Professor Alan Johnson is Editor of Fathom and Senior Research Fellow at BICOM. He is an editorial board member of Dissent Magazine and Senior Research Associate of the Foreign Policy Centre.
First, Sean Matgamna
It was Sean Matgamna – or ‘Rebbe Matgamna’ as some in the Union of Jewish Students affectionately called this brilliant Irish intellectual and former Docker at the time – who woke me from my dogmatic One-State slumber in the mid-1980s. Sean was the leading theoretician of Socialist Organiser, the far-left entryist group I had been a member of since 1980. Out of a clear blue sky he walked in one day with a paper arguing that we should drop the demand for a ‘democratic secular state’ and embrace ‘two states for two peoples.’ After a long internal debate – the sophistication and seriousness of which I was never to find in academia – his arguments prevailed.
‘It seems to me,’ Matgamna wrote, ‘that the terms of the only just solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are clear and unmistakeable. Unless you think the interests of one side should be entirely sacrificed to the other – that is, unless you are either an Arab or an Israeli chauvinist – there is only one acceptable solution. Each nation should have self-determination in the territory where it is the majority. I understand that to mean, essentially, the 1967 border. There should be full equality for members of each nationality in the other’s state. The secular democratic state necessarily involves replacing the Jewish state of Israel with another arrangement in which Jews will not have a state. The goal is not only to secure Palestinian rights by putting an end to Israeli rule in the Palestinian territories, but to deprive Israeli Jews of their national rights.’
Well, indeed. Obvious enough, you might think, but those ideas were a heresy on the far left at the time. And so we were heresy hunted.
‘Zionists!’ screamed Chris Harman, a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. The Workers Revolutionary Party even wrote that ‘a powerful Zionist connection runs from the so-called left of the Labour Party right into the centre of Thatcher’s government in Downing Street’. Armed with those ideas, and those enemies, we fought alongside UJS to prevent the far left drive to ban student Jewish Societies as ‘Zionist’ so ‘racist’.
We worked closely with UJS inside the NUS and I was impressed by the Jews I met. I recall Adrian Cohen, after he was called an antisemitic name at an NUS conference, squaring up and threatening to bury his ‘Jewish fist’ in the guy’s face. How could a Suedehead from North Shields not be impressed with that? It was our youth leader Jane Ashworth – who later set up the Engage website with another Matgamna boy, David Hirsh – who came up with the phrase ‘cultural Zionists’, to describe ourselves at the time.
Second, Leon Trotsky
I still revere the Old Man and bristle when people attack him in words that should really be reserved for his followers. His final words were read out at my wedding to Debbie, a Matgamna girl, by our children:
‘Natasha has just come up to the window from the courtyard and opened it wider so that the air may enter more freely into my room. I can see the bright green strip of grass beneath the wall, and the clear blue sky above the wall, and sunlight everywhere. Life is beautiful. Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression, and violence and enjoy it to the full.’
And it was from Trotsky that I learned that the assimilationist approach of classical Marxism to the problem of antisemitism was wrong. A target of both Tsarist and Stalinist antisemitism himself, Trotsky understood antisemitism was no feudal hangover. He grasped the modernity of antisemitism. I read his searing account of the antisemitic pogroms of the 1905 Russian Revolution and his desperate and prescient warnings about Fascism. ‘The next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.’ (emphasis in the original) he wrote, before his murder by the Stalinists in 1940.
As Enzo Traverso, an intellectual historian of Marxism and antisemitism, has put it, ‘The rise of Nazism in Germany led the Russian revolutionary to a global revision of his approach to the Jewish Question’ i.e. to the question of antisemitism. Though Trotsky never thought of himself as a Zionist – having faith in a World Socialist Revolution which we cannot, in good faith, still claim – he became convinced of the necessity of a national solution to the problem of radicalising antisemitism.
The Jews, Trotsky came to believe, have every right to live in a ‘compact mass’ as a nation. And nations, he wrote as far back as 1915, ‘constitute an active and permanent factor of human culture. The nation will not only survive the current war, but also capitalism itself.’ ‘The Jewish nation’ he said in 1937, ‘will maintain itself for an entire epoch to come.’
Third, Isaac Deutscher
From Trotsky’s biographer, the Polish socialist Isaac Deutscher, I learned that the Jewish state is not only a right but a necessity, and that to oppose its existence on the basis of abstract left-wing dogma is, literally, a matter of Jewish life and death:
I have, of course, long since abandoned my anti-Zionism, which was based on a confidence in the European labour movement, or, more broadly, in European society and civilisation, which that society and civilisation have not justified. If, instead of arguing against Zionism in the 1920s and 1930s I had urged European Jews to go to Palestine, I might have helped to save some of the lives that were later extinguished in Hitler’s gas chambers.
For the remnants of European Jewry – is it only for them? – the Jewish State has become an historic necessity. It is also a living reality. Whatever their cleavages, grievances, and frustrations, the Jews of Israel are animated by a fresh and strong sense of nationhood and by a dogged determination to consolidate and strengthen their State by every means at their disposal. They also have the feeling – how well justified – that the ‘civilised world’, which in one way or another has the fate of European Jewry on its conscience, has no moral ground to stand on when it tries to sermonise or threaten Israel for any real or imaginary breaches of international commitments.
Fourth, the experience of teaching the Holocaust
A sustained engagement with antisemitism as a university teacher – deep reading in the texts, images, films, memoirs, and histories; sustained discussion with your students; the effort to write about antisemitism, in my case about the work of Primo Levi – produced this insight: our natures are mixed, capable of great good and great evil. In the words of the Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, we are centaurs, a ‘tangle of flesh and mind, of divine inspiration and dust’.
