Monday, November 29, 2004
Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew
From a sheltered middle-class early childhood in Germany with only nominal connections to Judaism, to active participation in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, via a Zionist upbringing in Palestine including membership of the "Hagana" and later the Israeli "Defence" Forces, seems a winding if not contradictory road to have traveled. I don't believe this is, in fact, the case -but let's begin at the beginning.
My family were not just German, but ridiculously proud North-Germans with a Buddenbrook- like disdain for South-Germans, Jewish or otherwise. Austrians and East Europeans were beyond the pale. Our assimilation into German society had become deeply ingrained over generations, with religion playing a derisory role.My first intimation of being Jewish came in 1933: that Easter I started school and was told the previous evening that I would be asked to state my religion and was to answer "Jewish", which, my mother assured me, was nothing to be ashamed of.
Subsequent events soon proved otherwise: Hitler had come to power and most teachers increasingly railed against Jews in front of the class, some of the staff relegated us to one corner of the classroom and refused to teach us. Within a couple of years our former good friends had stopped playing with us and would no longer invite us to their homes nor visit ours. Increasingly, we were excluded from public places of entertainment: theatres, concert halls and swimming establishments to name but a few. To make matters worse, out went the Christmas Tree and Easter Eggs; the alternative festivals of Hanukkah and Passover were not a patch on them!
I remember concluding with a Jewish classmate that being Jewish was no big deal at all; in fact we heartily wished we weren't! The actual peril of German Jewry was largely concealed from us, probably not least because Berlin being a large city, Jews, and particularly the very assimilated ones, were unlikely to be known or recognized as such.However, there was an increasing exodus from Germany and we followed in 1937. Most of our circle of friends and acquaintances left for other European countries, including Britain, or for the USA. I fear the majority of my relatives were too short-sighted to move at all, finding the idea of leaving Germany unimaginable till it was too late; with one exception all of them perished in concentration camps.Why did we emigrate to Palestine? Certainly not because of Zionist ideals, particularly on my mother's side; however, father had two siblings who had become early Zionists- a rarity at the time- and had settled in Palestine around 1930. Their enthusiastic persuasion prevailed, not least after father explored the possibilities of finding a livelihood and was guaranteed secure employment with the British Mandatory Authorities as a specialist in electrical engineering (he had been working for Siemens).
And so we arrived at the port of Haifa on a beautifully clear and sunny morning in October 1937, in the midst of the second bitter Palestinian uprising, euphemistically termed "disturbances" by the British authorities and Jewish settlers alike.
At the time, the prevailing slogan was "Hebrew work for Hebrew workers"- translatable as a boycott of any dealings with, or employment of, Palestinian Arabs.On a daily basis relations between the communities were not quite so clear cut: in many cities neighbourly relations continued; I recently learned from a Palestinian friend of my generation that not only did she go to a Jewish teacher for piano lessons throughout this period, she also spoke Yiddish quite fluently because of neighbouring families. Similarly, in Haifa there was a certain amount of intermingling and some areas were quite mixed until the "liberation" of Haifa in 1948.The uprising (1936-1939) was aimed mainly at the British Mandatory Powers and at the new Jewish settlements which mushroomed continuously, often literally overnight. An old Ottoman law (still existing in Turkey) which allows a new settlement to remain legally in place once a watchtower and a fence are completed, was frequently used by settlers on disputed lands during nights.By this time (1937-1938) even the most greedy of absentee landlords, often living in Beirut, had stopped selling land to the Jewish National Fund from underneath his tenants' feet. Palestinian Arab fears of Jewish settler intentions had put increasing pressure on landowners, while such intentions were being completely denied by the Jewish community. We firmly believed that settlements, widely termed "Pioneer Settlements", were developed on otherwise neglected and unused land and lacked any understanding of indigenous people's feelings -we were not taking their lands from them, or so the accepted wisdom went, but turning an arid land into a fruitful and productive one. To that end, levies were paid on most goods and all public travel, not to mention the obligatory collection boxes in all shops, classrooms, restaurants, places of public entertainment and in many houses. Proceeds went to the Jewish National Fund and to the Settlement Fund. Money also came from Jewish communities in unoccupied Europe, the USA and various British colonies. Years later, in 1950 or 51, I was a Teachers' Union delegate to some national conference in which a discussion took place on whether to continue these collections and levies, particularly in schools. I could not see the point, as by then we had a state and - so I naively believed - all the land we had wanted and more. I was outvoted by a large majority.
