What the Left Sometimes Forgets about Israel

The longing for a homeland is legitimate and the result of two millennia of European persecution


By Phil Hall

When my mother was four, it was 1940. She was in Paris with her own mother, a German. Before my grandfather, an Austrian Jew, swept her off her feet, Granny Lisa lived in Frankfurt and she was thinking of going into acting. She was the twin of a well-known German character actor, Heini Gobel, my great uncle.

My mother, Eve Steinhardt, became alert to danger and aware of her surroundings in Paris at age four after the war started. She was told to pretend that her Jewish father was a French philanderer who had cruelly left them. Once, she turned around to her mother, who spoke French with a thick German accent and said:

‘Mutti, from now on, let me do the talking in shops.’

65 years later my mother sat by the fire in the Lowveld in Mpumalanga and she turned to me and said: ‘Sometimes it is healthy to hate.’ My mother lost her aunt, who was living with her in Paris to Auschwitz, via Drancy. She lost her grandparents in the Prague Ghetto, Theresienstadt and Treblinka.

understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them.

‘I hate the people who killed my grandmother. I hate the people who jailed me in Apartheid South Africa. It is healthy to hate.’

My father spent many years as the editor of Middle East magazines. He was a progressive par excellence. Dad, Tony Hall, had a soft spot for Palestine. He was at the Camp David talks with Menachem Begin – whom he reviled – and Anwar Sadat.

But the longing for homeland was a response to European antisemitism.

But my Mom thought about the death of her family and she understood the dream of a homeland, though it was so distorted later on by the Zionists. We were sitting around the fire and my father said.

You have a good voice. Sing us something.‘ I thought. Then I started to sing the famous song. My mother joined in.

‘Far and wide as the eye can wander
Heath and bog are everywhere
Not a bird sings out to cheer us
Oaks are standing gaunt and bare

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers
Marching with our spades
To the moor

Up and down the guards are pacing
No one, no one can get through
Flight would mean a sure death facing
Guns and barbed wire greet our view

We are the Peat Bog Soldiers
Marching with our spades
To the moor

But for us there is no complaining
Winter will in time be past.
One day we will cry rejoicing
“Homeland dear, you’re mine at last’

Then will the peatbog soldiers
March no more with their spades
To the moor.’

My mother, who, on the whole agreed with my father, laughed with bitterness. ‘A good choice.’ She said. But my father was upset.

‘You will make me cry.’

He meant to say that my priorities were wrong and that it was the Palestinians we should be empathising with these days and feeling great solidarity for, and not the Jews, at least, not the Zionists.

And so, in this way we come to the point. The terrible persecution of the Jews in Europe, one of whom was my own mother as a child, lead to an unquenchable and understandable desire for ‘heimat‘, for home; a place where no oppression would exist.

This oppression is not lost in history. It is as close to me as my own mother. It is hanging right above the head of all Europeans like a giant super-moon. Impossible to ignore.

Ironically, perhaps the oppressed Palestinians in exile and the oppressed people of Palestine are in the best position now to understand this longing.

The terrible persecution of the Jews in Europe led to the unquenchable and understandable desire for ‘heimat‘, for home.

But the longing for homeland was a response to European antisemitism. To an antisemitism so fierce – and so widespread – that it led to the death camps. The death camps are something Palestinians have not experienced, for all the awful persecution they have suffered.

Let me express my disdain for anyone who thinks that the persecution of the Palestinians is in any way equivalent to the persecution of Jews during WW2. It is not. The Palestinians are terribly oppressed, but Israel is not systematically exterminating them. The comparison, however, is rightly made and the sickening irony of a former oppressed people who become the oppressor is always there.

understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them

It is true that Israel is an Apartheid colonial state, but it is also true that in Christian Europe the Jews underwent suffering almost beyond all comprehension and that their fate, like the fate of the enslaved Africans of 100 years before, is the measure of the evil that humans can inflict on other humans.

Europeans are hardly in a position to attack Jews again for who they are. And those British people who talk about the Rothschilds and global Jewish conspiracies are doing what their notorious fascist forebears did before and during WW2. In doing so they bracket themselves in with the Nazis. They may call themselves socialists, but they are not. They are National Socialists, scape-goaters.

We can support the Palestinian cause, we can be against the Apartheid, right-wing elements of Zionism, we can support Palestinian rights with all our hearts, but, at the same time, for God’s sake, understand why Jews might want a homeland. It was because Europeans like you persecuted them.

It was and is the vile antisemitism of Europeans that caused many Jews to want a homeland. This desire is perfectly understandable, even if, and I must emphasise this point, in the case of Palestine, it is not justifiable.

ADN-ZB II. Taken Juni 1942. Two Jewish women in Paris just before the round up of Jews in 1942

Phil Hall is a college lecturer. He is a committed socialist and humanitarian. Phil was born in South Africa, where his parents were in the ANC. There, his mother was imprisoned and his father was the first journalist from a national paper to be banned. Phil grew up in East Africa and settled in Kingston-upon-Thames. He has also lived and worked in the Ukraine, Spain and Mexico. Phil has blogged for the Guardian, the Morning Star and several other publications and he has written stories for The London Magazine.




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