From Jerusalem to Appalachia: Tracking America’s ‘Unholy Divide’ 

WILLIAMSON, West Virginia — This week, it was hard not to feel like things were coming apart in America.

I traveled straight from an assignment in Jerusalem and one of the most intractable divides in the world between the Israelis and Palestinians to southern West Virginia and across what feels like a jagged faultline in our own deeply divided land.

Watching the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings from a hotel room in Jerusalem last Thursday, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed over the collapse of civility in our country — all captured live on CNN for the world to watch. Then I came here and followed the toxic aftermath of those hearings here in West Virginia, and now along with everyone else in the nation await the fateful decision of whether or not the Senate will vote to appoint Brett Kavanaugh.

Americans are forming seemingly irreconcilable camps. One camp takes to the veracity of testimony by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school and the other supports Kavanaugh in his blistering and at times deeply partisan defense of his record and a denial of all the claims. Adding fuel to the flame, President Trump held a political rally in Mississippi mocking Dr. Blasey and the crowd jeered and hollered in support of Trump and his nominee. Is this who we are? Aren’t we better than this?

We don’t have military checkpoints set up here, yet. We haven’t descended into violent conflict across the divide, even if there are powerful examples of violence careening into this divisive time. I certainly don’t want to overdo the comparison to Israel-Palestine.

But I can’t help but think that those of us in America who have always felt secure in the knowledge that our country is bound together in a common cause, should wake up and face the reality that our country is as divided as it has been since at least 1968. Some would say that today’s tears and fissures across society are even worse than the tumult of the late 1960s. The stark divisions are deepened in intensity by the fact that America is heavily armed right now with automatic weapons in many homes.

We’ve already had a far-right nationalist who attended the “United the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA use his Dodge Challenger to surge into into a crowd of counter-protesters,  killing a young woman who was there to protest against white nationalism. We’ve seen the racist ideology of Dylann Roof who was convicted of gunning down nine people attending services at an African-American congregation. And we are seeing a white nationalist movement emboldened daily. It is horrifying to even think this, but who is to say that we won’t have open, armed conflict here in the U.S. someday?

In the Holy Land, in Northern Ireland, in Nigeria, in Kosovo, in El Salvador, I have observed societies that stop listening to the other side, that grow increasingly isolated from each other and attached to their own narratives of suffering and then suddenly fracture and descend into unspeakable violence. It really does happen.

To borrow some famous words from the title of Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel about the rise of a dark force of populism in America, who is to say, “It Can’t Happen Here”? The point of Lewis’ prescient book was that populism can rapidly and unpredictably mutate into autocratic rule. And it is hard not to feel that the rise of authoritarian populism is well underway in America and in other parts of the world. Just take a look at the rise of the right in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines and even in Italy and Germany.

In Jerusalem last week, I was working with one of our emerging journalists covering a march by Christian Zionists. These are conservative, evangelical Christians who fervently support the state of Israel in the belief that their existence as a state is part of a biblical prophecy that will usher in an apocalyptic vision known in scripture as “the end of days.” The believers in this interpretation of scripture say the ‘end times’ will spur the return of Jesus to judge the living and the dead.

There were more than 10,000 believers of this theology in Jerusalem and they are part of a movement that is estimated to be in the millions in America who believe this interpretation of scripture, and its prediction of a coming war. As someone who has covered and lived in the Middle East for many years, I was horrified to see this growing confluence of the religious right in Israel with the religious right in America. Our American partisan divide seemed to be marching right up the streets of Jerusalem into the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

So perhaps this jarring journey from the Holy Land to rural Appalachia has set my warning radar at too high a setting. Here in West Virginia, working with a small team of emerging journalists reporting on failing water infrastructure in rural counties, I met some of the most kind, hard working and generous people you can imagine. I also came across points of view that were strongly in support of Trump and his nominee, and seething with contempt for anyone who disagreed. In the cross-hairs of their ire was Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat up for reelection in a deep red state, who will cast a potentially decisive vote on Kavanaugh. You can, of course, hear the same contemptuous tone and ire from people in progressive regions like New England, about anyone who would voice support for Trump or his nominee. And these more liberal bastions are watching closely how Senator Collins, a Republican from Maine, will vote.

When you travel across the divides, it becomes more and more clear that we should all be listening carefully to what is happening around us, to the sense that we seem to have stopped listening to each other.

That American divide felt like it was at a fever pitch in Jerusalem among the Christian evangelicals who were there for what is known as the Feast of Tabernacles, a fall harvest festival that has become a time for Christian Zionists to gather in support of Israel. I met people in the march in Jerusalem from Texas and Florida and many corners of the world. Good, decent people, but filled with fear and a sense of impending doom and violence. They shared with me their belief — even excitement — that the events unfolding in our country and around the world are a sign of an apocalyptic age.

One worshiper who hailed from Colorado held a steady job and had a family and a nice, middle class home. He was dressed in a polo shirt and khakis and he was marching through Jerusalem with thousands of co-believers in Christian Zionism. I asked him if he thought that an all-out conflict in America was possible. He didn’t hesitate to tell me, “We are already in a war between the light and the darkness, between good and evil.”

He told me that President Trump and Vice President Pence represented the light and that they were finally willing to confront the darkness. Their unswerving support for Israel against the enemies (read: Muslims) that surround them is required for all nations, according to his reading of scripture. And he assured me, yes, he does have weapons in his home and that while he hopes it does not really come to an armed conflict, that we should all be prepared that that “may be what is needed.” He said this with calm, reassurance of a Sunday school teacher, not a hostile white nationalist.

“We are living in a prophetic time that I would definitely say is the end of days, and we should all see that,” this marcher added.

I told him I definitely didn’t see it, and I know the vast majority of Americans don’t see it either. But I walked away more intent than ever to watch out for those who do wish to usher in this messianic age, those who want to exploit the divisions in our country and conflate them into open conflict. It is a time to be very wary of where we are heading. We are going to have to struggle to bring back civility, to listen to each other and not allow those who seek to divide us to succeed. It’s time to wake up and realize that the bitter divisions we are witnessing now can be become even worse. Divided societies truly can erupt into open conflict. The whole point of Sinclair Lewis was that it can happen here.