Sea Hitler Skank

A funny thing happened on the way to Rochester

Abbie Hoffman, social activist and professional shit-disturber of the nineteen-sixties once said, “The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it.” Since my godmother, Karen, is manifestly a child of the Sixties, I’ve decided to blame Hoffman for her recent stealth exercise in social agitation—though Karen says it all began with her Catholic school nuns and their emphasis on civil rights and justice. I support those goals. The problem is that my godmother is unruly and prone to obsession.


Prior to her current fixation, she at least had a couple of altruistic projects from which to choose. There was the neighbor whose grip on reality was so fragile that she quit her job because she thought that colleagues were trying to poison her through the office air conditioner. Karen went to the woman’s apartment every few days bearing groceries and sympathy only to be deployed as a back-up sniffer for a phantom gas leak. Not only did Karen pay the unemployed woman’s rent, but she also agreed to pay for an inspector to verify that the apartment was free of toxic gases. Competing with the neighbour was my godmother’s recently adopted Afghan hound, an incessant barker and biter of unfamiliar butts. Many a visit to Karen’s house was hijacked by back-to-back episodes of Dog Whisperer. Eventually, with the help of Cesar Millan and the judicious use of pharmaceuticals, the dog settled down into something hairy but manageable. The needy neighbour, on the other hand, was uninterested in a “pack leader” or pharmaceuticals—but soon moved out of town.

Like nature, Karen abhors a vacuum. Her humanitarian impulse moved on to a project with former school chums at Simon Fraser University who were at work on an anthology of essays about little known atrocities of the twentieth century. When the group began hunting for a publisher, both Canadian and American editors repeatedly singled out one sticking point: an essay on the displacement of the Palestinian population
from the new state of Israel. As a result, Karen’s spotlight landed squarely on what seemed to be the forbidden issue. Obsession kicked in. Suddenly, no dinner was complete without the word Nakba.

“The Nakba!” Karen repeated into my blank face. “In 1948, 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes. Today, the Israelis have blockaded the Palestinian territory of Gaza including its seaport, making it the largest outdoor prison in the world!”

Soon, whether drinking morning coffee or talking over dinner, all roads led to Gaza. Mention of air travel, for instance, would lead to America’s interest in an Israeli airport security model, which would bring us to the inevitable: “Imagine if you were Palestinian.”

Must I? Again?

I have gamely attempted to bring up other atrocities: famine in Somalia, child soldiers in Uganda, or the forgotten
people in Canada’s poorest postal code, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. But, much like her Afghan hound with a stranger’s tush in his teeth, Karen will not let go of Gaza. I suppose I should have seen this coming forty years ago.

In 1970, when I was four years old, my mother moved us into her boyfriend Michael’s house on Fourth Avenue in Vancouver. Michael had a plate in his head. The Korean War, my mother said, had messed him up—he couldn’t help his outbursts, the fact that he bellowed all his words. It all came to a head the night that Bruce, Mom’s former beau, showed up looking for her, and Michael chopped off the man’s finger with a butcher knife. I can still see the blood on the linoleum floor and remember my desperate wish not to be there in that kitchen, but with the hippie girls who lived next door.

Twenty years older than I, those hippie girls, Karen and Marilyn, watched from their window, and saw the blood that led down our front steps and onto the sidewalk. They saw the ambulance at the curb, and my mother and I loaded into the back of a squad car. They had witnessed Mom’s black eyes, her split lips—but this particular episode brought dark possibility to a whole new level.

Karen and Marilyn became my constant companions. They introduced me to tie-dye sessions and the beauty of the poncho; to protest music and the importance of smuggling draft dodgers into Canada; “Get up, stand up: don’t give up the fight!” and “All we are saying is give peace a chance.”

At home with Michael, things got bad enough that my mother finally wised up. One day while he was out, she packed our bags. Without a word to anyone we hopped a plane to Toronto and never saw Michael again—or Karen and Marilyn. Until 2000, that is, the year I published a novel called Going Down Swinging.

In a bookstore in Vancouver, thirty years after losing contact, that title leapt out and grabbed hold of Karen. Days later, I came home to a phone message: “Hi, my name is Karen. I knew you when you were a very little girl. My friend Marilyn used to call you Billie Badoodle…”

The first time we spoke, she told me about baths we all took together—the only way that she and Marilyn could check me for bruises. “And I need to tell you about your puppy,” she said.


“You called her Mrs. O’Malley From Down the Alley. We heard Mike kicking her one night. We were scared he might kill her. So, we lured her to our side of the fence, and then took her to our friend’s farm. We were afraid of how bad it might get over there so we planned to kidnap you, too. But then…we decided we couldn’t play God.”

