A Palestinian man overlooks a school in a refugee camp, 1948. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
I grew up in a Jewish family in the North London suburb of Muswell Hill. This is the story of how my family rejected Zionism and how I discovered the truth about the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland – the Nakba (although I was not to learn the word itself until much later).
The call of the prophets
Around the age of eleven or twelve, I passed through a stage of feeling attracted to religious observance. My parents no longer went to the synagogue, nor did my sister, so I attended the Sabbath morning service alone. It lasted an hour and a half. I liked the slightly musty atmosphere of the old shul. (A few years later it was demolished to make way for a supermarket and a shiny but soulless new synagogue was built in another part of the neighorhood.) I liked the davening – the praying in a standing position, swaying back and forth. I enjoyed the singing of The Rock of Ages with which the service closed. Sometimes I even enjoyed the rabbi’s sermon, especially when he was in an irate mood and castigated his audience for hypocrisy and impiety.
Our rabbi was a keen idol-smasher. “Do you suppose that idolatry belongs to the remote past?” he would ask. “Not at all! You think that you are Jews. You are nothing of the kind! Jews worship God. What do you worship? The idol of money, Mammon, the Golden Calf!” He expressed the same contempt for the majority of his congregants in conversation with my mother, who prided herself on being his confidante. Clearly he did not regard us as worshippers of Mammon.
In this way Rabbi Brazil rammed home an idea that recurs throughout the Bible. God’s chosen people are fickle, always running after false gods. Of those who call themselves Jews, only a very few deserve the name. Thus, authentic Judaism is a rare and precious thing—one that demands the renunciation of ethnic solidarity, which can only corrupt it. What matters to the real Jew is communion with God, not getting on well with fellow Jews.
As for the broad interpretation of the idea of idolatry, I found it so appealing that I extended it further. It seemed obvious to me that nationalism was also a kind of idolatry.
And we were taught about the prophets. This was basically the same message, but in an even more extreme form. For the prophets were lone individuals—minorities of one—who denounced the evils and injustices perpetrated by their fellow Jews and, above all, by the rich and powerful among them. One argument by one of our teachers made a particular impression upon me:
“People often say that when you speak out against injustice you must be tactful and take great care to offend no one. But the prophets were not tactful. How tactful was the Isaiah when he declaimed in the name of the Lord?
Your burnt offerings are an abomination in my sight.
Your sweet-smelling incense stinks in my nostrils!
Your new moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being!
You stretch your arms to me,
Your hands reeking of blood.
Many years later, this teacher’s argument re-echoed in my mind when colleagues at Brown University criticized me for my lack of tact in denouncing the crimes of the State of Israel.
Did the prophets’ call to “defend the oppressed” apply only when the oppressed were Jews? Or did it apply also when they were Gentiles? It seemed to me that it must apply to all victims of oppression, for is it not written in the Torah, not once but twice: “Oppress not the stranger, for you too were strangers in the Land of Egypt”?
So even before I was confronted with Zionism as a problem, I was psychologically primed to denounce it in the name of Judaism – more precisely, an acquired notion that I identified with “real” Judaism. That is not the way I think now. Like other religions, Judaism has varied enormously over time and space. There are many Judaisms: some are pretty awful, and all are real. I had picked out the bits I liked, done my best to ignore the rest, and called the result “real Judaism.” A rather arbitrary procedure, though it served me well at the time.
Throwing out the JNF box
As in so many other Jewish homes, our kitchen mantelpiece was graced by a blue-and-white tin box with a slot into which we would occasionally drop coins. The coins were for a country called Israel – or, to be more precise, for the Jewish National Fund (JNF). Every few weeks, an old man from the synagogue came round, opened the box with his key, and took away the money. On one side of the box there was an outline map with an intricate pattern of light-blue patches. As a young child I was fascinated by the pattern and loved to gaze at it, though I had no idea what it meant. Even when I grew older and learned that the patches marked out areas of land that had been bought by the JNF, my understanding of the box’s purpose remained hazy. Whose land were they buying and why?
In 1962, when I was eleven, my parents visited Israel for the first time. They left my sister and myself behind with our aunt. A couple of years earlier they had visited the Soviet Union. Later I learned that they were considering the possibility of resettling there (for my father it would have been a return to the country of his birth) but discovered enough about the unpleasant sides of Soviet life to give up the idea. Now they were considering resettling in Israel, and again decided against it. After that they gave up the whole idea of leaving England.
