“Was this what they died for? My relatives, all those Jews, all those thousands of names on the memorials? Was this horror of a racist, repressive state the result of their deaths?”
Bear with me. This is very difficult to write, but write it I must, however much the putting of words on paper intensifies the pain.
When I was a small girl on a street corner in Budapest, watching a convoy of camp inmates being returned, I cried. No, not tears. By then I had learned not to cry, not to be a softie. You had to be tough to survive. So the sobs were inside and there were words to go with them: “Ez nem történhet megint, nem történhet megint” – This can’t happen again, can’t happen again.
That phrase now, some forty and more years later, is still alive in me. It has been a kind of guiding light in my life. However, for me, the words were not, are not, solely about the persecution and murder of Jews. For as long as I can remember, the phrase has always meant, “No more oppression. No more exploitation. No more discrimination against people different in some way from myself. No more enslavement. No genocide.”
In trying to discover the genesis of my Catholic, ecumenical definition, I have only been able to disinter three relevant memories. My mother and I, and my grandparents survived the Second World War by assuming false, Christian identities. A Christian family gave some of their identity papers to us and we had forgeries made to go with the real documents. I must have been taught – by whom? – about the town in which the papers said I had been born –as I was Budapest-bred, as was my mother.
My second glimpse of my much-suppressed past is of the priest who baptized us so that we could have more genuine documents to prove our supposed non-Jewishness. At the ceremony, I remember that my grandmother (a practicing Jew) was fearful of the holy water actually touching her: the priest helped her to fold her shawl about her head and shoulders to protect her from such “contamination”.
The third memory is of my father who, having somehow survived the military labor corps (he would never speak about it), arrived back in Budapest. He had managed to discover our address but not our assumed names. So he came to the huge, partly burned-out block of flats and asked for us by our real names “Oh,” said the concierge, “you mean Mrs… and Marika. Go up to the fourth floor. Flat 14.” So they must all have known, all those gentiles with whom we had shared the bombing of the city, that we were Jews. Though the Nazis offered rewards for information on hidden Jews, no one had given us away. They had protected us with their lives, as anyone harboring Jews could face the firing squad on the banks of the Danube.
So you see, I could never divide the world into Jew and non-Jew. It was always more complex than that.
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I grew up, in Budapest and then in Sydney (Australia), with all the scars left by the war; those left directly on me and passed on to me from the remnants of my emotionally damaged family. Because I did not want to be so hurt ever again; because I did not want to be the target of anti-semitism in Australia, I joined a Christian church. This phase did not last long because I discovered that I had no faith in the Christian God, or any god, or organized religion. It could only be the most malevolent of gods that could allow a war such as I had lived through, or the continuing discrimination and wars. At about the same time I also discovered that I did not want to be – could not be – an Australian. I reclaimed my dual heritage: a Hungarian Jew.
What was my relationship to Israel at that time? My first serious quarrel with my father was about Israel. I felt very romantic about Israel and dreamt of going to live there when I “grew up”, although I knew nothing about it. There were no discussions about Israel in my family, as far as I can remember. Then my father (also a secular Jew) began collecting money for tree-planting in Israel. This led to me asking why, if he was really pro-Israel, hadn’t we gone to live there. I accused my father of being a hypocrite, of salving his conscience with money, when we should have been there, fighting for our rights.
Then came 1956. My heart was with both the Hungarian and the Israeli fighters. I also felt proud that Jews were showing the world that they weren’t just lambs led to the slaughter and they could also fight. (I don’t know why I didn’t know about the war of 1948, perhaps because that was the year of our emigration from Budapest.)
Sometime after this – and I have no associated memories to enable me to date the broadcast – I heard a news item about Israelis herding Palestinians into settlement camps. I just could not believe this. Weren’t the Israelis also Jews? Hadn’t we – they – just survived the greatest pogrom of our history? Weren’t [concentration] camps – often euphemistically called “settlement camps” by the Nazis — the main feature of this pogrom? How could Jews in any measure do unto others what had been done to them? How could these Israeli Jews oppress and imprison other people? In my romantic imagination, the Jews in Israel were socialists and people who knew right from wrong. This was clearly incorrect. I felt let down, as if I was being robbed of a part of what I had thought was my heritage. It was all too painful, so I tried to put it out of my mind.
Not, though, for long. I had a distant relative in Sydney, a young woman of my own age. On a long visit to Israel, she fell in love with a Sabra (a Jew born in Israel) and decided to emigrate to Tel Aviv to marry. I have their wedding photo. He was killed in the 1967 war.
I asked Eva about Israel. She told me of the class system: Sabras, Western Europeans, East Europeans, Russians, non-European Jews and then Arabs, in that order. I was then studying for my degree in sociology. I questioned Eva closely, each question eliciting answers more and more painful to hear. So much for Jewish socialism, and for Jews to discriminate on a racial basis! Shall we never learn? We were evidently not a chosen people; we were no different from anybody else, just as greedy and generous, weak and strong, socialist and capitalist, wise and foolish.
