The Making of a Zionist

        May 2014    
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How I Became a Zionist

by Fred Skolnik

I grew up in America in the 1950s. These were the Eisenhower years, which would alienate an entire generation of Americans from political life and the idea of a national purpose or destiny. This is not to say that the idea of commonality had ever been a real part of the American ethos, though most Americans paid lip service to the idea and like all people came together in times of crisis. America, after all, was a land of private property and No Trespassing signs. It belonged to whoever held the deed. But the alienation of the young in the 1950s was a special case. Socially it was a reaction to the pressure of their elders to conform to values that the young perceived as hollow and politically it derived from the perception that the country was being governed by old men with whom the young had nothing in common. Nonetheless, these same young people were glad to be Americans, would not have been able to conceive of themselves as being anything else, for it went without saying that everything not American was secondrate. This was the education and this was part of the consciousness of all Americans, myself included.

The ultimate dream in this America was to be rich and famous. Failing that, one could at least hope to be materially very comfortable. That was all there was in a strictly American sense. To think of one's life in broader terms was a leap that most Americans were incapable of making, though it cannot be denied that many were generous in spirit and noble in character and many more had a perfect understanding of what it meant to be a decent human being. I mention all this not to disparage Americans, to whom I feel very close, but to explain what it was that attracted me to Israel.

Though I had family ties to the country, I was too much of an American as a teenager to have anything but the vaguest ideas about it, or about anything else that was not American. Israel was somewhere out there at the edge of my consciousness. It was the place to which American Jews sent money. In America, a country of immigrants whose own histories were already lost in the second generation, everything was a given and a family's past had very little reality for the young. I myself had no clear idea of my family's European history, nor was I particularly aware that my grandfather had been the only one in his family to come to America and that four of his brothers and sisters had settled in Palestine, as it was called, and created large families there. These were my relatives in Israel.

My grandfather and grandmother may have visited Israel in the 1950s. My mother's sister and her family certainly did and it was through them that I arrived at a more concrete awareness of the country. Therefore, in the summer of 1959, failing out of City College after a restless freshman year, I thought I might spend some time in Israel and soon discovered that a group from the Dror youth movement, mostly Canadians, would be spending the year on a pioneer training program (Hachshara) in Kibbutz Hagoshrim in Upper Galilee, where it happened that three of my older Israeli cousins were living. I therefore decided to join up with them.

I arrived in Israel in November 1959. In Tel Aviv I met two of my grandfather's sisters, with whom I had some difficulty communicating as I spoke my grandmother's Americanized Yiddish, and not too well at that. After a couple of days I made the trip north and settled into Kibbutz Hagoshrim.

Founded in 1948, Hagoshrim was a fairly prosperous kibbutz, already out of debt to the Jewish Agency by the late Fifties, with apple orchards that were the pride of the north. Another point of pride with the kibbutz, symbolizing this prosperity, was the availability of two meat dishes to choose from for lunch in the communal dining room. Once a week we also showed up at the kibbutz stores for our allocation of "good things" (devarim tovim): coffee, tea, sugar, cigarettes and a variety of biscuits. There were around a dozen people in our group, of whom four, I believe, including myself, would eventually settle in Israel. We worked half a day and studied Hebrew at the kibbutz ulpan the other half, at least for the first few months, with perhaps some talks about Zionism and socialism thrown in as well; then it was all work, for me in the fish ponds though we also pitched in during general mobilizations at harvest and planting time. Of the group, I myself was probably best connected socially to the kibbutz, which usually did not take to outsiders, seeing so many of them and being a fairly closed society - though this was not because of my family connections but because I became the star of the kibbutz basketball team, leading it to a third place finish in the regional league after years of lackluster play.

Hagoshrim had a permanent population of over 400 people including children, with groups like ours continually moving in and out of the kibbutz along with seasonal volunteers. A meandering stream fed the fish ponds and a guest house attracted tourists. Later the kibbutz would become famous for Epilady, a hair removal device marketed throughout the world. It was a relatively quiet time; only occasionally did we hear machinegun fire from the Golan Heights opposite us where Syrian soldiers were in training or just trying to intimidate us. In the evenings we mostly socialized among ourselves. I read quite a bit - Nietzsche and Spinoza, Mann and Camus as I expanded my horizons to include European literature. Occasionally we got out of the kibbutz too, on an excursion to Masada, for example, or when we were lent out for a week or so to Kibbutz Be'eri in the Negev. I also got to Tel Aviv a number of times, visiting relatives and walking around a little, and just once, I believe, to Jerusalem.

