Why I left Western Europe

How one British Jew came out Zionist.

Last week The Guardian newspaper asked ‘Is there really a Jewish Exodus from Western Europe?’ As anti-Semitic attacks hit a horrifying high in the UK, there are now almost weekly incidents of violent anti-Semitism occurring across the continent, from the Paris Kosher Market to the Brussels Jewish Museum to Copenhagen Synagogue. Jews across Europe are left wondering, when is it our turn?

American-centric commentators may legitimately ask if Zionism, whatever that elastic term might mean, is relevant in that other Jewish homeland. But for the Jews of Western Europe like me, it is. The post-Second World War consensus of our guaranteed protection lies shattered on the streets of Paris, Brussels and Copenhagen. In the small communities scattered in regions of Europe, it died long before. Our job was meant to be support Israel politically and financially, so the Jews of the East, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, or the Jews starving in Ethiopia, could be free.

Who of us in Western Europe would have thought that Israel would be, for us, a place of refuge? As a culturally assimilated Western secular Jew, the last thing I expected was to find myself as a refugee for my political beliefs. But that’s what happened. This is my story.

It began with Abraham, my great grandfather. I like to imagine him in his Ukrainian shtetl at the turn of the last century, talking with his friends about where they might end up. ‘Come to America with us, Abraham.’ ‘Abraham, we are leaving for Palestine next week.’

Instead, Abraham Zevitovsky and his brother ended up in Dublin, Ireland. They are officially registered in the 1914 British Register of Aliens as tailors who had deserted the Czarist army. It didn’t take long for the families’ Jewish identity to take a back seat to their Irish one. My grandfather Harry was born in 1917, with no birth certificate as the Easter Rebellion against the British took place outside their front door. Of his older brothers, one fought for the British Black and Tan’s, the other for IRA.

Sitting out the Second World War in neutral Ireland, Harry became a surgeon in Glasgow, where he married my grandmother Doreen, who opened her own law firm in the 1950s and played a prominent role in the small but proud Scottish Jewish community

I was born and raised in Glasgow; my mother’s Jewish identity is reform to secular, my dad from a typically Glaswegian Irish Catholic family. My mum had been to Israel once in the 70s. Few of my other relatives had. We had no close family in Israel, no real connection to the country. I didn’t even know much about the place, and for a long time I didn’t want to either. Israel just seemed far too complicated to try and understand. The first time I was ever asked if I was a Zionist was in 2008. My genuine response was that I didn’t know what the word meant, so I couldn’t say.

At University I started to get involved in left wing politics; anti-war Iraq War marches and demonstrations for Third World debt relief. As I went to more meetings aimed at trying to make the world a better place through collective action, the current of anti-Israel sentiment so present in the left became a torrent. I just tried not to let it bother me and I would politely recuse myself from any situation where Israel was the topic

My argument was that I didn’t know enough, so there was nothing constructive I could add. But even then, I was keenly aware that my Jewishness meant something. I couldn’t count myself as a neutral bystander.

One day, we were coming back from a protest rally outside a Women’s prison, and I was listening to the conversation. Some of my ‘comrades’ were ‘joking’ that if only all the Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust, there would be no Israel and they wouldn’t have to keep going to anti-Israel rally’s all the time. I didn’t go to anymore events after that.

In my last year of University, a friend invited me to a talk by a Holocaust survivor taking place at the main lecture theatre on campus. We went along and the hall was packed with people I recognised from my time in the left. The speaker gave a harrowing account of being at Auschwitz, then proceeded to claim that Israel was not just on a par, but worse than the Nazis. The talk was organised by a group called the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network.

I sat in the middle of the lecture hall, surrounded by many people I knew by sight, and others whom I used to consider friends, hearing them cheer at photo’s comparing Israeli leaders to Nazis, listening to them applaud calls for Israel to be dismantled, that it never should have existed in the first place. I laughed in shock, and in vague, drifting terror. I thought I had left that feeling behind.

As the only Jew in both primary and high school, I had on occasion been picked on, both by students and one or two teachers, for being Jewish. One time a group of Muslim students threw rocks at me as I walked home from school. When I was 10 I started reading the Diary of Anne Frank. The book was on my desk, but the teacher took it away and told me it wasn’t appropriate. This is the same teacher that ripped up the heartfelt letter my grandmother wrote asking for me to be moved from the German foreign language class to the French one. When we started learning about the Second World War, a group of classmates decided to greet me with Nazi salutes for a few months.

I had amalgamated those experiences into the generic childhood memories of being bulled, dealt with it and moved on. Sitting in that lecture theatre as an adult however, hearing gruff men and well-dressed woman whip themselves up into a furious lather about Israel, about the Jews; I felt an old, dormant fear rise to the surface.

The next day I went to the bookshop, determined to learn more about Israel, to find out why I felt like that. I found the novel Exodus by Leon Uris, a fictionalised account of the journeys of the Jewish people over the last 140 years, from the first Zionist settlers to the establishment of the State of Israel. After I finished it I decided I had to visit.

It was another two years before I first went to Israel in 2012, but in the meantime during holiday’s in Europe, I took the time to visit ruined synagogues, Jewish museums and most significantly the Holocaust memorial in Berlin. As I wandered around the ruined monuments of European Jewry

I went to Israel first on Taglit-Birthright. Just meeting the group I would be travelling with at Heathrow Airport was the most young Jews I had ever been around.

