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Fighting the "Soldiers of Occupation," From WW II to the Intifada (english)
by Russell Warren Howe
14 Jul 2003
David Ben-Gurion, I feel sure, would have been a friend in need. "American Jews! I hate them! " he said in his passionate Slavonic way, at one point in that evening in 1968. "They'll do anything for Israel except live in the place! " Perhaps because then I "understood nothing, " I was shocked and reminded Ben-Gurion, "They're very generous toward Israel. "Of course," he responded. "They feel guilty. And so they should!
July 1991, Page 35
“There is a green hill far away Without a city wall"
So we sang, in childhood. I never knew then that Muslims and Jews also revered Jerusalem. Did not William Blake, he of the chariot of fire, call for Jerusalem to be rebuilt "in England's green and pleasant land"? Would that the Zionists had rebuilt it at home, in Sebastopol or Kiev.
When the British press was filled, in the months before and after Hitler's defeat, with news of Zionist atrocities against Britons, both in Palestine and elsewhere in the Middle East-the murder of Lord Moyne, the lynchings of British soldiers, the IRA-style caper at the King David Hotel-Jewish friends told me that this was the work of extremists.
They were correct, of course. They could not know that someday the extremists would hold power, not without but within the city wall. I-and perhaps they-did not know that Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir had trafficked in arms with the Nazis, and exploited German mistreatment of Jews to exacerbate the problem caused by European settlers in Palestine.
I think I personally was more incensed by the assassination of the Swedish United Nations mediator, Count Bernadotte, than by that of my own countryman, Lord Moyne, who was, after all, only a British politician. I knew nothing of Deir Yassin and similar holocausts.
The London writer Louis Golding and a Jewish comrade who had done RAF pilot training with me had explained about the Khazarian conversion, so that I knew that only Sephardim, "Oriental Jews," not Ashkenazim, "European Jews, " had roots in the Holy Land.
When a close friend of my father's, a Russian from Nichni-Novgorod who had fled to London after the revolution, learned that his two sons had gone to Palestine and joined the Haganah, where they were fighting their fellow Britons, he hanged himself in shame. This only confirmed for me the difference between extremist Jews and decent Jews. In 1948, freshly graduated from the Sorbonne, and covering the Security Council in Paris for Reuter, I was commanded by my profession to be neutral; but my sympathy was with the apparently outnumbered pro-Israelis.
As a correspondent in Africa a decade later, I enjoyed the company of Ehud Avriel, the Austrian who had organized, in Istanbul, the underground route to Palestine of Jewish Bulgars and others.
He was by then Israel's resourceful ambassador in Ghana, where I lived from 1957 to 1959. This was the Israeli age of communes and of "making the desert bloom" (also, of course, of paving over Palestinian villages and groves, Nazi-style; but this attracted little attention in the West).
At the time, I would never have guessed that European South Africa would prove more sophisticated than European Israel.
So, in 196 1, after a year of living dangerously in the newly independent Congo (now Zaire), I decided to take off with my girlfriend of the moment, a Jewish American working for the United Nations, and visit Tunisia and then Israel, where Avriel met us at the airport. He took us to the kibbutz to which he had retired. There was a pleasant air of the Pilgrim Fathers about the place. (Later, Uri Davis, an Israeli professor at Birmingham University in England, was to express it perfectly: "A Jewish Disneyland, he said.)
Having by then reported on South Africa, however, I was conditioned to sense, behind the facade, the extraordinary gloom and foreboding that reigns in a segregated society, and that one feels everywhere on the streets of Israel. Avriel, an intelligent man and a bosom friend of David
Ben-Gurion's, assured me that yes, there was tension, but only because of the "necessary" precautions. His people, he said, wanted only to be one with the Arabs, whom they respected.
I asked why he had said "Arabs" instead of "Muslims and Christians" and he looked surprised.
"They speak Arabic."
"So do half the Jews in this country. Do you speak Jewish?"
Ehud, too honest a fellow to invent a spurious counter-argument, simply looked startled. To this day I get similar looks of amazement from American editors when I complain that one headline says "Two Jews Attacked," while another proclaims "Five Arabs Killed in West Bank. " Are our press authorities afraid that "Christian Family Slain" would lift scales from American eyes?
It was after we had left the warm embrace of the kibbutz for the rest of the country that I really began to feel that I had been duped. My companion sensed my discomfort.
"Why do you want to go to Nazareth?" she asked. "There's a wonderful artists' colony at Carmel. "
"Why Nazareth? Are you serious? My entire family is Christian."
"But you're a Buddhist.”
"Well, that doesn't rule out exploring Jesus of Nazareth's hometown, does it?"
Matters came to a head in a nightclub in Tel Aviv.
