Updated: Aug 3
A tribute to Sinead O’Connor, and the brave fight, personal and political, against oppression
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the Minister of National Security of Israel, will not be hanging in his living room the portrait of Sinead O’Connor, who died on July 26, 2023, at the age of 56. Ben-Gvir reserves this honor for his heroes, like Baruch Goldstein, who massacred dozens of Palestinian prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994.
A different sort of connection beyond the grave was O’Connor’s, who was 18 when her mother died in a car crash. Six years later, in her 1990 debut album, O’Connor sang her pain in her cover of Prince’s ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U.” While Prince wrote it about his romance, O’Connor had in mind her mother, wishing “she can hear me, and I can connect to her.”
Ben-Gvir and O’Connor crossed paths in 1997. By then, the 21-year-old Ben-Gvir already fashioned himself a hero, and took pride in campaigning against Sinead O’Connor, who planned a peace concert in Jerusalem in the summer of 1997.
It was less than two years after the assassination of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, a year into Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term. O’Connor received death threats, and backed out of the concert, but not of Ben-Gvir’s warlike words. She wrote to him an open letter:
God does not reward those who bring terror to children of the world, so you have succeeded in nothing but your soul’s failure… I felt saddened and frightened. I asked God then ‘How can there be peace anywhere on earth if there is not peace in Jerusalem?’
I’m away from Jerusalem, my still unpeaceful home, visiting Ithaca, looking from above at a sailboat crossing the serene Cayuga Lake. I’m no Odysseus, Ithaca is not my destination. It’s my inbound odyssey.
I’m away from home, whose frail democracy Ben-Gvir and the current Israeli government seem determined to destroy. My heart goes out to the hundreds of thousands who for the past thirty weeks have not lost hope, against all odds.
Is this war? My mind wanders to Ethiopia Street in Jerusalem, built by order of Ethiopian Emperors in the 19th century, where I spent my early 21st century in a house whose thick walls helped survive both AC-less summertime and the Second Intifada. It also hosted Haile Selassie I, the Emperor of Ethiopia, on his Holyland visits.
In 1936, Selassie spoke before the League of Nations, urging an action against fascism, to no avail. In 1963, a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, he addressed the United Nations. Selassie pledged to fight “until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will,” and concluded:
We must look into ourselves, into the depth of our souls. We must become something we have never been and for which our education and experience and environment have ill-prepared us. We must become bigger than we have been: more courageous, greater in spirit, larger in outlook. We must become members of a new race, overcoming petty prejudice, owing our ultimate allegiance not to nations but to our fellow men within the human community.
While Selassie believed in God, Bob Marley, like fellow Rastafari, believed that Selassie himself manifests God. In 1976, a year after He was murdered by the military government that had deposed him, Selassie’s UN speech turned into a song, and an anthem: Marley’s “War.”
It will also become O’Connor’s War, when she recited it in a fateful Saturday Night Live show in 1992, changing some words to speak of child abuse, pleading, “Children, children / Fight,” before concluding with Selassie’s pledge, “We know we will win / We have confidence in the victory of good over evil,” ripping up a picture of then-Pope John Paul II.
O’Connor’s cover of Prince’s ballad launched her career; her cover of Marley’s anthem devastated it. Many years will pass before the public would recognize her courageous stand against the Church culture of child abuse. And many years will pass before O’Connor will reveal, in her 2021 memoir, her personal story of abuse by her own mother, who used to pin her to the floor, pummeling her, while forcing her to say over and over again, “I am nothing,” and what she experienced and witnessed after she was sent, at the age of 14, to live at An Grianán Training Centre in Dublin, which was run by the Order of Our Lady of Charity. I can only try to imagine what O’Connor wished to have said to her mother as tears adorned her beautiful face when she sang “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
I hear O’Connor’s urge, “Children, children / Fight,” and read her letter to Ben-Gvir, “God does not reward those who bring terror to children of the world.” And I think of the younger generation of Israelis joining their elders to bravely resist an oppressive government.
I will be thinking more on how to resist oppression – the ethics of Simone de Beauvoir and of Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill come to my mind – and hope to write on it soon. But now I listen to Nick Cave’s “O Children,” swirling oppression and innocence: the oppressors hold “the keys to the gulag,” and, they promise, to our troubles: “We have the answer to all your fears / It's short, it's simple, it's crystal clear / It's round about and it's somewhere here / Lost amongst our winnings.” Cave, like O’Connor, sees one way to hold on a future beyond the abyss: “O Children / Lift up your voice, lift up your voice.”
O’Connor lifted up her voice. I wish we had truly listened.
Can we, now? Like so many things in life, this too is a matter of attention and affection, and, perhaps, of practice. Recently I watched a clip of Robert Smith performing the opener to The Cure’s wonderous Disintegration. Smith, who recently lost his parents and brother was as he’s always been – completely covered, completely bare – as he sang, and smiled, through tears, Plainsong, named after the only type of music allowed in Christian churches early on, the sort of music that should make a listener receptive to spiritual thoughts and reflections.
I think I'm old and I'm feeling pain, you said And it's all running out like it's the end of the world, you said And it's so cold, it's like the cold if you were dead And then you smiled for a second