RJ Magazine Top Menu

Books: Rebels & Statesmen

The List: A Novel 
by Martin Fletcher 
(Thomas Dunne Books, 356 pp., $25.99)

Celebrating VE Day on the streets of London on May 8, 1945, Edith and Georg Fleischer are stunned to hear a woman making fun of their German accents: “Ve von, ve von, you can go back to Austria now, ducks, it’s all over! You can go ’ome.” But this young Jewish refugee couple, fortunate enough to have entered England in 1938, has no intention of returning to the Austria that betrayed them. Expecting their first child, they hope to become British citizens.

Meanwhile, a petition is circulating in Hampstead, as well as other sections of London, calling for the “prompt repatriation” of the refugee Jews to their countries of origin, claiming that the houses and flats where they reside will soon be needed by returning British soldiers. Edith insists on attending a public meeting called by the petitioners and encourages other refugees from their boarding house to attend as well. There the courageous and very pregnant 20-year-old stands up to explain why Jews could not return to the lands where their families were arrested, deported, and murdered. Her plea is met with a stony silence. Later, on the street, Edith and Georg are harassed by black-shirted British fascists and escape only when a burly friend comes to their defense.

Even friendly Londoners such as Sally Barnes, the Fleischers’ unfailingly cheerful landlady, have no comprehension that “home” no longer exists for these Jews after the Holocaust. While Georg keeps a list of his and Edith’s missing relatives, constantly marking off names as they receive news about their fates from the Jewish organizations at Bloomsbury House, society has not yet registered the extent of their loss.

At the same time, in British Mandate Palestine, a plot is brewing to assassinate the British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, the man seen as responsible for blocking Jewish immigration to Palestine when Jewish survivors were most in need of a refuge and a home. Scenes alternate between London and Tel Aviv, where Lehi, the most radical group among the Jewish underground fighters in Palestine, decides to spread its terror campaign to England itself. Georg, who wants nothing more than a peaceful life in England, becomes an unwitting accomplice when he agrees to deliver some packages for a fellow boarder—letter bombs intended for British officials.

Recalling postwar antisemitism in London, exacerbated by tensions emanating from Mandate Palestine, Martin Fletcher focuses on the lives of refugee Jews like his parents, George and Edith (for whom he named his characters), who lived through these times and eventually became British citizens. Fletcher, who served as NBC’s News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv for more than two decades, has researched this political thriller with the expertise of a veteran newsman, drawing from unpublished diaries and interviews. In his acknowledgements, he also thanks a former Lehi fighter “for your frank and comprehensive account of how you planned to murder Ernest Bevin,” adding, “I’m glad it was called off the night before.”

Ben-Gurion: A Political Life 
by Shimon Peres with David Landau 
(Nextbook/Schocken, 224 pp., $25.95)

Throughout his life, Ben-Gurion often said, “We are a nation with a wealth of prophets but a dearth of statesmen,” Shimon Peres tells journalist David Landau in this intimate political biography of Israel’s first prime minister. As the youngest member of Ben-Gurion’s inner circle, Peres shares personal glimpses of the man who mentored him for more than three decades. He also explains why Ben-Gurion is considered Israel’s first and greatest statesman.

This slim volume is surprisingly comprehensive in telling the story of the Zionist movement in pre-state Israel and Ben-Gurion’s critical role in leading its fractious parties to statehood. “I truly believe that without Ben-Gurion, the State of Israel would not have come into being,” Peres asserts. As a 24-year-old delegate to the Zionist Congress held in Basel in 1946, Peres witnessed Ben-Gurion, then chairman of the Jewish Agency (the pre-state governing body of Palestinian Jews), taking two of his most historically significant stands: first, to establish an independent state “at once”—putting him in direct conflict with Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, who still argued at this late date for a “gradualist” approach with Britain; and second, to accept a partition plan (a proposal to divide Mandatory Palestine into two states, for Jews and Arabs, recommended by the Peel Commission in 1937)—if it would result in immediate independence. His stand on partition evoked fierce opposition at both ends of the political spectrum, and even from some members of Mapai, his own Labor Zionist party.

It was clear to Ben-Gurion that the essential first step toward statehood was to force the British to leave Palestine. Britain had ignored the recommendations of the Peel Commission when it adopted the 1939 “White Paper” as its official policy, severely restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine before and during W.W.II. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Britain continued to blockade its ports to prevent ships filled with survivors from entering. In response, Ben-Gurion ordered the Haganah (the military defense organization of Jewish Palestine) to launch an armed uprising against the British. Their mission was sabotage—cutting railroad lines, damaging British ships, and blowing up bridges linking Palestine to neighboring countries. One month later, he created the Hebrew Resistance Movement (forerunner of the Israel Defense Forces), inviting Etzel and Lehi, the other two Zionist fighting forces, to join “on the condition that they accept a unified command and total discipline.” Ben-Gurion insisted on this condition because he firmly opposed Lehi’s terror tactics. He regarded Lehi’s murder of Lord Moyne in 1944 and Etzel’s bombing of British headquarters at the King David Hotel in 1946 as severely damaging to the Zionistcause.

Even during Israel’s 1948 war with five invading Arab armies, Ben-Gurion would not countenance independent militias. Just four weeks after Israel’s declaration of statehood, Etzel’s leader, Menachem Begin, attempted to land the Altalena, a ship purchased by Etzel and carrying weapons specifically intended for Etzel troops. Although Israel badly needed these arms, Ben-Gurion declared: “There are not going to be two states and there are not going to be two armies,” and ordered the IDF to resist the Altalena’s landing. A skirmish on the beach in Tel Aviv led to the bombardment of the Altalena, which resulted in 19 deaths. This incident of Jews fighting Jews remains a painful memory for Israelis, but Peres maintains, “If Ben-Gurion had not faced down Etzel and disbanded the Palmach [an elite unit of the Haganah with a separate command structure], we would have had a seriously compromised state right from the start.”