Two Jewish comics came onstage dressed as half the city's population dressed in those days-as Palestinians. And they began an Amos 'n Andy act which produced shrieks of laughter.
It wasn't just too close for comfort to Birmingham, AL, during the Autherine Lucy episode, or Hillcrest, Johannesburg. It was Birmingham and Hillcrest.
I threw some money on the table to cover the cost of our drinks and explained to my companion that we were leaving. When she protested, I asked if she, a liberal New Yorker, didn't know raw racism when she saw it.
"It's not racism, it's just fun.”
I promised that when we got back to New York, I would do an act in the Village with her. I would wear a big nose and speak with a Yiddish accent, and she would be my wife Rachel, or Sadie, wearing a dress patterned with pawnbroker balls.
"It'll all be just fun," I said.
I suppose that if my companion had said: "You're absolutely right. Don't even pay the bill, " I might have stayed a few more days in Israel.
Searching for a Common Ground
However, everything in my Reuter training and Buddhist conscience told me that I should not take sides, for or against. I could disapprove of murderers like Shamir or Vorster, and bigotry like the Amos 'n Andy act, but I shouldn't condemn Israelis or white South Africans per se. I admired the kibbutzim as much as I admired the Muslim influence in West Africa, where I had lived in the '50s, and again, after the Congo, for the rest of the '60s. There must, I believe, be a common ground.
To be fair, I decided, I should go back to Israel. In 1965, when Israel Finkelstein, the editor of Haaretz (The Land), whom I met at the International Press Institute conference in London, asked me to be his Africa correspondent, I got permission from Al Friendly, my managing editor at The Washington Post, and accepted.
In 1968, Israel's ambassador in Dakar, whose shy English wife had become a close friend of my Zimbabwean bride, finally made me an offer I found hard to refuse: I would be invited to give a couple of lectures, in either English or French, on Islam in Black Africa at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
I was disappointed in the student audience at Hebrew University. Most of the questions were naive, the bigotry manifest. But it was 1968, the State of Israel's 20th anniversary, and Avriel had set up interviews which I wanted: David Ben-Gurion and the new "temporary" prime minister from Milwaukee, Golda Meir.
Interviewing Ben-Gurion and Meir
On the eve of the independence festivities, I had three hours alone with Ben-Gurion ' in the flat in Tel Aviv which he used when he came in from his exile in Beersheba. The legendary figure had become David Who? in the Palestine he had turned into Israel. Nobody competed with me for his time. He talked mostly of his own country, Russia, and of his homesickness. But he was also proud of the Israel which had relegated him to oblivion. He claimed that he had asked Nikita Khrushchev: "Have you any communism as pure as our communes? " and that Khrushchev had conceded that nothing like kibbutzim existed in the Soviet Union.
"The only achievements of my country, he said, referring to Russia after the revolution, "have been military ones. One day, there will be a coup d'etat."
Could there be a coup in Israel? From Russians like himself, perhaps yes, he thought, but it was not likely. He trusted his fellow Russian, Israeli top soldier Moshe Dayan. Would he have trusted fellow Russian soldiers Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon? I had never heard of Sharon in 1968, so I didn't ask.
I said I was living in Senegal, and asked why Israel didn't name Muslim Israelis as ambassadors to Muslim countries like that. They could go to the mosque on Fridays like most of the diplomatic corps in Dakar or Niamey. It would be one-upmanship on the Europeans and Americans.
"We would never trust them, the Arabs,” he said.
"Because they know they can never trust us."
With Golda Meir, two days later, I asked why Israel didn't do more to make itself accepted as a Middle Eastern nation.
"That's the last thing we want to be! " she thundered. "We are and must remain a European nation. "
This seemed in contradiction to fleeing Europe to be Hebrews in the land of the prophets. I tried to draw her out on this.
"But I am an atheist!" the old Russian American schoolteacher explained. Because I looked surprised-more at the admission than at the fact-she said: "Half-no, 60 percent-of my ministers are atheists, I think."
"Then what God promised you this land?"
It was her turn to look surprised, then to smile.
"You understand nothing. " She went on to explain to me, patiently, that Zionism was not a religious movement, despite its name, and that Jewry was not an association based on faith, but on a common experience.
"Not exactly, but yes, a bit. That's closer.
Israel was not a positive factor in the area: it was the problem itself.
By then, I had become convinced-by events, by Ben-Gurion, by Mrs. Meir-that Israel was not a positive factor in the area: it was the problem itself. I was sure that Christians like Mayor Elias Freij and his fellow Bethlehemite, Jesus, would never be treated as equals in their country.
People with Muslim names like Mahmoud or Bashir had no more chance of equal treatment than did Nelson Mandela, who was arrested in South Africa in 1962 on the day I had an appointment for an interview with him. South Africa, of course, has since made strides toward an acceptance of reality. I confess I would never have guessed, at the time, that European South Africa would prove more sophisticated than European Israel.
