Grandfather Sparks Interest In Debate Over Zionism


I have vivid childhood memories of collecting money to plant trees in Israel. I recall as well the frequent accounts provided by Hebrew school teachers of Jewish heroism and devotion in the midst of a hostile sea of Arabs. And I’ll never forget the day my school mates and I were taken downtown in 1960 to see the eagerly awaited movie “Exodus.”

Mine was a childhood that in large part revolved around Israel. Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan, and Golda Meir were heroes. My parents, Conservative Jews, were not Zionists; moving to Israel, or seeing their children do so, was unthinkable. But they were loyal Israelists, committed to the Jewish state as necessary for the existence of Judaism and for the victims, present and future, of ubiquitous anti-Semitism.

I have another memory, which stands in sharp relief to these pro-Israel images. It is the memory of my paternal grandfather, Sam Richman, a joyous, tolerant Orthodox Jew and a shomos (sexton) at a little synagogue. Every Saturday afternoon, after Shabbat services, we’d visit Zadie and Bubby at their apartment. The conversation would often turn to the Middle East. I would sit quietly and listen. There, and only there, did I hear criticism of Israel. I think this became particularly pronounced after the six-day war in 1967.

“The Jews in Israel are causing all the trouble,” he would say repeatedly. “The Arabs want peace. “

My father would counter: “How can you say that? Israel wants peace. It is one little slice of land. The Arabs have so much, but they won’t sit down and talk.” He would suggest that my grandfather visit Israel and see the situation for himself.

Zadie wouldn’t budge. “I will never go,” he’d say. Each year, as he led our Passover seder, when he was supposed to say “next year in Jerusalem,” he’d improvise with a smile, “next year in Philadelphia.” The family always regarded Zadie as the venerable patriarch. But on this issue he was treated as uninformed and stubborn. It was confusing. Little did I know then that he represented an important position in the original Jewish debate over Zionism. To him Zionism was counterfeit Judaism and the Zionists charlatans. His Orthodox belief held that the re-establishment of Israel was a matter of God in the messianic future. He would have agreed with Yehoshofat Harkabi, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, who said “The Jews always considered that the land belonged to them, but in fact it belonged to the Arabs. I would go further: I would say the original source of this conflict lies with Israel.”

At the time of the six-day war I was 17 years old. Aside from this one dissenter, I never imagined there was another side to the Israeli-Arab dispute. As I understood it, the Jews had a Biblical and legal right to the land and were eager to live peacefully with the Arabs. But the Arabs hated the Jews because they were Jews. So there was no peace. I don’t think I’d heard the word Palestinian.

My parents and teachers sincerely believed what they taught me. They bore no ill will toward the Arabs. But like many of us, they were too busy with their lives to research the question themselves, so they relied on the people they trusted, namely, the Jewish and Israeli leaders, who were Zionists.

In the early 1970s I had stirrings of dissatisfaction with what I had been taught. I began to wonder how European Jews came to own land in Palestine when an indigenous population lived there. My teachers said the Jews bought the land. That satisfied me at first. Meanwhile, I made two trips to Israel, during the 1973 war and a year later. By this time I was a journalist looking for adventure. I put my reservations on hold.

Whose Land Was It?

In 1978 1 began hearing the land question discussed and for the first time I came across the argument that most of the land bought by the Zionists was sold by absentee feudal landlords, whose “tenants” were then run off by the purchasers. In my view of property this was illegitimate. The real owners were the people actually working the land: the homesteaders, the Palestinians.

Since my libertarianism puts me on the side of the victims of the state, I began to understand that the Palestinians were the latest in a long line of groups oppressed by political power. Jews, of course, have been similarly oppressed in many places; now some Jews, the Zionists, were in the role of oppressor. My childhood view of Israel was unraveling.

I belatedly began investigating the real story of the founding of Israel. I read Elmer Berger’s Memoirs of an Anti-Zionist Jew and the writings of Alfred Lilienthal, Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, and others. I revised my views on the relationship of Judaism and Zionism, on the Arab-Israeli wars, and on the Zionist agenda for Eretz Yisroel. I “discovered” the Palestinians. I became satisfied that what my parents and teachers told me was mistaken and that what Zadie had said was right.

He died in 1974. I’m painfully sorry I didn’t know then what I know now. He was a wise man, a prophet unsung in his own land.

Sheldon Richman is a writer and editor based in the Washington, DC area.