This was my experience of Israel in the year I spent in Hagoshrim. I felt completely at home there, in Israel I mean. In fact I was able to articulate what I felt very clearly: I felt that the country belonged to me, and that I belonged to the country. The feeling of proprietorship was very marked, and totally unique for me. All these spaces, even the settlements, belonged to all of us collectively. There was no private property. That was the impression, and in fact there was very little of it. (The state owned almost all of the country's land and leased it to settlements and individuals.) This created for me the kind of personal connection to the landscapes of the country that I had not experienced in America. I felt too a familial connection to the people. Israel in the 1950s was a very close-knit place. Strangers talked to each other. There were no mean streets. There was almost no violent crime. You never saw a fistfight. Arguments that might have ended in a shooting or a stabbing in America did not go beyond slightly raised voices. No one took the police seriously. Everyone was Jewish (and Arabs were rarely seen, and when they were, they were seen by tourists like myself as a curiosity). I cannot say that I had consciously felt a lack of anything in America but this sudden sense of belonging to something larger than myself added a new dimension to my life.

I returned to America in November 1960, our Zim liner docking in Brooklyn the night Kennedy was elected president. It was clear in my mind that one day I would return to Israel and live there permanently. However, I had no concrete plan of action. The idea might even have been called a fantasy. I certainly had not mobilized my will to realize it in any way. My greatest worry at the moment was that my tan would wear off and that I would consequently lose a certain aura.

I was twenty now. Two years later I would be married and making plans for aliya. I like to think of these two years as a kind of Nietzschean going-under. I moved out of my parents' Queens cooperative and rented a room on East 19th Street in Manhattan. I worked first for a publisher of horse racing magazines, as a proofreader and copyeditor, and afterwards in the accounting department of a manufacturer of silver-zinc batteries that went into spaceships and nuclear submarines. In my spare time I hung out in the Village, read intensively and tried to write. The rooming house gave me a taste and sense of the underside of American life.

During my year in Israel I had corresponded, also intensively, with my cousin Pearl, the eldest daughter of my mother's half-brother. She had been to Israel before me after graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, spending a year on a Habonim Workshop in Kibbutz Kfar Blum, coincidentally not far from Hagoshrim. We continued to write after I got back (she lived near Buffalo) and after a year she came to New York to work in the Habonim movement. Here our romance began and in November 1962 we were married.

I cannot honestly say that I would have ended up in Israel if it had not been for Pearl. Had I married someone who was indifferent to Israel, I do not imagine that I would have proposed or initiated such a move. Pearl, however, was an ardent Zionist, far more ardent than I was, and would not have thought of marrying someone who was not prepared to live there. This made things very easy for me. We spent a year in a rented Brooklyn apartment, made our preparations and left for Israel in October 1963.

We were very lucky, given the Kafkaesque ways of the Israeli bureaucracy. We moved directly into a very pleasant immigrant hostel, Beit Giora in the Kiryat Yovel quarter of Jerusalem, and within six weeks had our own three-room Jewish Agency apartment in nearby Kiryat Menachem on a $3,000 down payment and a long-term $12,000 mortgage. Our container arrived from America shortly afterwards and before we knew it we were living a Jerusalem life, without a car, without a phone, without a TV.

Pearl found work in the neighborhood as an English teacher and I returned to school, enrolling at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where I studied Classics and English Literature. The authorities were very liberal with Americans, permitting us to receive all the rights of immigrants on a three-year temporary residence visa instead of hustling us through the citizenship process. Our building, at 2 Dahomey Street, known locally as Block 30, was full of immigrant families, from Romania, South America and Iran. Everyone was on the best of terms. We were all in the same boat.

Our Jerusalem life was also very quiet. We listened to the radio and played records. We had people over. We went to the Convention Center to see East European dance troupes and to an English-language theater to see avant-garde plays, but mostly we went to the movies. We went everywhere by bus. We shopped at the Mahaneh Yehudah outdoor market once a week. Occasionally I played poker with friends. I also produced a batch of poorly written short stories. Between classes at the University I would sometimes jump over to my cousin's place in Rehavia for lunch. Jerusalem was a provincial town. Everything took place in slow motion and everyone knew everyone. In 1965 I began to work at the Israel Program for Scientific Translations, which served as a magnet for English speakers. In 1966, after our daughter was born, we took a short trip to the States. On our return, our passports were automatically stamped with three-month tourist visas, but we never bothered to arrange our permanent status at the Ministry of the Interior after the visas expired and consequently I was in a kind of limbo when the Six-Day War broke out and regretfully if not a little shamefacedly sat it out in our neighborhood shelter.

The next step would of course have been to become citizens. I had been reluctant to do so, not because I had any doubts about remaining in Israel but for reasons that I can only call psychological. Becoming a citizen had a symbolic meaning for me like the crossing of a line that would somehow alter my sense of myself as an American, or close off a certain vista that had previously been open-ended. I was somehow not ready for this though my outlook had in fact been undergoing a fairly long and I think complex process of transformation that would culminate a year later when I finally did become a citizen.