Living just a couple of miles from my Vancouver apartment, Karen and I have since become inseparable. Marilyn is now in Oregon and we cross the border to be with one another whenever we can. In 2008, before I married my husband, Tim, I was baptized Catholic. Karen suggested I be baptized at her house and hold our wedding reception in the backyard.

Marilyn drove up to join us. In Karen’s living room, as the three of us held hands through the baptism ritual, memories of their long-haired Sixties determination to rescue Mrs. O’Malley and me rippled through my chest. Thirty years later and we had picked up right where we’d left off. I was lightheaded with adoration and it was hard to keep the tears in my head as Karen and Marilyn became my godmothers.

Cut to 2011. Godmother Karen, after years of selling real estate, had retired and returned to her activist roots with a vengeance. Each morning she and her husband, John, scanned the Internet for stories that involved Israel or Palestinians. They attended meetings and marched in protests. Around the house were stacks of leaflets and big yellow signs mounted on sticks: “Stop the Occupation of Gaza” or “Free Gaza Now!” They boycotted Israeli products, and planned fund-raisers for the Canadian Boat to Gaza, a group assembled with the intention of breaching Israel’s naval blockade.

When the Boat to Gaza group reached its financial goal of approximately three hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the committee purchased a ship and christened it Tahrir, Arabic for “liberation” (as in Tahrir Square, epicentre of the Arab Spring).

As Karen and John made plans to travel to an undisclosed location in the Mediterranean for several weeks to join supporters of the international flotilla, headlines of the past year flashed through my mind. On May 31, 2010, nine people in a flotilla of six boats were killed when Israeli Defense Forces commandos boarded a Turkish boat in international waters off the coast of Gaza. Turkish forensic teams later identified nearly
250 bullet holes in the body of the ship.

I wanted a promise from her. “You’re not going on that boat, though. Right?”

Participation on board the Tahrir,  she said, was reserved for high profile advocates. “I’m not famous enough,” she assured me.

Because Tim and I were about to give up our apartment, Karen invited us to housesit and take care of the Afghan ass-biter. It was shortly after we moved in that the boat committee asked her to sail to Gaza. John would stay on land to act as a communications officer.

“You said you wouldn’t!” I hollered, bug-eyed with exasperation.

“Don’t worry, Binky,” she said. “The IDF doesn’t beat up women.”

“Says you!”

Karen spent the next month being trained in “non-violent resistance.” The afternoon she left for Greece, I reminded her, “You don’t have to go on the boat.” I had a powerful urge to grab her by the lapels and shout, “Who is this going to benefit? Why can’t you give the money to The Red Cross?”

In July 2011, the Freedom Waves to Gaza Flotilla—ten ships, carrying hundreds of pro-Palestinian activists from several countries—was docked in various ports in Greece. Israel referred to the group as “The Provocation Flotilla.” Two ships eventually withdrew, alleging the Israelis had sabotaged their vessels. Greece, meanwhile, in the midst of an economic meltdown, bowed to external pressures and prohibited members of the flotilla from sailing. The Tahrir attempted to make a run for international waters and was swiftly overtaken by the Greek coast guard who turned the ship back to port. I received a mass email from Karen that read: “Just know this—that 8 nautical miles we travelled on our boat were the best 8 any of us have ever travelled! Yes, we know the difference between determination and obstinacy. It appears Israel has crossed from obstinacy to obduracy. In Greek drama, this is known as a tragic flaw. In solidarity, Karen.”

Marilyn phoned. “Did you read that?

“Yes,” I said. “Sounds like 1968 and she just stormed the Columbia library.”

The Flotilla disbanded, vowing to try again. Karen and John returned home, tanned and vivacious, burbling with tales of Greek adventure. Maybe, I thought, it’s out of their systems now.

In the fall, Karen announced a trip to Rochester, New York, her hometown. John had business associates there and Karen would visit with family. But flight details seemed murky. Suddenly, the two of them began spending a great deal of time murmuring behind closed doors. It occurred to me that perhaps Tim and I had outstayed our welcome, so I let her know that we would look for a new apartment. “I’m afraid we’re getting a little underfoot,” I said.

“No!” Karen exclaimed. “You’re not! I mean I know I can’t keep you forever, but November and December are shitty months to move. January, too.”

Days after they left for Rochester, I received a mass email from John. “As I write from Göcek, Turkey, Karen is aboard the Tahrir, now headed toward Gaza and being tracked by the Israeli Navy.”

I pounded out a note to Karen. “Liar!”

“A funny thing happened on the way to Rochester,” she wrote from the ship. “I’m sorry. We were sworn to secrecy.”