One of the last nights of the trip was New Year’s Eve, and we partied in the streets of Jerusalem. The next day we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. I cried the whole way through. It was not lost on me that just a matter of decades had elapsed, and that there I stood, a free man, openly Jewish, in the capital of the Jewish state. When I went back to Scotland, I resolved to get back to Israel sometime soon.

I started a new job that year at a local charity. On the first day my boss, who knew I was both Jewish and had just been in Israel, sat me down and asked me what I thought about the myriad of issues of the conflict. I gave a half-hearted answer, still unsure of what I thought myself. But I was quizzed and quizzed, and after eventually coming to some sort of conclusion, my boss told me that she wouldn’t be able to employ someone who didn’t understand the oppression of the Palestinians.

At a party one evening, a left wing friend of a friend confronted me about Israel. We had a debate that lasted all night. He fundamentally believed Zionism was both racist and evil. That was the night I came out as a Zionist.

At the end of 2013, as Britain was out doing its last minute Christmas shopping, I was on another flight to Israel. This time I had paid for the trip myself. A week of hiking and Jewish spirituality in the North of Israel with a program called Livnot U’Lehibanot, Hebrew for to build and be built. During that week, hiking through waterfalls and digging into the heart of the mystical city of Tzfat, I had never felt so alive or so connected to Judaism and the Land of Israel. As I sat in Ben Gurion airport, waiting to go back once again, I looked at the pictures in the departure lounge old and new, of immigrants stepping off planes and kissing the ground, and I cried.

As soon as the plane touched back down in Britain, I called the Jewish Agency, the organisation responsible for Aliyah, and asked them to send me home.

I kept my decision from everyone. Quietly, I began the process of gathering documents, the paperwork of ending life in one country, and preparing for a whole new one. I taught myself the Hebrew alphabet, I read up on everything I could about Israel, my new home that awaited me.

Meanwhile the atmosphere at work got worse. Being someone who openly went on holiday to Israel was not OK. I had fabricated allegations of racism levelled against me and investigations about my conduct became routine. One morning, after the news had reported that Israel had released hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in the latest peace negotiations, my boss said to me: ‘isn’t that great news?’

‘But they’re murderers.’ I wanted to reply. ‘They are in jail for planting bombs on busses, for breaking into homes and stabbing children in the dark. For doing everything they can to bring terror to ordinary people, just because they are Jews.’ But I couldn’t say that, only someone who believes that Israel should exist would understand.

Thankfully, my Aliyah paperwork progressed quickly. I started letting it be known to friends and family I was going back to Israel, for a few months at least, I said, and I would take it from there. The word Zionism was scary to many people, and many more wouldn’t understand why I wanted to live in a conflict zone.

Six months to the day after crying in Ben Gurion airport, I was back. On a one way ticket, paid for by the Jewish Agency. A man met me at the gate at midnight, took me upstairs and gave me my citizenship card. ‘Welcome home.’

I arrived back at Livnot U’Lehibanot on the holiday of Shavuot. It was after 3am, but I arrived to the most wonderful of welcomes. One of the girls who worked there had stayed up all night making me an Aliyah cake, and people I had never met before had made me cards, and celebrated with me this decision, this ability to come home.

It’s eight months later, and I feel Israeli. I took a Hebrew name, I’m slowly learning the language, but have never once felt like an outsider, that I don’t belong. The complete opposite in fact. I feel I have finally found the home that not just I, but generations before me had been searching for all along. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the country, hiked up its mountains and swam in its seas. I’m not an observant Jew by any means, but now I am a connected one. I feel that the land, the history and the heritage is part of me, just as I am part of it.

This New Year, I did nothing. In Israel we already had our New Year, in September. In fact Judaism celebrates four New Years, just a few weeks ago we celebrated the New Year of the Tree, Tu B’Shvat. The reason for this is because Judaism recognises that trees have rights, just as animals and humans do. How could a culture that even celebrates the right of trees to just be a tree not at its core be a positive force in the world?

Israel is a special place, for everyone who visits. But for Jews, it is our home. I never knew that till I came, I never knew that till relatively recently. Today, I don’t need to apologise for being Jewish. I don’t need to apologise for loving my country. I can sing songs on Shabbat as loud as I like, I can decorate my window with the blue and white flag. I can wear a Star of David necklace or a Kippah if I want and not fear for my life. I think about my Patriarch Abraham, over a century ago, wondering where he could make a better life for him, and his generations to come. As he left that shtetl in Ukraine, did he ever wonder if one day he would make it to the Promised Land?

A few months ago I went back to Scotland for a weeklong visit. On the way back to Tel Aviv the plane transited through Frankfurt. It was the middle of the night, and as I sat in the deserted departure lounge, built with extra security especially for flights to Israel, I thought about what someone from 70 years ago would think of me now. How many Jews, on the cattle trains to the East, looked up at the sky, and wished they could just fly away to freedom?

About the Author
Nick Henderson-Mayo is a former Scottish political activist who left Labour under Corbyn, and then the UK because of antisemitism. He now lives in Jerusalem with his husband.
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