This process was taking place subcutaneously, so to speak, unnoticed even by myself. The two events that marked it, at either end, one might say, were, surprisingly, the assassinations of the Kennedys. I had not been particularly enamored of the president. I appreciated his manner but saw little substance there. I still did not believe in governments. I regarded America's social problems as unsolvable. Less than a month after we arrived in Israel he was dead. The shock was very great. With his death and the creation of the Camelot myth, a transformation, too, of American society unlike any that had ever occurred in so short a period of time began to make itself felt, immediately finding a focus in the Vietnam war and the hated Lyndon Johnson. Young Americans had suddenly become engaged in national life. The catalyst was Kennedy. The myth had become operative.

I too was caught up in it. I began to see Kennedy in a different light, as the embodiment of hope. I was also caught up, from a great distance, in the mood of the antiwar protests, which were largely responsible for America's ultimate disengagement from Vietnam, an achievement that was unique in American history, and I had to admire the protesters for it. In these antiwar years, marked too by the civil rights struggle and a general sense of social upheaval, I found myself, for the first time, emotionally engaged in social issues, hoping that the right side would win instead of observing events as a cynical bystander.

This emotional engagement reached its peak during Bobbie Kennedy's run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968. Caught up in his charisma, his youth, his vitality and a sense of his decency, I identified with him completely and found myself believing or wanting to believe in America's future and ardently hoping that he would be elected, much as I would later hope that Barack Obama would be elected. Kennedy's death and my personal sorrow only underscored in my mind how deeply I was affected by the social ideals he had seemed to embody. I did not become an activist, that was not in my nature, but despite the lingering cynicism, my entire relationship to society as such and, by transference, to Israel in particular had been completely altered.

Linked to this American track was of course the Six-Day War, which also initiated a profound shift in my political outlook. Prior to the war, the country had been united in its feeling that justice was on Israel's side in the conflict with the Arabs. There were no post-Zionists then and the Israeli left belonged to the old socialist left and not to the new political left that was taking shape in America and in Europe. The war itself electrified the country, and the world, after months of the greatest anxiety. I will never forget the announcement at midnight on June 5 that the Arab air forces had been destroyed and that Israeli tanks were advancing on all fronts. Victory, in war and in many lesser pursuits, produces a great rush of emotion that I am sure can be explained biologically if not existentially. It was a good feeling. I shared the country's euphoria and followed political events over the next few months with the additional feeling, promoted by screaming headlines in the Israeli media, that peace was just around the corner.

At the same time I was surprised and truly dismayed to see that the New Left had turned against Israel. This was incomprehensible to me, just as it had struck me as completely incongruous from a purely ideological point of view for the Soviet Union to have turned against socialist Israel and sided with the reactionary and fanatically religious Arab world. But that was pure politics. The betrayal of Israel by the New Left, in my eyes, was pure hypocrisy and called into question its integrity. After all, Israel had been attacked without any justification and the Arabs had been threatening to throw the Jews into the sea for twenty years. In time I would come to see the politics of the New Left as belonging less to the realm of ideology than to the realm of abnormal psychology, reflecting a deep-seated resentment of the established order and all forms of authority ("Can those men have hated their fathers that much?" John Dos Passos had written of the Old Left). This resentment bred an equally vehement animus toward America and, by extension, towards Israel as its perceived client, though the element of Jew hatred, disguised as the more respectable Israel hatred, was often just below the surface.

This betrayal, occurring even before there were any settlements to complain about, and which would ultimately manifest itself in an effort to delegitimize Israel, bolstered by the shameless fictions of a number of Israel-hating Jews (Chomsky, Finkelstein, Falk, Pappé, Atzmon), served to push me politically more and more to the right, though not so far as to cause me to lose sight of the rational political center or distance me from my essentially left-wing social outlook. By the early 1970s then, my political journey had been completed and my bond to an embattled Israel and the institutions and symbols that embodied it had been indissolubly cemented.

At the same time, however, observing the evolution of Israeli society, I have to confess that to a large extent I have regressed to my old cynicism, though I do not wish to romanticize the early years of Israeli statehood either. When I stood on our balcony not long after we moved to Kiryat Menachem and watched the children of the Other Israel throwing rocks at each other, I announced to anyone within hearing distance that in ten years' time the rocks would be replaced by knives and guns. It took a little longer. It also took a little longer for Israel to separate itself from its socialist origins. These processes have been completed and were inevitable. I therefore do not believe that Israeli society will become anything other than what it has been becoming since the Six-Day War, namely a Western-style consumer society governed by middle-class values with a growing gap between the rich and the poor. In this future, as in the past, the Arab-Israel conflict will be marginal to the mainstream of Israeli life and will ultimately be resolved by the imperatives of history and not by arguments in television studios and people's living rooms. As for me, I remain committed to the country. It is my home and its people are my countrymen, to whom I am linked by deep emotional ties. Their history is my history, their experience is my experience and their culture is my culture. Nothing Jewish is alien to me. I feel that my life is infinitely richer for having been lived in Israel these past fifty years. I took this road, and that has made all the difference.


from the May 2014 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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