I didn’t always know that I had Jewish ancestry. I still remember that spring afternoon, reading in the Budapest municipal library, scouring through the dusty pages of an old Zionist newspaper – and suddenly bumping into a familiar name. My maternal great-great-grandfather, clearly referred to in the newspaper as a Jew. All I wanted to do was find an old article for a university essay, but these yellowed pages decided to alter my destiny. It was a journal called Jewish Review (Zsidó Szemle in the Hungarian), more or less affiliated with Revisionist Zionism, that is, the Jabotinsky-movement. Ze’ev Jabotinsky – it was a name that never failed to grasp my attention as a historian. According to my worldview then, he was everything that was wrong with Zionism and Israel. “Nationalistic”, “intolerant” and “closed to any truth other than his”. I believed in a different solution to the Middle East conflict: a single state, all of “historic Palestine”, and a dismantlement of “Israeli apartheid”.
It is difficult to even spell these words nowadays – you see, my worldview has changed so much since. Writing this requires a lot of honesty and soul-searching. My journey to Zionism from anti-Zionism and my change of heart regarding Israel started with that afternoon and continued with more research during my BA years into family history. It turned out that not only my great-great-grandfather was Jewish, but his wife as well. Their daughter (my great-grandmother) was therefore also Jewish, and then so was my grandfather. This makes me eligible for Israeli citizenship. We were always told that my ancestors were “Germans” and “Poles” – in reality, they probably tried to hide their ancestry so as to spare their descendants from whatever they thought Jewish destiny meant. Today I am a Holocaust scholar and journalist for Jewish newspapers, regularly attending Hebrew class in the local shul, and I can’t help but find their endeavours entertaining.
But I digress – back to my relationship with Israel. Back then all I knew about Israel was what I learned through the internet. And if I may give a hint to all the Hasbara warriors out there – the internet is not a very friendly place for Zionism. I learned that Israeli soldiers were “beating these poor Palestinian kids” who “had only rocks to protect their families with”. I looked at the map of “historic Palestine” and how it was “devoured by colonialist settlers” and gave way to Israel. I listened to lectures by Palestinian scholars and post-Zionist Israeli historians and figured that if there was such an agreement between Arabs and Jews, then I had to be correct in my conclusions. One group that I found particularly interesting was Neturei Karta.
This fringe Satmar group split from the Orthodox Agudas Yisrael on the grounds that they found Agudas too Zionistic. The very name Satmar in fact originates from what used to be a Hungarian city (now a part of Romania), and their neighbourhood in Jerusalem today bears the name Batei Ungarin (Hungarian Houses). Neturei Karta members cite the Torah and the Talmud to justify their anti-Zionism and regularly show up at pro-Palestine events in Haredi clothes. I read the writings of Yoel Teitelbaum, Yisrael Domb and Moshe Dov Beck. I read and then re-read a book by Canadian historian Ya’akov Rabkin about Orthodox Jewish opposition to Zionism. I was sure that this was authentic Judaism, and that what I read in the media about Israel was something entirely different – and bad. I contemplated writing my university diploma work on Jewish anti-Zionism. I was even invited as an observer during a meeting between Neturei Karta leaders and politicians of the anti-Israel Jobbik party in Hungary many years ago.
And yet my great-great-grandfather published in a Revisionist Zionist newspaper. And it turned out than another distant relative of mine also published in a Betar newspaper. Why? Could there have been a reason for someone to support Zionism? Could there have been a justification for what I saw then as the “theft of Arab land”? Why did my ancestors take part in this movement – if the movement was indeed, as I believed, immoral? The questions did not let me rest. Slowly I re-read the classics of the movement. Herzl, Nordau and of course, Jabotinsky. I started to understand some basic truths of the Zionist idea. If Jews were indeed a people and not just a religion, then it made sense than they would seek their own country. And since the non-Jewish world has shown during the Holocaust that not much could be expected of them when it came to protecting their Jewish neighbours, the idea of a Jewish state was perhaps not a nationalistic fantasy, but a bare necessity. A state and an army to ensure that Auschwitz would never happen again. And out of all the authors I tried to reinterpret, something struck me about the ideas of Jabotinsky. There was something enthralling about his radically honest choice of words, his style and determination. I started to understand why out of all the branches of the movement my great-great-grandfather could choose, he went with the Revisionists.
And another afternoon I decided to take one step further. I was sitting at the university, listening to some lecturer talking about medieval Iran. And I was so bored that I figured: “What the heck – why not buy a ticket to Israel?” The idea for me was revolutionary then. To set foot in the country where they “murder innocent Arabs”? I quickly booked the ticket before I changed my mind. I didn’t have a lot of money as a student, so I stayed at the cheapest hostel. I ate the cheapest food. I traveled to most places in Jerusalem on foot. And yet I could not get enough of the eternal capital of the state of Israel. Not only did I discover its hidden alleys and historical sites, but the city worked its magic to my soul. The incredible miracle of the Jewish state, the cities that sprung up from the ground barely a few generations ago, the blooming deserts and the Jewish army – a Jewish army after 2000 years! – captured my entire being. Suddenly I no longer needed to ask questions like: “Why Zionism?” “Why a Jewish state?” “And why Jerusalem for a capital?” It just all made sense in the most natural way. Of course Zionism was just. Of course there had to be a Jewish state. And why Jerusalem? Ever heard of King David?
I also saw a side of Israel that the media did not talk about. Jews and Arabs coexisting in a peaceful manner. Jewish and Druze soldiers guarding the safety of the citizens. I also happened to walk into a knife attack on the Via Dolorosa when I visited. A Muslim attacked a Christian Arab. There was chaos; people screaming and running everywhere. Israeli soldiers rushed to the scene and I ran towards them. Instinctively I knew that it was not the “oppressed poor Arabs” that were my allies, not the “Palestinian underdogs” that were on my side. In fact, they would have probably stabbed me as well had they had the chance. I had to run towards the soldiers of the Israeli army. In reality, they were the ones dedicated to protecting innocent lives. This was the true story of Israel. And this is the story that I’m telling in the media ever since.
But I’ll never forget that spring afternoon in the city library.