Afghanistan and Barbara Bick

Dear folks, One of my oldest and dearest friends and buddies in work for peace and women's rights – Barbara Bick -- died on the Shabbat before Passover (2009), after years of dealing with ALS – "Lou Gehrig's Disease." I had known her and worked with her since 1963, and below you can find the "memorial and eulogy" I got to speak for and about her in her funeral at the one synagogue on Martha's Vineyard.

But before that, I want to lift up the chief work of the last two decades of Barbara's life – her three major visits to Afghanistan, especially with the women of Afghanistan, and her writing of an extraordinary book -- Walking the Precipice: Witness to the Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2009).

She sent me an advance copy of her book even before it was published. I wrote her soon after, asking her advice about what the US should do in Afghanistan now, and she wrote back on August 23, 2008:

Dear Arthur. Sorry for the delay in responding to your very difficult question; my basic medical problem [peripheral neuropathy] has paralyzed both legs but other minor ailments some days keep me from the internet. Incidentally, what do you think of Obama's choice for vice-president? I'm happy it isn't Clinton and very positive over Biden. As for Afghanistan. First, I'm delighted that he recognizes the root of radical-fundamentalist Islam has/HAD It's locus in Afghanistan but his "plan" has focused on military. In Afghanistan, the urgency is to provide economic help and not just immediate relief but along with that what HAS to happen is long-term economic infrastructure.

Actually, my thinking in terms of Afghanistan, in ii's particularity, comes from Nasrine, a very smart woman who has lived and operated there since our 2001 trip. She actually was one of those with the knowledge [and helped by her family's status] that took up the government's offer of land for returning exiles, and has built a lovely little house and garden where she lives. She is terrifically involved with events in Kabul and the north; can not go to the south because of death threat. She's not given any governmental jobs because she refuses to veil and because of rumors that her husband, Max Gross, is Jewish, which he is not. Old German stock from middle America [Iowa, I think}

Nasrine has always been for military force against the Taliban, al Qaeda and Pakistan's military support of both. During her last visit to the U.S., she told me, for the first time, that basically it HAD to be economic reconstruction and since Afghanistan's long historic economic base was agriculture and trade, that is the kind of reconstructure that is need NOW.

Sorry, have to stop now.

Best. Barbara

Please notice how gutsy that letter was — in the midst of physical pain and difficulty, Barbara going forward.

And please notice how deeply rooted in the personal – in her actual knowing of Afghani women, including the one she quoted – was Barbara's political response. Her whole life, that was one of the deepest truths of her responses to the world: her family life, marked by her struggle to understand and heal the mental illness of her daughter and redefine in feminist terms the origins of that illness, was never divorced from her work to heal the bloodshed of our planet and heal that bloodshed as well through feminist work for women's rights.

So the agony of Afghani women amid the complexities of Great Power military interventions in Afghanistan was one great focus for her whole life's work.

She would have been moved and exhilarated by the brave and stubborn vigils of Afghan women in the weeks since her death, at the same time many of the same women were arguing against turning the struggle for their rights into another excuse for NATO 's bombings of Afghani and Pakistani villages and families.

Buy her book!

Two more brief comments on the seething world before I turn to my memories of Barbara:

1. Some responses that have reached me concerning Iranian President Ahmedinajad's speech at the UN conference on racism seem important for us all to know about. One is by Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey, Director, Human and Civil Rights Division, MAS Freedom (Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation). You can read it at --

The other is by Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun and co-chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives. That is available at --

To these I would add only that the more Ahmedinajad isolates himself from sane and responsible opinion in the Muslim world and the world as a whole, the more important it is for the US to pursue direct diplomacy with Iran and its full leadership, much of which is disgusted by his outbursts. Isolating and demonizing Iran as a whole society simply strengthens his ability to rally support at home.

2. Some of you have written me to ask why I wrote so joyfully about the release of the "torture memos," in the light of Mr. Obama's insistence that none of the CIA perpetrators of these crimes would be prosecuted.

In fact, in the same letter I said they should be prosecuted -- and especially those who gave them legal "cover" by claiming that torture was legitimate.

I "celebrated'' in the pattern of the strange – and deeply wise – Passover song that says "dayyenu" – it would have been "enough" if the Israelites had reached the Red Sea but it had not split, reached Sinai but there had been no revelation of Torah, etc. Of course these half-steps would not have been enough. But the song has 15 verses, and the chorus "dayyenu" reminds us to celebrate each victory, and then move forward into the next verse – the next step. If we refuse to celebrate, many of us burn out.

So now it is time for the next step. I urge all of us to write our daily or community newspapers, our members of Congress, to demand that independent investigations be held, to demand criminal prosecutions of those who tortured the law and the Constitution in order to torture human beings. Mr. Obama's dictum that we must look only forward is absurd in every pursuit of justice: All crimes are committed "in the past," and by these standards none would ever be prosecuted.

I believe Mr. Obama feared mutiny from the CIA if he fully upheld the law. Strong public pressure can reverse that fear.

Now to turn to Barbara Bick: Why should I share with all of you my memories of her, which I got to speak forth at her funeral? Because we need to remember that without her, and thousands of others who did not make "the front pages," there would be no chance for peace and justice. Because we need to learn from her, not only to remember her name.