During my school years I became increasingly involved in the Zionist movement as well as the Socialist one, as indeed a large majority of young people were at the time, especially those who stayed on at school after the age of 14. We perceived no contradiction: we were combating colonialism in the shape of the British Authorities and our training, initially in unarmed combat, later in armed combat as well as in various endurance courses in the underground "Hagana" (defence) organisation, was aimed at this.I relished the difference between living in Germany and Palestine from the start: the freedom from restrictions, the absence of the stigma and anxiety of being a Jew and last but not least, the beauty of the country, its climate and the general air of informality, of a common aim and purpose and of discarding the shackles of an "old" traditional lifestyle for a new, confident and assertive one, captured my heart completely. With hindsight, I realize that many of these sentiments led to a sense of superiority, self-importance, arrogance and aggressiveness, characteristics which are still often found in Israelis nowadays; for youngsters growing up, however, this was heady stuff!
Most of us dreamt of a pioneering life as founder-members of a new kibbutz; we had experience of working and staying in established ones, very poor at that time, as volunteers during the long summer holidays as well as weekends spent training in handling a variety of firearms. Most kibbutzim had hidden caches of arms.Meanwhile, the Palestinian uprising had come to an end in 1939; I was not aware at the time of how cruelly it had been crushed - indeed, the existence of the Arab population seemed somewhat remote and shadowy, barely intruding upon our consciousness. I can well imagine white children in other colonial countries - India, various African countries - growing up hardly noticing the indigenous population, except as servants, menial laborers or strangers occasionally glimpsed from a coach or car window.
This was also the time of growing anxiety about family members who had stayed behind in Germany: by 1942 all news of them had ceased; prior to this my mother had been trying in vain for some two years to obtain a permit for my widowed grandmother to join us. However, a quota had been imposed as a result of Arab protests, triggered by alarm at the sharp increase in the entry rate caused by Hitler's regime. Elderly people stood no chance of obtaining a permit. For a long time, mother was distraught; grandmother, so proudly German, had been sent to a concentration camp, as had all my other relatives. Only one survived.
The war years touched the Jewish community mainly by the terrible common anxiety, amounting to dread, of practically all European Jews about the fate of family and friends left behind, and by the mobilisation of large numbers of young men and women and their recruitment into the British army. There was also growing bitterness at the lack of action by the Allied Powers and Britain in particular, to try and rescue Jews in any significant numbers or to speak out against the terrible atrocities, news of which increasingly filtered through. Our poet laureate of the time wrote a poem of bitter indictment, cursing both the perpetrators of the atrocities and those who stood silently by.
Another, for me illuminating, aspect of the war years, however, (discounting a few rather feeble air attacks by the Italian air force) was that for the first time Palestinian Arabs, or at least a few of them, became real to me. We had finally settled in Haifa in late 1941. Prior to that we had moved around between Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa following my father's work in the government's telephone exchange modernisation.
Our neighbours in Haifa, as well as two other families in the street, were Arab. I became friendly with their eldest daughter, who was about my age, and was frequently in their house, always treated with friendliness and warmth although conversation was minimal: the little Arabic we learned at school was formal literary Arabic, fairly remote from daily discourse, and the female members of the family, as well as the father, knew only the colloquial spoken Arabic. They were first generation town-dwellers, who had moved to Haifa from Al-Tireh, a prosperous village not far away, ironically the location of my first teaching post - but of that later. I was fascinated by their lifestyle and attracted to much of it, not to mention developing a crush on the eldest son, who had recently graduated from Beirut University. Through my contact with the family I began to see Arab people as individuals, no doubt influenced by my mother's attitude to anyone she met, which showed a healthy disregard for origins or "race".