Then add this in: humanity, for reasons that do not concern us here, for no good reason, again and again, has selected the Jew as the scapegoat. More precisely, and with a smidgeon more hope, let us say that humanity has done so for millennia and is still doing so today, though we can allow ourselves the hope – as we may hope for the return of the Messiah – that humanity will not do so in the future.
But what we can’t not know is that from time to time, in the words of Levi’s favourite writer Dante, western civilisation takes leave of its senses and ‘descends into hell with trumpets and drums’. And when it does, the Jews – not only, but above all, the Jews – need a state with ramparts and an IDF standing on those ramparts. At one level, my Zionism comes down to that brute fact.
Fifth, boys and girls in Jerusalem
Walking in Jerusalem one day I came upon Jewish children playing in a narrow street, the early evening sun warming the stone flags and lending their ringlets a glow. They were playing a game I could not understand, white shirts flapping, Kippahs in danger of falling off, one shriek chasing another. I had two thoughts. My first, as ever, was about Primo Levi. I was reminded that in play we adults can find again ‘the savour of childhood, delicate and forgotten,’ and that to enjoy play is rather ‘like receiving, free of charge or almost, a rare and beautiful object.’ A second thought then shadowed my first, a typical experience for anyone who has spent a lot of time reading about the Holocaust, let alone those who have a familial connection to the Shoah: other images and other shrieks from another time arrived unbidden.
In some indefinable way, my own Zionism was expressed at that moment, by that juxtaposition.
They are building on our yishuv (settlement) right now. There is heavy machinery in place and I hear about plans for around 50 houses or so. Right now all they have done so far is taken part of a hill and leveled it, getting the ground ready to lay foundations.
There are no boulders to move, no trees to uproot, not so much as a brick that needs to be relocated to make room for new houses. It was the same story when they built the rest of the yishuv over the past 30 years – they started from nothing – an empty, barren hill surrounded by many more empty, barren desert hills.
Driving through our new neighborhood and surrounding areas – we are about 20 minutes east of Jerusalem – one is surrounded by the beauty and quiet of the Judean hills. When you watch the steady stream of cars and buses in each direction, it is hard to imagine that anyone would think of this area as anything other than just another part of Israel – and yet there are clear signs that we are in a separate place. The West Bank.
With just about a week-and-a-half to go before our aliyah, we are actively trying to finish packing and work on all the last minute logistics. We will be arriving to an empty apartment (and no, we are not shipping a lift), so our first call of business will be looking for something to sleep on and a refrigerator. So I’m looking on popular online bulletin boards, groups and list-servs for English speakers in Israel, picking through the many items for sale. At first, I get excited – such a selection of beds, furniture, appliances and housewares at very good prices. And then I start to get depressed. It’s easy to see that the majority of people selling their belongings are those who made aliyah, gave it a try for a short while, and are now going back whence they came.
The 4th of July passed without much notice in our household last week. Maybe it was because it fell out on Shabbat, hence nixing any barbecue plans. Maybe it was because budget cuts forced our local fireworks to call it off this year. Maybe it was because – as always – Americans seem to be much more into the sales at local department stores than any real meaning in a holiday. Or maybe it was because we already feel like we have one foot on the other side of the pond.
It’s a clear day – an August day in Israel waiting for the dawn. I take a look around my beloved home with mournful eyes before getting out the ladder and climbing – onto the roof. My husband and I sit down on top of the red metal roof and look out to where we see our neighbors doing the same. An entire town of husbands and wives sitting on roofs of their homes. We sit, we sing, we cry, we wait. Then, as the sun’s first rays are seen over the hills, we see them coming – a sea of soldiers walking up toward our town. And it is with a heavy, heavy heart that I look upon those soldiers that I have always looked upon with pride and do so even now – at the moment when I know they have come to take us all away.
“The Status Quo” was established in letter written by David Ben Gurion as chairman of the Jewish Agency to the Executive Committee of Agudat Israel – a right wing influential Orthodox group – in 1947. Before the State of Israel was even officially established, David Ben Gurion made the following promises: 1) Saturday would be the official day of rest and would be publicly observed; 2) All government kitchens would be kosher; 3) Religious courts would have jurisdiction over life cycle events and issues relating to family status including marriage, divorce, burial etc. and 4) The religious education system would have full autonomy. The text of the letter itself contains plenty of room for loopholes, and is vague as to how the Jewish Agency was committing to this, and how it could be promising regulations for a country that had yet to come into existence. Ben Gurion’s motivations in this letter are pretty clear – he was trying to garner support of the religious parties, some of whom had been initially hesitant to support the emerging State. Generally speaking, Ben Gurion seems to have been successful in gaining their support and despite the holes and vagueness of the “Status Quo” memo, the practices set forth in 1947 are still in effect today.
In a few short months, we – my husband Baruch and our three kids – will pack up and move to Israel. Most people who know us well don’t ask us why we are moving – maybe because they have an idea about our reasons, or maybe because they’re tired of hearing us talking about wanting to move for years – but every once in a while, someone does ask me. Why do we want to move to Israel? Why would you pick up, uproot your family and move halfway around the world? Why would you want to leave America? The simple answer is that we are Zionists – we believe strongly in Israel, identify with Israel and want to live there. But there are many parts to a longer answer. Sometimes I delve into the many factors involved with our decision – there are obvious issues like religion – we feel a connection with the history and symbolism found in the country. There are financial issues – we want to send our kids to day school, and with tuition these days it makes much more sense to send our kids to day school in Israel, which is basically free. There are cultural attractions – like the amount of independence and freedom that children in Israel grow up having, especially in small communities. There are also things that I can’t quite put my finger on –like how I feel when I’m in Israel, like the feeling of being home.