In January 1974, 1 followed part of what the history books call "Kissinger's first Sinai Disengagement Shuttle. " In Jerusalem, I dined with my old friend who had been the Israeli ambassador in Dakar and his English-Israeli wife.
We correspondents were all due to leave in the morning for Aqaba, where Kissinger would have an audience with the Jordanian king.
"You'll get some better food in your hotel tomorrow than at the King David, " the ambassador, now the equivalent of an assistant secretary of state, said.
I shook my head. I was, I explained, going to "drop off the bus" and drive to Tel Aviv instead, to interview the leader of the Knesset opposition.
My hosts were shocked. Menachem Begin was a mischievous little man, they explained. If I wanted an outside view, why didn't I talk "to Ambrose" (former foreign minister Abba Eban, who came to Israel from South Africa via Oxford). I could be interviewing Begin only because I mischievously hoped he would say something outrageous, they said.
"With what other hope in mind does one interview politicians?"
"You will find him a typical hand-kissing Polish creep, " said the Israeli assistant secretary of foreign affairs.
In the event, Begin, whom I was interviewing for UPITN and Channel 5, was tiresomely virtuous in his responses. He had never before had a one-on-one for American television, and was determined to sound respectable. I knew that what I was getting was so pablumesque that it would never compete with what my colleagues were getting from King Hussein and Nixon's Metternich.
My Israeli crew could see that my hook was catching no "mischief 'at all. I told the field producer I wanted another can. While the cameraman loaded, I "chatted up" Begin, of whom my hostess had said the night before that "his sense of humor would disappear into the navel of a flea, and still leave room for his objectivity. " Taut and nervous, he too seemed anxious to unwind.
The Father of Terrorism
The red light had come on, under the lens. Without preamble, I turned my shoulder to the camera, stared straight into Begin's eyes, and asked: "How does it feel, in the light of all that's going on, to be the father of terrorism in the Middle East?"
"In the Middle East?" he bellowed, in his thick, cartoon accent. "In all the world! " I had finally broken the ice.
Back in Jerusalem that night, I called my ambassador friend to tell him of Begin's remark.
"You see, he does have a sense of humor! "
"Russell, you have understood nothing, said the diplomat, unintentionally reminding me of being put in my place by schoolteacher Meir six years before. "He was absolutely serious when he said that. "
In later years, and notably at Camp David in 1978, 1 was forced to acknowledge that the assistant secretary knew Begin much better than I ever would.
My late friend Narinjan Majumder, deputy editor of The Statenian in India, went to Israel as a government guest in the mid-'60s and was asked by his publisher to write an editorial on Indian-Israeli relations. He was authorized, if he wished to do so, to recommend that India recognize Israel.
"I thought long and hard about it, " he told me. "I liked the Israelis as a people. They were kind to me. But, in the final analysis, I decided that it would be patronizing and offensive, after we fought so long and so bitterly to get Europe out of India, if I said that it was all right for those Russians and Poles to colonize the western tip of Asia. Israel will never be anything but a European colony in Asia.
"But you recognize South Africa."
"Well, we have a consul-general there because there are seven or eight hundred thousand Indians in that country. Anyway, those European settlers have the sanctity of a few centuries behind them. "
The discomfort about Israel which I felt when I saw Shlomo Amos and Yitzhak Andy in 1961 had become more severe in the aftermath of the 1967 war. From then on, and especially after the 1968 visit, my sympathies, forged in the crucible of World War II, were with the occupied people. I remembered Winston Churchill had said then: "The only good soldier of occupation is a dead soldier of occupation. "
When Israel disregarded the Third Geneva Convention, which forbids occupation forces from bringing in their families and unessential civilians, for me the term "soldier of occupation" came to apply to all Israelis in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as well as in Gaza, Golan and south Lebanon.
In 1980, 1 made a PBS documentary, Coming of Age in Armageddon, on the Middle East conflict as seen through the eyes of the region's children. It won a Venus at the International Film Festival in Houston, and I entered it in the Jerusalem Film Festival. Israelis are far less blinkered in their views than Jewish Americans; I was confident that I would split the jury down the middle and win the bronze. Unfortunately, the festival was cancelled, and I was left to battle the American inquisition alone.
David Ben-Gurion, I feel sure, would have been a friend in need.
"American Jews! I hate them! " he said in his passionate Slavonic way, at one point in that evening in 1968. "They'll do anything for Israel except live in the place! "
Perhaps because then I "understood nothing, " I was shocked and reminded Ben-Gurion,
"They're very generous toward Israel.
"Of course," he responded. "They feel guilty. And so they should!
Russell Warren Howe is a Washington-based free-lance journalist who writes regularly for newspapers in the US and abroad.