We had occasional help with heavy laundry from Arab women, often from near-by villages, and mother knew all about their families, homes and problems, with hardly any common language. She also persuaded my father, who had Arab colleagues, to obtain some samples and recipes of Middle Eastern cooking, which were added to our own repertoire. Even today I still have vivid memories of the sound of the old cannons in Acre, across the bay, going off in the evenings during Ramadan, signaling the end of the fast. Haifa was still reasonably mixed throughout these years and we often visited the largely Arab downtown area close to the port, with its mixture of large and small shops and stalls, a market boasting a wide variety of fresh products, particularly fish, small restaurants and, last but not least, the largest and best stocked bookshop in Haifa, "Habash".
One of my classmates took piano lessons from a notable pacifist Jew (Yossef Abileah), whose music school accommodated Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Greeks and others. Proud parents and friends sat together at the annual concerts. Years later, in Birmingham, I was invited by the Palestinian Students’ Association to attend a talk given by him, pleading for peace and recognition of Palestinian aspirations. He had just returned from the USA, a frail old man, who, together with his wife, was still striving for justice.
As a family we also frequently visited Acre, Nazareth and other well known Palestinian - Arab towns and there seemed to be a feeling of mutual tolerance at the time, although I knew of no other Jewish people in Haifa who regularly visited Arab homes. No doubt others did exist, particularly in the mixed areas.
Towards the end of the war tensions escalated, especially between the Jewish community and the British authorities, but also between the former's main parties and the extremist right-wing "Beitar" party (led by the late Menahem Begin, later to become the "Etzel" and "Stern" gangs). Officially at least, the community defence force, the "Hagana", claimed to be at war with the right - we were instructed to tear down their posters wherever they appeared; we also attempted - in vain - to have two pupils who were members of "Beitar" expelled from our school. Most of us were still blind, though, to the hidden agenda with its dangers to the Palestinian Arabs.
In 1945 I completed school and went to Jerusalem to study. At that time, we were still free to wander about in the Arab part of the city - far more Arab than it is now, when so much of the Arab sector has been gnawed away, partly openly and partly by stealth. Tensions continued to mount, with terrorist attacks by Etzel and Stern gangs, with frequent curfews imposed by the British, with desperate attempts to land illegal ships packed with survivors from Europe and with increasing demands for a Jewish state.
The 1947 declaration by the United Nations of the partition of Palestine and of the creation of such a state were greeted with wild jubilation and all-night street celebrations; we were somewhat taken aback by the grim and worried faces of Arabs the following morning - little did we realise that fighting had begun and that expulsions were already occurring in other parts of the country.Hostilities escalated sharply after the unceremonious departure of the British in May 1948. Having for years played the game of divide and rule, successfully contributing to the animosity between the Arab and Jewish communities, they washed their hands of the affair and left the two sides to their own devices. However, most British police stations, in the main well fortified and stocked with ammunitions, fell into Jewish hands, as did prisons, radar stations and warehouses. Pure coincidence, I now wonder?
We finished our studies early that summer. Jerusalem had been under siege since winter and there was no electricity, petrol or other fuel and very little food or water. Since January most of us students and others had spent nights on guard duties for the Hagana in the hills surrounding Jerusalem. In June we became full-time members of the developing "Israel Defence Force". Many of us, however, had by then experienced the first of many deeply disturbing shocks: the massacre at Deir Yassin.
