How to learn the dance-steps to peace

The JC Essay


By Irene Mansfield, January 27, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

As I am no celebrity, let me give some background on myself.

Born during the Second World War, I grew up in a working-class, strongly traditional Anglo-Jewish family, who were delighted when the state of Israel came into being in 1948.

In my teens and then my early 20s, however, fervently left-wing, I had doubts about the justice of establishing a Jewish state in the midst of Arabs who, after all, had not been responsible for the Holocaust and were being displaced, whether it was by their own leaders telling them to flee or by the incoming Jews encouraging them to leave. Furthermore, viewing myself as a Jew by religion, I resented the idea of being defined politically and forced into automatic support for a country to which I felt no connection.

At that time, I was active in the anti-apartheid movement, in particular with the campaign to boycott South Africa. I was strictly observant of the boycott, refusing to buy the delicious Cape fruit or the cheap but tasty South African plonk so beloved of students in the 1960s. Even when I was married with two small children, I used to take the children on anti-apartheid rallies where the call was "Isolate Apartheid, Action Now", a slogan my children, now grown up, still chant when reminiscing about their childhood.

I resented the idea of being defined politically and forced into automatic support for a country to which I felt no connection

When my cousin was getting married in her home town of Johannesburg during the apartheid era in 1978, she challenged us to visit, overcoming my reluctance by pointing out that I surely could not condemn a country that I hadn't seen (and that my little girl would be bridesmaid - what Jewish mother could resist?).

To my consternation, no sooner had we arrived than we met an acquaintance of my cousin's, who insisted that the government was aware of my arrival and that ministers were determined that I see the recently erupted Soweto for myself - and were even arranging a tour by mini-bus just for us.

It was certainly a shock that they knew I was coming, despite the fact that my involvement with the anti-apartheid movement had been in my single days before I had changed my name on marriage.

Despite all my efforts at prevarication and procrastination, eventually I could delay no longer. We were shown around Baragwanath, the enormous hospital in Soweto, and then Soweto itself. We were then taken to the conurbation of which Sharpeville is a part, where we were entertained to tea by the local "Boris Johnson", who was disturbingly au fait with my background.

Thinking about it later, asking myself why they were so very keen to show all this to me as I had never been in the top echelons of the anti-apartheid movement, I realised to my horror that the answer lay in the very fact of my having been in the middle ranks of the organisation. Thus, they must have reasoned, I would be able to be convinced that things in the country were not as bad as the "biased communists" in the outside world would have us think.

The worst part of this analysis was that they genuinely believed that Soweto was fine, whereas even in our short tour it was apparent that things were very bad. We could see that the inequalities of life in South Africa were unsustainable, as indeed they proved to be. It is an enormous tribute to Nelson Mandela (and his numerous Jewish colleagues) that, miraculously, change was achieved without bloodshed.

Now the concept of boycott has come back to haunt me, and I am forced to ask myself whether the calls to isolate Israel are any different from the South African situation. My answer has to be a simple one - that, in terms of ethics, apartheid South Africa was evil and Israel is not - there is no moral equivalence.

I notice that in non-tourist areas in Israel, in everyday life, the customers in any supermarket, shopping mall or shuk, the crowds thronging the streets on Fridays, are a mixture of both Jewish and Arab Israelis. Apartheid Israel? How many of the anti-Israel propagandists have actually been to the country or left their carefully scheduled tours to visit the real Israel?

During some of my anti-apartheid, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and anti-war Committee of 100 activities I was at university. When I left, I went to work with the inspirational Martin Ennals, as legal officer of the National Council for Civil Liberties (now known as Liberty).

Martin told me that he had "danced on the roof of the London School of Economics" on the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 but had become highly critical of it since then. Did I argue with him? No, not at all, because that was the received wisdom of the left.

Next, I worked for the United Nations Association, headed by Martin's brother John, who shared the left-wing view, as I did, too. In the long run-up to the Six-Day War, John and I would listen together to the one o'clock news on the radio. On June 5 1967, we heard that fighting had commenced. John, somewhat sharply, asked me how I would feel if it turned out that Israel had fired the first shot, thereby starting the war. We argued for about half an hour, with John reminding me of the UN Charter forbidding the use of force, and my pointing out that it also prohibited the threat of the use of force, to which Israel had been subjected for many years.

The discussion became really heated, until, pushed into a corner by John's Jermy-Paxman-like questioning, I heard myself say, to my amazement, that I would have to support Israel because they were "my people".

I would never have imagined myself saying those words, but thus began my acknowledgment that perhaps the left's Pavlovian condemnation of Israel was doctrinaire and "just not fair". I also confronted and affirmed my connection with the Jewish people, not just the religion.

I first visited Israel in 1968, a time full of hope and optimism, both for Arabs who had just emerged from the now unacknowledged and forgotten oppression by Arab states, and for Israelis who looked forward to peace and reconciliation. I fell in love with the country and, despite all its many faults - most of them shared with every other country in the world - the love affair continues to this day.

