I write this from a small village in Central Ukraine, not unlike the one my great-grandfather left just over 100 years ago in search of some far-off paradise called America. I am one-third of the way through my service as a Peace Corps volunteer, trying to give a little something back to America, the country that has given my family so much.
News doesn’t travel too fast here. I get only two Russian TV channels, and I speak Ukrainian. My Internet only works when the wind isn’t blowing and precipitation isn’t falling, so the Ukrainian winter isn’t exactly the best time to get informed. My friend Ben knew all this and felt he had to call me, to tell me about the Jan. 8 events in Arizona, about a heroic and brave congresswoman and a crazed gunman, and about a bright-eyed 9-year-old girl who will never get the same chance I did to get inspired by her ancestors.
I grew up proud of my Jewish roots, but it was Washington, D.C., that was my city on a hill. I used to get emotional seeing the Capitol building, the Lincoln Memorial, the Library of Congress. This was where the world was different, I felt. This is why I am here. This is where I belong.
And yet the more time I spent in D.C., the more I felt disillusioned by its self-promoting love affair. Every conversation I had with anyone I met in Washington quickly progressed to whom they worked for and, even more important, what names they had as contacts in their phones and, later, as Facebook friends. Washington was not a city where one made friends; it was a city where one built networks, created connections, and brutally took down the opposition. It was a city at war.
Most of my politically active friends often debate in terms of winning or losing. How can we wedge this issue? How can we make the other side look like bigots or socialists? How can we demonize our enemies, who also happen to be our fellow-Americans? Rather than join the flock of my friends headed to the District, I decided to avoid that battlefield. I joined the Peace Corps and went to Ukraine, to learn more about where my family came from and to serve America, my country, in as apolitical a way as I possibly could.
I used to dream of becoming a congressman – now, that would be a nightmare. Not because of the shooting – if anything, that has reignited a passion to be the first to stand up in the line of hate’s fire. Rather, it is because too many of our members of Congress are fighting a fight in which I don’t care to take part.
In the aftermath of the events in Tucson, Democrats will blame Republicans for loose gun laws and inciting violence and Republicans will blame Democrats for politicizing a national tragedy. Both will be right and both will be wrong. I, however, blame them both for flaming the fire of this debate, for refusing to compromise, for seeing only the worst in others and only the best in themselves.
The village I live in is a lot like the one my great-grandfather came from. It used to be 20 percent Jewish as well, before the war. Now, I am a Jewish population of one. While researching the history of this lost community, I found the names of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis in slaughtering the local Jews. One of the men listed is the great-grandfather of one of my best students. She is a bright-eyed girl of 10, precocious, and loves learning English. She wants to be a doctor, because she heard that it is easy for doctors to move to America and make for themselves a better life. Recently, I have been teaching her the difference between the continuous tense and the perfect tense of the English language, the difference between I am forgiving and I have forgiven. The former denotes we are still in the process, the latter denotes a completed action. I don’t know where exactly I stand. Sometimes I still think about her great-grandfather and my great-grandfather and the hatred each must have surely held for the other. But I do know that if we allow all this hatred to continue, our country will remain far more imperfect than my ancestors imagined it to be.