Early one morning in April 1948, a friend burst into my room with tears streaming down her face: "they are butchering everyone in Deir Yassin!" It took some time to sink in - we had been repeatedly told that the village's inhabitants were entirely peaceful and the senseless brutality of such slaughter was incomprehensible. Our only comfort, if such it could be called, was that the atrocity was perpetrated by the Stern gang, forerunners of "Likud". That fig leaf was torn away when, a few months later, Stern and Etzel members were incorporated into the regular army and their commanders became our officers. Complaints fell on deaf ears; we now had one state with one army, we were told. At this perilous time, everyone was needed in the defence of the fledgling state and meting out punishment would be counterproductive. Nowadays it is of course widely known that Deir Yassin happened with the full knowledge and cooperation of Ben Gurion, our first prime minister. That summer there was a brief cease-fire and I returned to Haifa for a week. During my absence the "liberation" of Haifa and of many other towns and villages had occurred: Jaffa, Afula, Safad, Lydda and many more. We had been unaware of any of this in Jerusalem, being cut off by the siege. The inhabitants had been driven out, sometimes by straightforward attacks, at other times by different means, often by deliberately terrorising people. In Haifa, for example, many Palestinian Arabs had been given 24 hours to leave; armed soldiers ensured they complied. The predominantly Arab downtown business area was cleared as well as purely residential areas: our neighbours as well as the owners of the two other Arab houses in the street shared this fate. My mother recounted the story with tears, my father with pride. The term "ethnic cleansing" was as yet unknown, it certainly was a very apt description of what was, and indeed still is, happening.
The large shops and business premises downtown were now "liberated" and in Israeli hands. Only one Arab quarter remained, as it still does today: Wadi Nisnas, a small, largely poor, ghetto-like part of Haifa. What had become of our Arab neighbours, indeed of all Haifa's large Arab population many of whose families had been settled in that city for hundreds of years? It was a nagging doubt which refused to go away. Upon my return to Jerusalem, I was assigned to a regiment commanded by Moshe Dayan (later General Dayan, Chief of Staff, later still, prime minister). He had "liberated" some Arab towns and villages and used to boast freely of his fear-striking tactics: he had ordered his troops to release a veritable deluge of shrieking sirens, careering searchlights, massive explosions of shells, grenades and other ammunition, prior to mounting an attack on these places. By that time, most of the inhabitants had fled in sheer terror. Dayan was rather proud of his successes gained by this method; I believe he used it often. The fact that the inhabitants of these places, like all Palestinians who had fled or who had simply been away from home during the "Independence War", had lost any right ever to return was left unmentioned. Indeed, for a long time- far too long - I realise with hindsight, it was so much easier to believe the propaganda we were bombarded with: the bulk of the Arab population had fled despite Israel's efforts to reassure them and to persuade them to stay put. Moreover, Jews from a variety of Middle Eastern countries were suffering persecution and peril and had to emigrate, or so we were led to believe, so it was a fair exchange. It was not until the early nineteen fifties, when I encountered some of these "persecuted" immigrants, that a very different picture began to emerge.In early 1950 all female teachers and nurses were released from the army and shortly after that I started my first teaching job in Al-Tireh, formerly a prosperous Palestinian village which we had often glimpsed from the main Haifa - Tel-Aviv road. I was astonished to see the fine, modern school building erected and then abandoned by the villagers: the general perception by the majority of Israeli Jews was that Arab village dwellers, with very few exceptions, were illiterate.
The village was now peopled by new immigrants, the bulk of them from Bulgaria and Turkey. Initially, we had no means of communication, but in time it became clear that many of our pupils' parents were less than happy in their new homes. All the Bulgarians had come from Sophia and were used to big-city life; the Turks also felt that the wonderful promises of life in the Jewish homeland had failed to materialise. All of them felt unneeded and even unwelcome; they had been dumped in abandoned villages - if they were lucky - and were usually unemployed or were overqualified for the jobs they were doing. The young men, of course, had immediately been drafted into the army.
