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Sunday, July 29, 2007

The story of Zionism - a personal version

Time was/time is is a personal way of telling the Story of Zionism. It reminds us of what it is really all about. Enjoy. How many times, and in how many places, did this same story unfold?

Time was/time is


Eighty-four or maybe 85 years ago, in a darkened house in a suburb of Manchester when everybody else was sleeping, my grandfather,Itzik Samuel, checked my room, saw that I was awake - which I always was - wrapped me in a blanket and carried me downstairs to the cold, dark stone-floored kitchen. He lit the gas mantle with a match. It made a little plop, then soared into a light and some warmth. I blew out the match. He then made coffee, giving me the skin of the milk which had coagulated on the top.

This was my great treat in the morning. Then we sat for an hour or so, very quiet so as not to waken anybody, as he told me stories in Yiddish about his life in Romania, from where he had left with great gratitude in his heart a God he didn't believe in.

In the small village where he had grown up, officers from a nearby regiment would strut round, pushing everyone into the road, dressed up to the nines with gold epaulettes and sky-blue uniforms, picking their way daintily through the mud and garbage in the streets. There were no sidewalks and anyone in their way was rudely shoved into the road. Those identified as Jews, with side locks, hats and bowed shoulders were a favorite target for beatings, pushing, robbing and other humiliations.

He also told me about the river that froze over in the winter so they could skate over to a neighboring town. But in the winter the snow came up to the windows and wolves roamed the area.

He told me with enthusiasm and conviction about "Towdor Herzl" whose book he had read, Altneuland (The Old New Land, 1902, in which the father of Zionism pictured the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia), and was fired in his imagination of what could be. "When you are a big girl," he would say to me, "we will go together, you and me, hand in hand, to this wonderful new country where oranges grow and dates are for the picking, and Jews walk straight and no more Romanian officers."

Together we sang, in Yiddish, a song which translates as "Almonds and raisins." "Those grow there also," he said, "and raisins, you know, are made from grapes." ["Rozhinkehs mit mandeln" - A.I.]

I stored this vital information in my brain, where it remains to this day - although other, perhaps more pertinent matters have left it. At the merest hint, or the mention of agriculture, I can quote this knowledge without hesitation. At that time I had never seen any grapes and oranges were rare, but almonds we got every year in a blue-and-white box straight from this fabulous land.

At the age of 12, grandfather had been apprenticed to a cobbler and worked contributing to keeping the family of parents and siblings in an almost completely Jewish neighborhood. Some bureaucratic order, not unknown even in better armies, grabbed him out of his workshop and pushed him into the army where common soldiers - even if they were not Jewish - had a very hard time.

But grandfather had an advantage. He was literate, a wonder among his unit. His fellow soldiers got him to write letters home for them...

Astonishingly for a Jew, he rose to be a sergeant and we have a picture of him, circa 1890, in his cocked hat, breeches, white coat and side arms - a resplendent figure.

By then he was married and had two sons, Sam and Mendel. He was determined that their lives would somehow be better. If the dream of 'Towdor' Herzl became real he would take them there. But Romania was not a place to stay.

... It took 10 years of writing letters, waiting for answers, contacts, bribery and savings until finally they were ready to leave. Sam and Mendel, already apprenticed to tailors, would be able to work, and contact with old friends brought him to Manchester where there was a Romanian Synagogue.

The dream had not materialized. England was not the Promised Land but to Grandfather it was a revelation, an escape, a refuge: the Holy Land would have to wait.

It was a shame he could not know that one of his sons became a student of Dr. Chaim Weizmann who was to become the first President of the newly-founded State of Israel, his biographer and friend who later moved to Palestine.

The First World War - the Great War, the one to end all wars - was followed by the Second World War; and after five years of universal suffering that too came to an end. The camps were opened and desperate, hungry, ill-treated survivors emerged. The Jewish Agency was well-prepared, and on the spot organized transport in trucks, carts, people carriers, buses - anything that moved - and got these refugees down to the ports, fed them, clothed them, reassured them, talked to them and told them they were on their way to Palestine.