When we were all back home, I asked my mother what she thought of Israel. “It’s a fascist country,” she declared. I was so astonished that for a while I could think of nothing to say. I could not have said exactly what fascism was, but I knew it was something so terrible that it had to be wiped out by any means, even by force of arms. After a while I asked my mother why she thought Israel was fascist. She replied that “there are soldiers everywhere.” She also talked about teenagers forced to go on long marches and often collapsing in the heat and said that the Nazis had done the same thing in Germany in the 1930s.
I was still skeptical but decided that the matter merited further investigation. At that time I was just starting to discover the intellectual delights of left-wing bookstores, and on a dusty shelf at the back of one such store I happened to find two items that seemed relevant. For a small sum I bought them and took them home to study.
One was a religious tract by a rabbi who cited passages from the Talmud to prove that the State of Israel was an abomination created in defiance of the will of God. I thought it would be interesting to repeat the arguments of this rabbi in cheder. I was curious what the reaction would be.
Sure enough, when the subject of Israel next came up I stood and delivered my very first anti-Zionist speech. I ironically pointed out that the Messiah had not yet come and therefore we were forbidden to “go up” to Palestine in large numbers or set up a Jewish state. As I spoke, the other boys in the class peered up at me, with astonished faces and mouths wide open. I finished and sat down. The woman teacher let out a long sigh that expressed a mixture of indulgence and exasperation, pondered a moment, and then said: “Stephen, have you considered that maybe we ourselves are the Messiah?” Now it was my turn to be astonished.
The other item that I had picked up at the bookstore was a pamphlet by the late champion of human rights Dr. Israel Shahak. His indictment of Israel was secular rather than religious in character, ending with Voltaire’s splendid summons: Ecrasez l’infame! He talked about the discrimination suffered by people whom he called “Palestinians.” It was the first time that I had come across this word and I could not grasp who these “Palestinians” were, though I gathered that they were an ethnic minority in Israel and that they were persecuted. The trouble was that the author’s presentation was too sophisticated and assumed very basic background knowledge that we lacked.
The most disturbing passage in the pamphlet concerned a compound in Jerusalem where these mysterious “Palestinians” were held prisoner and tortured. People living nearby heard their screams at night but made no protest, accepting the situation as normal.
My mother’s comparison with Nazi Germany no longer seemed so outlandish. I showed her Shahak’s pamphlet, drawing her attention especially to the passage that I found so disturbing. Then I pointed at the JNF box and asked her why we were still contributing money to a “fascist” state. Without a word, she took the box down from the mantelpiece and dropped it in the trash can.
When my father and my sister learned what had happened to the JNF box, they made no objection. So we decided to reject Zionism as a family. For me that was a very fortunate circumstance. Later I discovered that Jewish youngsters who reject Zionism are usually rejected in turn by their families.
When the old man next came round from the synagogue to collect our money for the JNF, we all hid and kept silent as though there was no one home. With great difficulty my sister and I tried to suppress our laughter as we held our heads down and listened to him shout and swear at us all in Yiddish. Finally, he gave our front door a kick powerful enough to leave a visible dent—though he must have done even more damage to his foot than to the door—and went away. He never came again.
I continued to attend cheder and Sabbath services at the synagogue. The rabbi was still friendly to our family.
The puzzle solved
One summer when I was about 16 or 17 – I don’t remember exactly when, but I was still at school – I spent a couple of weeks in Israel, hiking around the country and visiting various distant cousins. There was an elderly couple in Jerusalem who resembled the elderly Jewish people I knew in England. There were also middle-aged and young people. To the young men in particular I took an instant dislike. They struck me as boastful and arrogant, just like my Israeli schoolmates.
There is no need for me to give a detailed account of this trip, but I would like to recall a series of encounters that finally enabled me to solve the puzzle of the Palestinians.
First let me recount a conversation I had with a young man who worked at the small hotel where I stayed upon my arrival in Tel Aviv. Our ability to communicate was limited, as we could find no language in which we were both fluent. When he learned that I was from England, he asked what was the total population of that country. Then he asked how many Jews lived there. After that I could see from the look of concentration on his face that he was doing some mental arithmetic in his head, evidently calculating a proportion or ratio between the two statistics that I had given him. He shook his head and tutted his tongue. Terrible, terrible!