This is what I said at her funeral:

For more than 40 years of my own life, Barbara has been a beacon of commitment and struggle and good humor in the face of what -- in her own family life as well as in the world -- has driven many people into despair.

I first met her in 1963 when she and two other leaders of Women Strike for Peace came to me at the Institute for Policy Studies (and I think to other people in Washington) to ask our advice: Should Women Strike, which was born around the issue of nuclear weapons testing and had focused on the nuclear arms race, take on the Vietnam War? (We hadn't even started calling it that yet, but some of us with friends in the Kennedy Administration knew what was happening.) I said " Well, you are Women Strike for Peace and this is the only war in town. And it's growing. Some of us are already trying to stop it. . So I would say, sure. Vuh den? [The Yiddish for "what else?"] In fact, please!" And I remember she, alone among the three women, laughed when I said "the only war in town" and laughed again when I said "Vuh den?" And of course they did take on the war.

So we became buddies, and from then on, we kept in touch. She actually became a Visiting Fellow or some such at IPS, one of the very few women there. She intertwined work for women's rights with work for peace and other aspects of justice. And it was always more than her work; she brought a brave heart and a strong spirit to the work and to her friendships. She met difficulties and obstacles in her own personal life with the same kind of bravery and tenacity she brought to the public good

I remember during those years she was dealing with the insistence of the official psychiatric establishment that some specific kinds of mental and emotional difficulties -- including her own daughter's mental illness -- were brought on by bad mothering. She knew from her own life and the life of her daughter that was NOT so, and she dug up some of the early evidence of chemical imbalances that might lead to mental illness, etc.

And this was more than a set of facts for her; there was a deeper truth: What the (male, of course) psychiatric establishment was doing was one form of the male chauvinism and the putting-down of women that pervaded much official American life then.

She was right on the facts and I think she was right on the deeper truth. Out of this work she became a leader of mental health reform in Washington.

In 1972 Barbara proposed and we organized together what we called the May Moratorium to challenge Nixon's newest outrage against Vietnam. Its centerpiece was a teach-in on the steps of the US Capitol, facing the Washington Monument. One of our speakers was Dan Ellsberg. Suddenly in the midst of everything three or four toughs rushed out of the crowd and starting beating up on Ellsberg. We got them off him and even got their names, but it was only years later that we discovered they were The Plumbers –--- Nixon's private bullies to haunt Ellsberg for "leaking" (thus The Plumbers) the Pentagon Papers.

And on the other side of the Capitol at the very same moment, J. Edgar Hoover was lying in state -- dead at last, dead at last, thank God almighty, dead at last –lying in state as if he had been President. Barbara loved the irony of what we were doing on our side of the Capitol –-- he would have thought it high treason -- while he was doing what he was doing.

When I thought of saying that, I thought – "Oy Waskow, bad taste to speak even of the dead J. Edgar that way, especially since here I am speaking while Barbara herself is lying here in state. But then I thought, Damn it, HE was lying in state in the grandiloquent Capitol where he terrorized people, and SHE is lying in state in OUR community where she worked so hard to free people. Not just our synagogue community, but our peace, and justice, and women's rights community – and the Jewish piece as well.

About the Jewish piece – I was profoundly moved a couple of days ago when Rabbi Broitman told me that Barbara had recently given her a poster that The Shalom Center created to honor a demonstration /prayer/ rally we did during Sukkot in 1984. We actually built a sukkah in Lafayette Park, halfway between the White House & the Soviet Embassy, to call for nuclear disarmament: "Spread over us the sukkah of shalom," said the poster as the prayer book says, and on the poster was a sukkah with bombs buried deep beneath. I was deeply moved that she –- the strongly Jewish atheist –- had kept that poster all those years.

In 1977, there was a massive upheaval and a Great Exodus from IPS. Barbara and I and a dozen others left. We put together a new place, the Public Resource Center, with a commitment to much more open conversation than we felt had been possible among the Fellows in our isolated offices at the Institute. Barbara actually designed the space so we could both work easily on our own and easily come together to talk. And she designed the bathroom. There was space for only two toilet stalls, with only a partial wall – not down to the floor or up to the ceiling – between them. Barbara described the plan and said, "Well, we said we wanted to know each other better. We are going to get to know each other VERY well."

I left Washington in 1982. We kept in touch by phone and then by Email. I heard from her about her three brave and agonizing trips to meet the women of Afghanistan.

Her Email letter about Afghanistan in August 2008 was the last political advice I got from her. Notice how personal it was, how connected with a real live woman in Afghanistan. I think it's at least as wise as the advice I gave all those years ago when we first met, in 1963. Wiser because it WAS so personally rooted.

The tears were trickling down my beard as I wrote this, and they are trickling down my beard again as I say the words out loud. If I had my druthers, it would be that one way to make her memory a blessing would be to make it possible for some young woman, as fiercely committed to peace and justice as Barbara, young and old, always was, to take on that kind of work in Barbara's memory. But the deepest blessing of her memory for me and for us all will still be the stories, the bravery, the determination, the sheer grit, the heart and spirit, the love that she gave us and all the world.