The British government, still exercising its mandate, decreed an entry of 75,000 Jews over a period of five years. But there were a million starving, dispossessed, desperate people refused entry to most European countries. So they came anyway. The young men and women who took them promised a new life in Palestine, which many had never heard of before. They came in unsafe and leaky boats. Those intercepted by the British were interned. Many came at night. Somehow they evaded the many patrol boats, were lifted from their boats by willing hands, scrambled ashore, taken out and hidden. A leaky boat, half-sunk in the water, was all the British would find.

They questioned the inhabitants. "Where are they?" shouted one sergeant, red-faced and frustrated. "No speakee Inglis," replied the interviewee, an Oxford don with a doctorate in semantics.

For once, the conscience of part of the world was aroused. The UN voted in favor, Israel became a state and the blue-and-white flag hung from the King David Hotel. The next day the Arabs attacked in force, furious at being deprived of this strip of desert, sparsely populated and mostly uncultivated.

With homemade weapons, First World War rifles supplied by Czechoslovakia, stones in slings and uncertain ammunition, the Israelis defended themselves.

A cease-fire was called. The first attempt at annihilation had failed. The truce lasted one month, during which the Arabs regrouped, congratulating themselves upon their actions and promising themselves and all who would listen about the annihilation of this upstart nation. The Israelis made their own preparations, making soldiers out of the most unlikely material. Pacifists, socialists, walking invalids, elderly gentlemen - and ladies - waited for the onslaught.

It came with amplified fury. The battle lasted 10 long days. The Arabs, convinced of their victory, brought up more men, more supplies. We civilians with small children held our breath and waited for news. When it came it seemed incredible. The hordes of enemy had left, leaving behind weapons, shoes and anything that could be discarded, in a hasty retreat. The onslaught had failed.

The Israelis spat on their hands and went to work. They built roads, schools, art galleries, orchestras, scientific institutes and greenhouses, bringing in at the same time all Jews who needed refuge.

There were other attacks: the borders were dangerous, buses were attacked, schools were besieged, from their superior positions the Jordanians shot down on passing Jews below them, and people were killed. Kibbutzim guarded their premises and watched their baby houses.

We had a presence at the UN. We were a nation, and we behaved as such. Always on guard, the work went on, schools and universities stayed open, experiments were pursued, and scientists from all over the world worked in the Weizmann Institute giving freely of their expertise.

The attacks continued.

At the UN, the implacable hatred of the Arab nations could not be alleviated. There was a feeling of uneasiness, a menace in the air as the year 1966 came to an end. There seemed to be in the Arab world a feeling of confidence, knowledge, satisfaction at their improved military skills. In Israel children were escorted to school and back. Parents took turns sitting at the gates of kindergartens. Only short journeys away from the house were permitted. No longer were there groups of youngsters making bonfires on the beach, singing, making jokes. There was a silence over all gatherings. Something was coming that was inevitable and frightening. And it came.

Once more a union of Arab states sought to destroy what they felt was an outrage on their land. They struck. For three days there was silence. My own son was then in the army and there was no word from him. But the fighting, we knew, would be fierce. Four days, five days, six days. And on the sixth day there was news. Despite their enormous superiority of equipment and training, the enemy had failed.

Incredulous, we heard that Jerusalem was whole and reunited, west and east. We hurried there to see for ourselves. The front of the Wall - the ancient wall which we had heard of and never seen - was crowded with soldiers, many looking as though they had just left school, tired, dirty and quiet. There was no jubilation. They were not grinning in victory, not patting each other's backs in admiration. They were in awe. This was the wall their grandparents had sometimes spoken of.

The sun was shining; I put my hand on the warm stones and thought of my grandfather. In my head was the echo of a song, the words as plain as if I could hear them - "Almonds and raisins will be your future."

And so it is.  

And so it should be. Building Israel must be the ongoing occupation of the Jewish people, for the work is not done, and it never will be. As long as there is a Jewish people, there must never be a "post-Zionist" period. Hitler wanted to make "post-Zionism" a reality.
And what about you? "Next year in Jerusalem" may be too late, after all.
Ami Isseroff


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors. Originally posted at Please do link to these articles, quote from them and forward them by email to friends with this notice. Other uses require written permission of the author.


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