The Ghost of Ashdod

By Sara Dowse.

In the 1950s, Philip Klutznick, an uncle of mine by marriage, funded and planned the construction of Ashdod, in ancient times a city of some consequence, and during the Ottoman period a Palestinian village. In 1956 he helped move Jews out of Morocco to populate the city. Klutznick was a Chicago property developer, the commissioner of housing in the war years under FDR, and later in life, Jimmy Carter’s secretary of commerce and one of his Middle East advisers. All told he served, in one capacity or another, seven US administrations.

Uncle Phil was active in B’nai Brith and was for a time president of the World Jewish Congress. He had met with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin. Not surprisingly, in view of his wide experience and undoubted success in life, my uncle could be pompous and overbearing. We called him, irreverently and behind his back, King of the Jews. He died in 1999, leaving behind a self-published reflection called No Easy Answers (1961), which few of us had bothered to read and now, with all the many moves in my life, I cannot lay my hands on my copy.

In recent months, however, I’ve come to revise my opinion of Uncle Phil. This is due to material now accessible on the net, and my rereading Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s 1996 The Controversy of Zion, in which he is highlighted as one of Israel’s earliest and most thoughtful critics. No doubt, to begin with, he was a committed supporter of Israel, and many of my own views about Jewish politics, filtered through members of my immediate family, emanated from him. But by 1963, even before the Israeli occupation four years hence, he was becoming increasingly critical. Three years after cautioning Senator Kennedy not to bring up his concern about Palestinian refugees during his campaign for presidency, Phil was wavering. ‘I don’t know whether I’m a Zionist or not,’ Wheatcroft quotes him from the memoir I’ve regrettably lost.

In 1986 Klutznick was interviewed for the Presidential Oral History Program of the Miller Center of Public Affairs as part of their Carter Presidency Project. The transcript of this interview is revealing. In the 1970s he was telling Begin of his concern about the West Bank settlements: ‘You know for a long time,’ he said to Begin, ‘I thought that you were wasting money on those settlements. What’s more, Teddy Kollek [then Jerusalem’s mayor] is beginning to wonder whether you’re going to move all of his young people out in special deals over to the West Bank and he’s going to have nothing left but old people …’

In July 1982, at the height of the Lebanon war, he joined with two other prominent Jews, former French president Pierre Mendes-France and Nahum Goldman, also a former president of the World Jewish Congress, in a public statement calling for Israel’s negotiating with the PLO (anathema to Israeli leaders at the time) ‘with the aim of achieving coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples based on self-determination’. This courageous stand, referred to in Edward Said’s Intifada and Independence (1989), was the first formal recognition among Jewry of the need for a Palestinian state.

Some forty-eight hours ago, as I write, naval commandos of the Israel Defence Force boarded ships in international waters and began firing on participants in the highly-publicised flotilla bringing humanitarian aid to the people of blockaded Gaza. Israel claims that protesters on one ship, the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, fought back with metal rods and knives. Another claim is that there were weapons on board. The activists deny that they were smuggling weapons and charge that commandos starting firing before even boarding their ship. Israel appears to be guilty of piracy by boarding the ship and stopping the flotilla while it was in international waters. Nine people are confirmed dead, many others are injured, and other dead are rumoured. 680 protesters, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul McGeough and Kate Geraghty among them, had been detained at Ashdod, though Israel is reported to have released 200 of them and begun the process of deporting them.

There has been international condemnation of Israel in response to the raid. The UN has called for an independent investigation, many Israeli ambassadors have been summoned; most seriously, the Turkish ambassador has withdrawn. The Turkish president has called the raid ‘a massacre’. Stephen Smith, the Australian foreign minister, has asked for an explanation and for the Gaza blockade to be relaxed, and this follows on the expulsion of an Israeli diplomat from Canberra over the falsification of Australian passports. Recent revelations of Israeli offers to apartheid South Africa of nuclear weapons are also in the brew – a highly dangerous concoction for Israel and, it must be said, for Jews worldwide.

The deaths and wounds of the activists are to be deplored, but I have hope that these casualties will not be in vain. A friend has called 2010 Israel’s annus horribilus, but the horror for Palestinians has gone on for so much longer, and the truth is starting to be heard. Reports from Gaza in particular have been devastating: people there are entering a phase of profound depression, self-medicating on Tramadol, unable to rebuild their homes, their hospitals, their sewers. Gaza’s young people long for escape or death, seeing no other options. And seeing this, along with other aspects of Israeli’s brutal policies, public opinion worldwide is rapidly shifting.

Meanwhile, I think of Ashdod, and imagine my uncle looking down on it all, shaking his head in dismay, the ghost of the man who, after building the city, agonised over whether he was a Zionist. Fifty years ago his doubts were well established, though very few Jews of his stature who held them were heard. As well as their relevance to what is taking place at Ashdod, and Israel’s horribly insensitive and counterproductive policies, his words have impact on the very meaning of Zionism. I have been called an Anti-Zionist, along with other Jewish protesters, but it is only recently that I have been willing to accept that mantle. In the past, there were many kinds of Zionism – their only commonality being the desire for Jews to return to the land we came from after centuries of exile. There was the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, who vehemently opposed Herzl’s political Zionism, and even Herzl’s utopian vision, flawed as it was, projected a multilingual society in which Jews and Palestinians would live together in harmony. There was the Zionism of Judah Magnes and Martin Buber, who eschewed the apartheid of a specifically Jewish state. Now, thanks to the intransigence of successive Israeli governments and their uncritical supporters inside and outside Israel, Zionism has come to mean only one thing – a dissembling, colonising Jewish state that will not brook any form of Palestinian viability, whether or not the latter attains a state of their own. We have no choice but to oppose that.

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