My opportunity to meet some of these young soldiers came when I was called up to go on reservist duty: in February 1952 I was sent to Eilat for a month. At that time, it was nothing but a military camp on the shores of the Red Sea. I was assigned to a class of new immigrant soldiers who spoke no Hebrew. The hostility of the 25 or so young men I encountered on the first morning shocked me: they wanted to learn no Hebrew! One young Yemeni who spoke a little Hebrew explained that all of these men from various, mainly Arab, countries, had left settled and contented lives in their former homes. They had been persuaded by the constant urgings of Zionist propaganda to come to the aid of the new Israeli state, which was in danger being destroyed by the surrounding Arab states, as indeed were their own communities. They had been made to feel needed, perhaps essential; what they had not been told was that their main role was to act as cannon-fodder. On arrival, they were sprayed with DDT at the points of entry and then crammed into extremely primitive reception camps. Within a week or two they were drafted into the army for a three-year term and sent to their bases, often without knowledge of where their families had been placed or how they would survive economically. They were far from unaware of the very different treatment accorded to European immigrants whose camps were far superior, who received help in finding suitable accommodation and who were quickly given jobs. Vast numbers of Eastern immigrants now wished to return to their countries of origin as soon as possible - the Indians even held a sit-down strike in central Tel Aviv demanding their fares back - very few had this wish granted. One difficulty was the very high level of taxes levied at the time on Israelis traveling abroad. This was compounded by the fact that, at that time, all Jewish immigrants, on arrival in Israel, had been automatically made Israeli citizens, without being informed properly, let alone consulted or asked for consent. As a result, most had lost their original citizenship.
On a recent visit to Palestine and Israel I met an Iraqi who had been part of this influx; he told me that he still felt bitter about what had happened to him, to his community and to all the other non-European immigrants.
The Eilat experience opened my eyes to the reality of life for the new, mainly non-European immigrants. Later on I saw some of the purpose built, shoddy villages, literally in the middle of nowhere, in which many of them had been dumped; quite often these were later abandoned and the disillusioned inhabitants were housed in - inferior - ex-Palestinian accommodation; the better type of such accommodation, particularly in the cities, had gone to European immigrants. The increasingly blatant inequality of treatment that existed between the Jewish and the remaining Arab citizens of Israel began to worry and to raise doubts and even anger in the minds of progressive Israelis, sadly not many of them. This was explained away by "security" needs: dangers had to be faced up to, especially those posed by the "fedayeen" (armed intruders, many of them farmers desperate to get back to their lands). However, everyone knew that these were few and far between and only affected the southernmost and northernmost borders, not any centres of population. It made no sense not to allow Arab-Israeli citizens to travel freely, not to give them access to health, education and other services in any comparable measure and to restrict their entry into a whole range of studies and professions, not to mention into trade unions.
Some of these issues have now been addressed but many still hold true and today there is the added danger of "Judaisation" - of the Galilee, for instance, and of old villages and settlements being expropriated and their inhabitants transferred against their will. Today we are told that these villages and settlements had never been officially recognised and hence had never had electricity, water or road access introduced; at the time no-one, at least outside government, had ever heard of unrecognised villages. Our disillusion with the new state reached its climax during the 1956/7 Suez crisis: this could not be explained away as a security measure by any feat of the imagination - it was naked aggression! Most Israelis - excepting communist party members and some far sighted individuals - were jubilant.We (I had married by that time and was living in Jerusalem once more) found that open criticism led to social ostracism in all but a few cases. During this period, our Indian postman (a graduate of Madras University) knocked on our door very early one morning to inform us in a frightened whisper that all our mail was being opened. So, when in 1958 Bristol University offered my husband a post as research fellow, we finally decided to emigrate.For many years thereafter I still visited Israel fairly regularly but after 1978, following Menahem Begin's election as prime minister, I felt too alienated to do so any longer.
During my years in Britain I came across writings by early Zionists (the unedited version of Herzl, inter alia) as well as those by Palestinians such as Edward Said, R. Sayigh and others which had not been widely available in Israel, and I gradually came to realise that my perception of Zionism having lost its way was mistaken: Zionism had never been justifiable from its outset. I also met numerous Palestinians, mainly students, during the seventies in Britain and began to see their side much more clearly. However, it took the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to turn me from a non-Zionist into an anti- Zionist.At a large demonstration in London that summer I came across groups of like-minded former Israelis and/or Jews for the first time and discovered that I could become involved and active in this country. For an even moderately politically aware, progressive former Israeli, I believe this is an unavoidable consequence.
Addendum: I recently discovered that Israeli citizens have either Jewish, Arab, or Druze Nationality rather than Israeli one – discrimination from cradle to grave. (2003)