Time and history rumbled on. I read a little Jewish history, especially — as by then I was living in London — the history of Jews in England. I learned that there was little cross-class unity among British Jews. Jews are no more homogenous than the much-vaunted (by the Tories) “homogenous English”.
I still put aside a study of the history of Israel. What little I gleaned came from journals and newspapers, which generally carried few articles critical of, or antagonistic towards, Israel. The little I learned of the treatment of the Palestinians was enough to confirm my anti-Zionism. The means used for the securing of a homeland could never, in my eyes, be justified. Palestine had to be the homeland of the Palestinians as much as Israel was the homeland of the Jews. Ousting Palestinians from their homes, bulldozing their villages, annexing their lands, imprisoning them, shooting them, torturing them; no “ends” could be justified by such means. The state of Israel had become a perversion.
My sense of betrayal grew. A question surfaced: was this what they died for? My relatives, all those Jews, all those thousands of names on the memorials? Was this horror of a racist, repressive state the result of their deaths?
I forced the question aside and turned away from my pain into that of others. I was by then living on the edges of Harlem in New York, working in the local schools and colleges and prisons. When the Israelis allowed/condoned/abetted the massacres at the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, I felt that I would explode with anger, disgust and pain. However, I did nothing about these emotions or the nagging feeling that I must do some serious reading about Israel. I worked harder, began research for another book, and returned to London.
Then came the opportunity to give a lecture on a topic of my choice at a summer school where I was to teach. I now had a structure within which I could confront books on Israel and set about preparing for a lecture on the arms trade and the Third World, with case studies on Guatemala, South Africa and Israel.
Let me summarise for you what I had learned about Israel in this context. Guatemala is currently the most repressive regime in Central America: about 60,000 have been killed by the police/military/plantation police forces; about a million Indians have been dislocated by the government and a further 100,000 have sought refuge in Mexico. Israel not only has trading links with Guatemala, it equips, trains and advises the police and the army. Israel, I discovered, also supplies arms to the repressive Contras in Nicaragua.
Though a signatory to the UN arms embargo on South Africa, Israel has continued to supply arms to the apartheid regime to the value of between $400 and $800 million annually. Recently, under pressure from the US Congress from whom it receives $2 billion worth of military aid and credits every year, the Israeli government has announced that it will not make new investments in South Africa or sign new contracts for arms. However, as Israel will honor its existing arms contracts, whose termination dates have not been announced, I do not believe that it will stop this aspect of its lucrative relationship with South Africa. Israel also has about 15,000 of its soldiers and technical experts aiding the South African war against its own peoples and neighbors. Moreover, despite the suppression of Mordechai Vanunu (an Israeli of Moroccan origin) it is now well accepted that Israel and South Africa have jointly developed atomic weapons. Israel also aids the South African economy by re-packaging, finishing and part-assembling South African goods, which, when stamped with the “Made in Israel” label, enjoy duty-free entry into the EEC [the forerunner of the EU] and the USA.
I know, now that I have begun, that not only must I force myself to read more, but I must speak out. I have to say to the Israeli government, which claims to speak in the name of all Jews, that it is not speaking in my name. I will not remain silent in the face of the attempted annihilation of the Palestinians; the sale of arms to repressive regimes around the world; the attempt to stifle criticism of Israel in the media worldwide; or the twisting of the knife labeled “guilt” in order to gain economic concessions from Western countries. Of course, Israel’s geopolitical position has a greater bearing on this, at the moment. I will not allow the confounding of the terms “anti-Semitic” and “anti-Zionist” to go unchallenged.
I am still searching for an answer to my question — what did they die for? — although I have some idea: they died because they were Jews, because of who they were; much as the Armenians died, or the Tasmanians, or the native peoples of Australia and the Americas, and millions of Africans. They were in the way of, or were exploited by, the economic or nationalist or colonialist aspirations of a stronger people. Genocide is genocide, no matter who practices it against whom, or under what pretext.
I asked you to bear with me. These feelings and ideas are very painful, you see. I am not an anti-Semitic Jew, nor do I hate myself. I can even say that I am proud to be a Jew because some of us always have and still do struggle for the equality of peoples and classes and abhor all form of exploitation and oppression.
Top Photo | Demonstrators wear shirts reading “Boycott Israel” during a protest against President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital at Republique Square in Paris, France, Dec. 9, 2017. (AP/Kamil Zihnioglu)
Hungarian-born Marika Sherwood is the author of a number of books and articles. Her most recent books are After Abolition; Britain, The Slave Trade and Slavery from 1562 to the 1880s (2007); Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams, Africa and the African Diaspora (2010); Malcolm X: Travels Abroad (2011); World War II: Colonies and Colonials. (2013). Her current research is on the beginning of the Cold War in the Gold Coast in 1948.
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