Did I know about France? – he asked next. Total population, Jewish population, mental arithmetic, and again shaking of the head and tutting of the tongue. Terrible, terrible!
I wanted to assure him that despite these statistics we English and French Jews did not live under siege. We were not at the mercy of hordes of Gentile enemies out for our blood. Our relations with the Gentiles were on the whole quite good, and he need not worry on our behalf. I did not persuade him. The language problem, I suspected, was only part of the reason. These Israelis appeared to have been brainwashed with some rather strange notions.
The second encounter happened in the middle of a bus tour. We had all got off the bus and were chatting and strolling around. I happened to overhear an intriguing snatch of conversation between the tour guide, a middle-aged Israeli man, and a young Jewish-American woman tourist, so I joined them.
“You fought in the War of Independence, didn’t you?” – asked the young woman, evidently not for the first time.
The driver nodded patiently.
“Can I ask you something? I don’t understand how you could know where to stop fighting. How were you able to tell where the border was?”
“When the fighting stopped, that was where the border was.”
The woman obviously found this laconic reply hard to grasp. Surely the fighters had to know where the “correct” border was. Otherwise they could easily have found themselves no longer “defending Israel” but inadvertently invading some neighboring country. Evidently thinking that she had failed to explain what puzzled her, she tried rephrasing the question. The tour guide just repeated the same reply. As he did so, he glanced at me with an ironic smile, as though sharing a joke with me. But what was the joke? I was following the conversation because I shared the woman’s puzzlement. Only later did the meaning of the reply fall into place in my mind’s eye.
The third encounter was in a church. I can’t recall in what town I was, but I happened to notice the church, wandered in, and stood admiring the architecture and the stained glass windows. A short middle-aged man wearing a suit approached me and warily asked (in English) what I wanted. A little taken aback by his tone, I replied that I was just a tourist admiring the church. I asked him a few questions about the church – the sort of questions any tourist might ask – and he answered politely. But as he was talking I gradually became aware that something was amiss. In his eyes I saw something that I recognized after a while as fear. I also noticed that he was trembling slightly. I did not recognize these signs for what they were right away because it was difficult for me to conceive of the possibility that he might fear me. Why should he fear me? When I did become conscious of his fear, I acted to relieve it by quickly walking away and out of the church.
Afterward it slowly dawned on me. A church is a place where Christians worship, and in this country the Christians were mostly “Palestinians.” This man must have been a Palestinian and he must have been afraid of me because I was a Jew. Elsewhere it was we Jews who were afraid, but here we were the master race and non-Jews were afraid of us. I felt acutely uncomfortable. Wasn’t this even worse than the other way round? I resolved not to come to Israel again, because I did not want to be in a country where I was feared.
The fourth and final encounter was of a more mystical kind.
I was hiking somewhere on the coastal plain to the east of Tel Aviv. I had spotted what looked like some ruins in the distance and wanted to get a closer look. I was walking across a wide stretch of wasteland surrounded by a very long ring road. Apart from a few vehicles moving along that distant road, no one else was in sight. Only the wild grass and the wind.
I reached the ruins. Clearly there had once been a village here. I sat down on a large stone and remained sitting there. I sat there for several hours. I must have fallen into some sort of trance. Now and then I heard everyday sounds, like the creak of a door opening or closing or a human voice saying something in a language that I did not understand but that I knew must be Arabic.
Was it the spirits of the people who used to live there? Or just imaginings that my mind conjured out of the sound of the wind rustling in the grass? The spirits, if indeed they were spirits, showed no sign of being aware of my presence.
When I finally awoke from my trance, the sun was already low in the sky. I started to walk back over the wasteland toward the road. The puzzle was now solved. I knew who the Palestinians were. They were simply the people whose country this used to be. The Zionists had stolen it from them. Some chutzpah, eh? Now I knew their dirty little secret. A good thing they weren’t all that thorough in clearing up the mess, otherwise I would still be in the dark!
I am reluctant to believe in spirits, but I cannot explain what I experienced in any other way. I am fairly sure that at that age I had never before heard spoken Arabic. When I went to college a year or two later and met Arab students and heard them speak Arabic among themselves, I recognized it as the same language that I had heard in those ruins. So how could my mind have manufactured those voices?