Wednesday, June 22, 2011

PERSONAL/ISRAEL: Some Background Notes on My Grandfather

Now to my grandfather: my grandfather's family came from the area outside Bialystock, although I think where they came from was far enough east to be part of modern-day Belarus. My grandfather is not clear on a lot of points -- for instance, if you ask him his age, he says "I think" because when he arrived, he gave a possibly fake birthday to be put on his passport.

He and his family arrived in the mid-1930s. At the time, Israel was just starting to become the controversial place we know of it today.

If you don't know, at the turn of the century, this influential jew named Theodor Herzl founded the first ideas of modern zionism, which was the idea that Israelis should have a homeland in what was biblically the kingdoms of Judea and Samaria. Soon, Israelis began moving into the Palestine that was, at the time, part of the Ottoman Empire. They weren't allowed to build settlements, but because of a quirk in Ottoman Law, any building you build with a tower and a wall can't be destroyed, so they would build tower-and-wall settlements in a single night. Ideological squatters.

During this period, strains of zionism mixed with strains of socialism, and many of the settlements (kibbutzim) were founded on commune principles: everyone worked, the income was pooled, everyone got a fixed allowance, there was no personal property.

After World War One, the land was ceded to the British as part of the post-war settlement that basically carved the Ottoman Empire to pieces. So by the 1920s, the Israeli settlers were influxing in to areas of land controlled by the British.

In 1933, everything changed. A huge exodus of Jews from Germany and other areas of Europe decided to head towards Israel, as a possibly safe land, and the British decided enough was enough, and closed their doors. Israelis were furious. Tensions mounted.

Three organizations arose at the time in response to this. The Irgun, the Lehi, and the Haganah were each paramilitary groups at the time. First was the Haganah: built on the principle of protecting the Jewish population and asserting independence. But Haganah also had a principle of restraint, and therefore the Irgun and the Lehi became terrorist organizations.

The bad blood between Haganah and the Irgun/Lehi reached its peak when during World War Two; the Haganah believed that the British needed to be supported in their war against Hitler, and the Irgun/Lehi both decided to continue their campaign against the British, and against the Arab population.

That was the Israel my grandfather immigrated into with his father, mother, and two brothers. It was already slowly becoming a battleground for terror and bloodshed as everyone tried create a new vision for the region.

The stories my grandfather told me are a bit incomplete. From what he has told me, he was a member of the Irgun from about 1944 to 1946. A chart of Irgun attacks shows that during that period, the violence was mostly aimed at British police officers and military bases, (he was on the run during 1946 and didn't participate in the King David bombing) but if you scroll up and scroll down, you'll see that the Irgun has a bloody history of bombing marketplaces hospitals, and major thoroughfares. And the end of that list is the Deir Yassin massacre.

The legacy of the Irgun and the Lehi is mixed today. On the one hand, once the state was established, it cracked down on both organizations, ending them decisively. The few Israelis I've heard talk about it were divided on whether it was a necessary or proper means for statehood. On the other hand, the leaders of both organizations became Prime Ministers: the Irgun's Menachin Begin (who reached peace with Sadat), and the Lehi's Yitzhak Shamir.

So far as I know, my grandfather did not participate in acts of terror deliberately aimed against civillians. But of course, it's one Irgun. You can't walk past that.

Next up in my grandfather's story: how you get started in an underground movement.