As instructed, I watched the online news. About seventy kilometres off the coast, still in international waters, the Israeli navy intercepted the Canadian vessel as well as its Irish sister ship. According to Israeli news, the arrest was peaceful. Activists on board maintained that they were hit with water cannons, which caused a collision between the two vessels. Nearly two-dozen armed commandos boarded the Tahrir. Once the boats had been towed to the Israeli Port of Ashdod, some passengers refused to disembark, and were subsequently kicked and dragged off. The group was then photographed, fingerprinted, and interrogated. They would be released for deportation only if each signed a statement declaring that he or she had entered Israel voluntarily and in an illegal manner. Since the statement was in Hebrew, none of them could read the actual text. Several declined to sign.

Meanwhile, the public relations war raged through the blogosphere. Palestinian supporters condemned the arrests as an act of piracy. Pro-Israel bloggers referred to the Tahrir as The Sea Hitler and its passengers as “ditch pigs” and “leftard bozos.” Several sites featured photos of Karen and dubbed her “Sea Hitler Skank.”

“Although faded,” one commenter lamented, “this woman is rather beautiful, and quite good at talking to the camera. Does she strike you as a failed actress?”

Though she had flown from Van-couver, another poster answered, “I ran into her at the Sea Hitler Send-Off at Toronto’s airport, the camera was very kind.” Yet another commenter said he’d come across Karen in Kingston, Ontario. Like Elvis, she was everywhere.

Eventually, Karen received a deportation agreement written in English. After crossing out several clauses and rewriting others, she signed with a fictitious name and, then, through a consul, got word to John who bought her a ticket to meet him in Turkey.

The following day she contacted me through Skype from a hotel in Istanbul. Sitting on her bed with John, she told me how the Israelis had searched and re-searched her luggage, and how she had watched as a male guard picked up her panties and sniffed them.

“You’re coughing,” I said. “You look like hell.”

“I’ve got a cold,” she explained. “We were wet from the water cannons. There was frost on the ground outside the jail and they left the cell windows open.” Guards, she said, ordered all prisoners to their feet for a head count every couple of hours, so there was little sleep to be had. Because the lights were often left on twenty-four hours a day, Karen and her cellmates protested one night by banging spoons on the metal door. A guard stormed into the cell wielding her ring of keys in their faces. They were animals, the guard screamed, not even human. When the group pointed to the list of prisoners’ rights posted on the wall, she informed them that since they were not Israeli, they had no rights. ‘“We make the rules’,” Karen quoted. ‘“You do not get anything I do not give you, see?

The prison’s rules would change constantly, she said. “Like with food—they would wheel it into the cell on a cart. We were allowed to serve ourselves the first day. They gave us a couple of loaves of stale bread and a can of tuna dumped on an old aluminum TV dinner tray.” The next meal, the guard barked at them, “You do not take. I give you food.” The following day, Karen was told to pass her plate to her cellmate who would get food for each of them. She told them to keep their food, and refused further meals. When she asked a guard for drinking water, she was handed a used plastic water bottle, and told to rinse it. “Constant mind games. They said I could make a call when I got there and then wouldn’t let me use the phone for two days.”

As she neared the end of her story, Karen described the man who sat next to her on the flight back to Turkey, an Israeli who had emigrated from New York. “He didn’t know much about Gaza. He said he wasn’t very political.”

I was sympathetic, but frustrated and looking for a target. “Bullshit! Moving from New York to Israel is political.”

“Whoa! Keep talking like that and you’ll be on the next flotilla to Gaza.”

I responded with the worlds of the old beat poet, Gary Snyder: “The most radical thing you can do is stay home!”

Karen returned bearing gifts of contrition: a Turkish carpetbag and a pair of harem pants from the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. She was elated and verging on manic her first day home, running errands and dashing several kilometres on foot. When the adrenaline wore off, she crashed into a heap and it took weeks to recover from what turned out to be a respiratory infection. My anger dissolved to guilt. I brewed hot water with chunks of peeled ginger and lemon, and stirred in dollops of honey. I brought her laptop to her room, showed her how to get into my Netflix account and download movies in bed.

When she was back on her feet, she seemed to slip into a kind of sadness. “What’s wrong with me?” she wondered out loud. “I feel sort of depressed and I have no right to be. What happened to me was nothing compared to what they face in Gaza.”

I could hear the echo of her long ago self: the girl who taught me to tie-dye, the girl who saved Mrs. O’Malley. “It’s just that…we raised all that money and then we lost the boat to the Israelis. And, what changed? Every time I read the news, it’s worse.”

I wished I could think of the right thing to say, the nurturing thing—the thing that Karen would say.

If I understand it correctly, in chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the sensitive dependence on initial conditions; where a small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state. Yesterday I googled the words “Volunteer,” “Vancouver,” and “Homeless.” In solidarity.

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