I was born in Israel of Israeli parents, and spent my early childhood there. My mother was also born in Israel and grew up in a town called Beit Oved, to Zionist parents who took up agriculture and speaking Hebrew, neither of which came naturally to them, as part of their dedication to a movement to form a Hebrew speaking, self-supporting nation in the Land of Israel.
My father, on the other hand, was born in Poland to Zionist parents who spoke to him only in Hebrew. He came to Israel when he was four years old and grew up in Jerusalem.
All my grandparents were Zionists and atheists. They did not attend religious services, they ate non-kosher food and they did not follow Jewish traditions. They rejected the traditional Jewish background of their grandparents in order to build something better in a land they hoped one day to claim as their own. They chose Hebrew not as a holy language, but as a secular one to unify people who came from many different countries to build a new home together. They read the Old Testament, not for the religion, but for the history, the literature and the language. The Old Testament is not a Jewish book. There are no Jews mentioned in it until we get to the Book of Esther. By then they are in exile. The point of Zionism was to end the exile and go back to what people did when they were not called Jews.
If I tell people these facts, or even a small part of these facts, they will jump to the conclusion that I must be Jewish. But Judaism is a religion, and I don’t belong to it. And to the extent that “Jew” is also an ethnic designation that is related to the culture of the diaspora, I was never raised that way. I was raised Israeli, though my great grandparents all hailed from Poland, where they were considered Jews, and this fact was not up to them to decide — it was stamped into their identity papers.
Theodor Herzl, who founded Zionism, was no fan of traditional Jews. In fact, religious Jews to this day are incensed at some of the “anti-Semitic” things that Herzl said and wrote. If you don’t speak Hebrew, the video below will be too tiring to watch, but I can at least tell you about the opening sequences. The first story is about how Herzl hoped to get people of Jewish ancestry to be baptized en masse in order to get them equal rights in Austria-Hungary with other citizens. Then we hear that he liked to listen to Wagner and admired Bismarck. Then he is quoted saying things against Jews, especially traditional Jews and wealthy Jews. At about 6:33 in the video, various people in Israel in a mall today are stopped by a pollster and read a shocking statement against Jews. Then they are asked: “Who said this?” Most of them guess “Hitler.” The true answer is Herzl.
Naturally, this video is produced by a religious group in Israel and is very anti-Zionist. Zionists and traditional Jews never got along. The reason is that the existence of the Zionists threatened the state-sanctioned monopoly of the leaders of the traditional religious Jews. Since the State in most of the countries of Europe assigned religious affiliation to people at birth, and people had no right to leave one religion except by converting to another, many people of Jewish origins had no choice but to remain Jewish, whether they liked it or not. For most atheists, converting to Catholicism was not something they were willing to do just to get out from under Judaism, since they had no religious conviction and would feel like hypocrites. Zionism offered another option.
Zionists had been living in the Land of Israel (aka Palestine) long before World War II, as far back as the turn of the century. They lived there under the Turks, and later under the British Mandate. Today very few people outside of the State of Israel understand this, thinking that Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust. In fact, the Holocaust was an unfortunate event that had nothing to do with Zionism. It was a calamity for the people in Europe, but it was also a calamity for Israel, because what was meant to be a secular utopia was co-opted by traditional Jewish elements.
People in Israel became much more identified as ”Jewish” after the holocaust happened, partly because they were forced to assimilate and integrate into their society on short notice a lot of dislocated diasporatic Jews who were not at all Zionist before the Holocaust happened, and who would much rather have stayed in the European countries where they were born. There was even a forced re-indoctrination program called “the Jewish Consciousness” that was instituted in the schools after Israel became a State, that went into effect sometime in the 1950s. Before that, Zionists liked to distinguish themselves from Jews, just as Herzl did, and they said not a few unflattering things about the practitioners of Judaism.
It’s a complicated story about shifting cultural allegiances, and different people will find themselves remembering it differently according to their sensibilities. My mother, for instance, is a very well-socialized, gregarious person, and she never was exposed to life outside Israel before she became an adult. She has no anti-Jewish sentiment, unlike my father. She does not mind it if someone calls her a Jew, though she is an atheist. Her sense of herself came from her community, where agrarian values of hard work and thrift were emphasized. She is a native born Israeli.