Ultimately, the Arab states did not accept the UN Partition Plan passed in 1947 and Israel’s boundaries were determined by the war that followed. Nevertheless, Peres praises Ben-Gurion’s decision to accept partition to create a Jewish state as “an historical act of political wisdom.” Ben-Gurion also had to defend territorial compromises made in the armistice agreements brokered by a UN-appointed commission, which ended the war of 1948. “We want a Jewish state, even if not in the whole country,” he argued at the first meeting of the new Knesset. “We believe that the creation of the state, albeit on less than Greater Israel, was the greatest act in Jewish history since ancient times. The criterion by which to judge these armistice agreements is whether they are better than no agreements, not whether they are better than a miracle.” (In these agreements, Israel wound up with 50 percent more land than in the original UN Partition Plan, but Jerusalem became a divided city and the West Bank was annexed by Jordan.)

In praising Ben-Gurion’s pragmatism as a state-builder, particularly his decision to accept partition, Peres brings Ben-Gurion’s legacy to bear on the current political conflict in Israel—namely, between those who insist that the West Bank is part of the Jewish people’s biblical inheritance and would not give it up for a Palestinian state, and those who would support a two-state solution in order to keep Israel a Jewish and democratic state and avoid ruling over a Palestinian majority.

While the relevance of Ben-Gurion’s decisions is clear for the contemporary Israeli debate on these issues—as Peres repeatedly points out—unmentioned and hovering in the background is the current Palestinian campaign in the UN for statehood. At this critical juncture, are the Palestinians ready for a two-state solution? Will Palestinian leaders emerge who put the needs of their people first and accept compromises to solve them? Will they crack down on terrorists and extremist factions that reject co-existence with Israel? Will there be statesmen among them with the courage and conscience of a Ben-Gurion to lead them to statehood?

The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth from Cairo to Brooklyn 
by Lucette Lagnado 
(Ecco, 402 pp., $25.99)

In her previous memoir, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (reviewed in RJ Spring2008), Lucette Lagnado describes Jewish life in Cairo before and after the 1952 Revolution through the story of her father, Leon, one of 80,000 Egyptian Jews forced to emigrate. Suddenly impoverished, Leon took his young family to Paris where they waited for American visas. The Lagnado family eventually settled in Brooklyn in 1962, when Lucette (or “Loulou,” as she was called) was six years old. In this sequel, continuing the family saga in America, Lagnado focuses on her mother Edith, whom she adored and whose story is deeply intertwined with her own.

“The arrogant years” is a term Lagnado borrows from F. Scott Fitzgerald to describe “that period in a young woman’s life when she feels—and is—on top of the world.” Lagnado’s mother had experienced those “arrogant years” of hope and promise as a teenager in Cairo. Though she came from a poor family, Edith excelled at school, especially in French literature. By age 15, she had read all of Proust, and by 20 was teaching at a private school, the L’École Cattaui. There she became the protégé of its patron, Alice Cattaui, the wife of a Jewish pasha and lady-in-waiting at the court of King Fouad. At one point, Madame Cattaui, one of the most powerful women of Cairo, gave Edith a key to the pasha’s private library to borrow books as she pleased. It was the proudest moment of Edith’s life. But Edith had to leave the job she loved when she married Leon, a bachelor 20 years her senior. Leon insisted: If a married woman worked, it was assumed that her husband could not support her.

In Egypt, Edith was cowed by the demands of an authoritarian husband; in America, she became the stronger partner. When she announced that she had found a job at the Brooklyn Public Library, she did not consult Leon or ask for his permission. Still, she worried about how America of the 1960s and 70s would affect her four children, especially when her eldest daughter, Suzette, moved out to an apartment—something unheard of in a traditional Levantine culture. When her sons left too, Edith focused her attention on Loulou, her youngest child. Edith would constantly tell her, “Loulou, il faut reconstruire le foyer (‘You must rebuild the hearth’),” Lagnado recalls. “It was as if she believed I really could put back the broken pieces of our family in a way that she and Dad couldn’t.”

Edith struggled to get her daughter into the best private schools, seeking an equivalent to the French lycéesof her own youth, and shopped with her for the right clothes to fit in with her well-heeled classmates. But Lagnado’s “arrogant years” as a pretty, cocky teenager ended at age 16 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She began her freshman year at Vassar with her confidence shattered.

Throughout their lives, mother and daughter shared high hopes and expectations, as well as disillusionment and irretrievable losses. Most cogent of all is Lagnado’s description of the strokes that diminished Edith later in life. Anyone who has ever been frustrated with the medical establishment when caring for a loved one will identify with her fury at its own forms of arrogance. “What the doctors failed to see was that while Mom’s memory was gone, she still had theability to feel,” she writes, recalling how they would quiz her mother on the date, the current president, and the name of the hospital as Edith shrank before them in “fear, embarrassment, then abject sorrow.” (Lagnado would quickly counter with her own “Quiz Show,” asking questions she knew Edith could answer just to bolster her spirits.) Exasperated with the care of nursing homes, Lagnado decided to bring Edith to her own home with the help of a very supportive husband. (Later she became an award-winning investigative reporter dealing with health care issues.)

Perhaps not by chance, Lagnado’s memoir resembles her mother’s favorite book, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”), with its chains of associative memories and longings for a feeling that cannot be recaptured. Lagnado looks back with nostalgia at the shul in the Bensonhurst neighborhood where she grew up with other Jewish immigrants from the Levant and compares its warmth to the coldness that she finds in so many parts of contemporary American society. She wonders what she had tried so hard to flee, and whether that had been arrogance too.

Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.