to do something.

She didn’t mind when I skipped school to attend demonstrations. To her, engaging in political activism was the best kind of education. I traveled to New York City to protest the Vietnam War, and also ventured to Washington D.C. for demonstrations in favor of women’s reproductive rights.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I attended a reproductive rights rally in New York. It was about the time that I’d become more religiously observant, so I carried a clothes hanger (to represent what women sometimes used for illegal abortions) and another handwritten sign reading, “Orthodox Jews for the Right to Choose.” A woman approached me, saying she wanted to join my organization; I admitted that I’d just started it and I was the only one in it. Afterwards, I went home on the subway. It was crowded and I squeezed my way out the car. I now apologize to that passenger, whoever she is, who discovered that I accidentally left my hanger hanging off her sweater.

Before the Iron Curtain fell, I marched at the United Nations on behalf of Jews trying to leave the Soviet Union. In 2000, when I was living in Westhampton, I again marched in Washington, D.C., this time in the first Million Mom March. My friend, Liz Liggon, and I took the Long Island Railroad into New York City and from there to the nation’s capital. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Liz, who is African-American, I felt a sense of strength and unity.

Sometimes, I admit, I’ve been misguided. At Cornell in the late Seventies, I joined Iranian students in their protest against the Shah of Iran. Then history unfolded. I am painfully aware that those students returned to an extremist Iran, where the revolution turned against them.

During the Israel-Lebanese War in 1982, I attended an anti-war protest in front of the Israeli Embassy in New York. A decade later, I found myself living in a small beach village in northern Israel, only twelve miles from the Israel-Lebanon border. I came to understand that certainty comes easier when you’re not living in the war zone.

Making my home in northern Israel, I am involved with a peace group — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Druze women — and last October, we went to the Women Wage Peace March, on the Israel-Jordanian border. We walked along a snaking dirt path under a cloudless sky to reach a holy place near the Dead Sea, one of the lowest points on earth. It’s a baptismal site for Christians, with an Arabic name, Qasr al-Yahud, or the Jews’ palace, making it a convergence of all three faiths. Thousands of women gathered that day: Palestinian women in galabiyahs and hejabs walked arm and arm with Israeli Jewish women in tank tops and shorts, demanding that our leaders reach a peace agreement. Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, who helped end the Liberian civil war, told us, “History will write this day.”

I hope so. Yet even if all the protests I’ve attended have not made a difference in the world, they have made a difference in me. How lucky I am to be able to publicly voice my opinion. Even when I disagree with other demonstrators, I still respect their right to be heard. That is a priceless gift of freedom. This is something I learned when I was twelve and this is how I’ve lived my life.

I just turned sixty, and I’m still marching.

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