Early pictures of my mother often show her in a group with other children close to her age in Beit Oved (בית עובד). Children were sent to the kindergarten from the age of two and a half. Both parents worked on the farm, so this was in actuality a shared day care arrangement.
Beit Oved was built on Qeren-Qayemet land (קרן קימת) — this was land lawfully purchased and paid for by Zionist organizers. Zionists abroad would collect money donations, and then Zionists who wanted to be settlers were given plots of land to farm on. It was all open and above board and legal. If you look all around in the picture, you can see that this was a desolate, uninhabited place where the Hebrew settlement was part of the Zionist program to make the deserts blossom. The land there was so sandy that children did not need sandboxes to play with.
My mother’s parents planted orange groves and avocados and other fruit bearing trees. They worked very hard at work that traditional Jews in Poland did not do. They came from the middle class, but they performed the work of laborers. It was a labor of love that was rewarded, in their case, with success.
In order to be a settler in the Moshav of Beit Oved, you had to be married. Unmarried men and women were not allowed to live there, but outsiders did come to work there in support positions. For instance, Esther the kingdergarten teacher, pictured above, was a single woman living in Nes Ziona when she started keeping the children in Beit Oved. In time, she did get married, but she kept living in Nes Ziona and working in Beit Oved.
My mother’s parents had an equal partnership on their farm. Both worked very hard. My mother grew up among the children of the other Moshavniks, and they all treated each other like extended family. They were more like brothers and sisters than just neighbors. That is why people from Beit Oved did not tend to marry each other.
In pictures from her early childhood, my mother is usually part of a group. On the other hand, early pictures of my father show him alone or with one or two other people. My mother’s running memory only begins at age six, but my father had very vivid memories from his early childhood in Krakow. I know, because he not only shared them with me verbally. He also wrote them down in his unpublished autobiography.
My father had memories of being in his crib in his parents’ bedroom in their Krakow apartment. He remembered his mother, a native speaker of Polish, speaking to him only in Hebrew, because that is what Zionists do. Even though her accent was imperfect in Hebrew, Hebrew was the first language my father spoke. His father was a classicist who knew Biblical Hebrew inside and out.
My father had a lot more toys than my mother seems to have had. One of his favorite toys was a horse.
The first word he ever spoke was סוס.
Although they lived in a very small apartment, they always had a live-in maid.
The maid, a Polish young woman, also served as a nanny. She took my father to the park. The first one, that my father could not remember, but that my grandparents were so impressed with that they mentioned her even when she was no longer in their employ, was named Manya.
I know this, while my father did not know it when he was writing this, because I found her name on the other side of this photo. For a long time, I believed that this photo was of my grandmother and my father when he was a baby. I inherited the photo in a frame from my grandmother. But over time I became skeptical that it was my grandmother, because it does not look like any other photo of her. So yesterday I opened up the frame, and on the other side of the photo my grandmother had written in Hebrew: “Amnon with Manya in Krakow May 12, 1936.”
We have no pictures of my grandmother holding my father as a baby, but we do have a picture of Manya the maid! Please keep in mind they had to traverse borders at night with a very light load to leave Poland in 1939. What pictures we have are the pictures they carried on their person. Manya must have been remarkable! She picked up Hebrew from her Zionist young charge.
Keep in mind that all this time my father was being groomed for the Hebrew settlement in Palestine, nobody told him anything at all about being Jewish. His parents did not discuss anything like that with him. When he played with other children in the park, and they spoke up in Polish against Jews, (“Beat the Jews!”), neither they nor he had an idea that it might apply to him. Hebrew was being taught, but “Jewish consciousness” was withheld on purpose, according to the teachings of Herzl.
Once arrived safely in Palestine, my father grew up in Jerusalem believing that when Israel achieved its independence, it would be a secular state without establishment of religion, where everybody who spoke Biblical Hebrew fluently, Christian, Moslem, Pagan, Jew or atheist, would be treated the same. In the end, people whose Hebrew was not nearly as good as that of his classical scholar father or his Zionist mother, came to dominate and set the agenda. Establishment of religion was part of the new state apparatus. Eventually my father joined the Canaanite movement. And when that did not help, he left Israel for good.
Zionism was never meant to lead to the establishment of a state Jewish religion in Palestine. That is not why Herzl invented it. Herzl wanted to free Jews from both Judaism and Jewishness. But most people are so confused about the history of Zionism that they don’t know this.