When my then fiancé and I were discussing where to go for our honeymoon in 1971, we reached near-deadlock - I wouldn't dream of going to Franco's Spain or post-Salazar Portugal, and he wasn't enthusiastic about other places. Finally we settled on Israel, which Gerry had never visited, despite having lived in various far-flung countries.

In those three weeks, visiting historic and religious sites, it was his turn to become attached to Israel. After that, although we had vacations elsewhere, including America and post-apartheid South Africa, we were like homing pigeons as far as Israel was concerned. It became an ambition, particularly of Gerry's, to have a home there, to have a stake in Israel.

When we retired, we bought an apartment in Netanya. Gerry regarded it as an enormous achievement, and we and our family made full use of it. Gerry died in 2009 but he lives on in our family's enjoyment of the holidays spent in the apartment he cherished and in the hearts of family and friends, there and here.

Which brings me to a trip that I took last summer. My family and I spent a few days in the north, at Ha-Goshrim - "The Bridges" - a kibbutz not far from Tiberias, which proved indeed to be a bridge between cultures.

The hotel and its surroundings were beautiful. At the wonderful dinner, there were diners from various sections of Israeli society, Jewish and Arab. After the meal, guests sat outside in the gardens enjoying listening to, and joining in with, a singer who had a voice reminiscent of Edith Piaf, singing Israeli songs from the 1960s. It was a surreal experience.

There was an almost tangible atmosphere of togetherness; the songs derived from all over the world - from the Middle East to North Africa, Europe to North and South America - reflecting the eclectic, melting-pot nature of Israeli society.

The experience gave me a most unlikely nostalgia - recalling and celebrating a past that was not my own and in which I had not participated. The community spirit was entirely different from that among group in the UK bellowing Beatles songs. This wasn't karaoke; these people were actually sharing a feeling of solidarity. I noticed that everyone, of whatever background, was joining in the singing.

An Arab girl of about 14 was sitting with her mother, just behind me, blowing out bubble-gum in larger and larger bubbles. I smiled at her, whereupon she asked me to dance with her.

As we reached the space for dancing, we joined hands and were immediately joined by every woman in the audience. There were around 40 women, some religious with their hair covered, others wearing jeans, along with Arab women with scarves framing their faces, all smiling and dancing in one circle.

I sat down after a while to reflect on the metaphor of the dance, leaving them all still dancing. Some were holding hands, others linking arms and dancing around each other, trying not to step on toes or knock against dresses or hats in the exuberance - or stateliness - of their chosen pace.

Did this mean that a one-state situation would work, with each ethnicity and culture doing its own thing, interacting without interfering with each other? Or was a two-state solution, Jewish and Palestinian, the only way?

What about Israeli Arabs? I heard from many whose families had stayed in 1948. They and their children were educated at the Technion or Jerusalem's Hebrew University, and they are happy to be part of Israeli society. Are they to be citizens of a Palestinian state or of Israel?

Dancing in that small space, keeping inside it so as not to encroach on people sitting around, did any of the dancers support the settlers who think that, by going into disputed territory, they are safeguarding the land of Israel, even as some Israelis see it as detrimental to the welfare of the state?

Would these people dancing in one big circle be able to accept the concept of Jerusalem, the "City of Peace" or the "Perfect City", as a joint capital? What would Hamas, the avowed destroyer of Israel, or the Charedim - the avowed enemy of everyone, Jew or Arab, who is different from themselves - make of the scene? And is it to be a state for Jews, in which, as in the dance, different ways of life co-exist? Or an exclusive Jewish state, where the religious, Torah-true law is supreme, with no concessions to secular Israelis or non-Jews?

T he dance continued in one circle and then in mixed concentric circles, with many Hebrew and Arabic songs, until the evening came to an end.

It never broke up into separate circles, and the women kept chatting while they danced.

At breakfast the morning before the dancing, Jews and Arabs had been sitting in their own groups but, on the following morning, tables were mixed, Jewish men in kipot chatting happily with be-robed Arab men, the women helping each other's children and grandchildren.

Since that magical evening, Israel has had another conflict in Gaza, in which both sides suffered, and there has been an announcement of plans for further settlement building, exposing Israel to international opprobrium. But perhaps the biggest casualty has been the peace process itself.

My evening at Ha-Goshrim, however, convinced me that people in the street, probably led by women, would manage to make and keep peace. They just need to be left to their own devices, goodwill and common sense, without interference from politicians, whether in Israel or beyond, all of whom have their own agendas.

I am proud that my young friend and I initiated a dancing circle that can give us all hope for the future of this troubled but wonderful, unique country.

Irene Mansfield is a lifelong human-rights and Labour Party activist and a retired magistrate

Last updated: 11:45am, January 27 2013