John Nathan

My brilliant pal – dismissed as simply a Zionist

‘Zionist’ is now a derogatory term used by those who see no single good thing about Israel


The new climate: A Palestinian flag outside an east London college

March 20, 2024 11:17

“They called me a Zionist,” said my friend, a 6ft 7in former special forces paratrooper. We used to write comedy together, which is how the friendship began, although our height difference as we walked down the street might have been the funniest thing about us. On one occasion I slipped my hand into his and called him Daddy.

All this was long after he left the army to live with his mum again in Liverpool while he went back to school to do the O-levels he never took the first time round. With four gruelling tours of Northern Ireland behind him he would sit at the back of a class of 15-year-olds, his knees pointing to the ceiling because the chairs were too small.

After A-levels he got a first-class English degree at Cambridge, passed the bar, worked in chambers (which is when the drinking began in earnest), got married, moved to Surrey, had two children, became a full-blown alcoholic, divorced and then swapped barristering for work as an over-qualified duty solicitor defending migrants and refugees in police stations.

He now lurches between binges and emergency detoxes because his liver is failing. He is the cleverest person I know and I love him. Every time we speak I wonder if it will be our last conversation. But it would be funny if the last thing he said to me was: “They called me a Zionist”.

“They” are his only other friends (nothing kills friendships like alcoholism), a couple, who I haven’t met but who since October 7 have apparently insisted he share his thoughts on Israel and Gaza.

What shocked the old soldier whose basic opinion on the issue is that both Israel and the Palestinians have a right to their own state, was the absolutism of his friends’ position. When they – both good, kind, liberal people – called him a Zionist, he detected, he said, a willingness to tolerate the deaths of countless Jews if the result was the end of Israel: a cause now up there with climate change and recycling.

I wanted to explain that “Zionist” is now a label used by those who see no single good thing about Israel to describe anyone who hesitates to agree with that view. He must have hesitated. But I was at the dentist. My mother, who is 89, was having root canal, poor thing. We were sitting in the busy waiting room when he called. In the street outside Palestinian flags fluttered from lampposts. Since my mother has moved from leafy west London to our place in the flag-festooned east of the city, I admit to a certain tension about what she might say in public. Particularly in Ubers.

“It’s like a foreign country,” she recently announced while surveying the streets during a previous trip to the dentist. It wasn’t clear if she was talking about the flags or the people but I immediately flashed her the universal sign used to tell public speakers that their time is up. However, I did it while catching the driver’s eyes full square in his rear view mirror as I made the throat-slitting gesture. “Not you,” I mumbled apologetically.

“F**k ‘em”, continued the voice on the phone as my mother was called to her appointment. He had now relinquished any attempt to sound sober, which usually flavours the beginning our telephone conversations. “It’s just us two Zionists now.”

“Right,” I said.

March 20, 2024 11:17

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive