Paul Eisen

Paul Eisen

Monday, 20 February 2012

We Stand With Israel

I'm a bit nervous about posting this. It describes the impact of the 1967 June War on a seventeen-year old Jewish kid.

I'm nervous because I can see how it could offend the victims of that war and of Jewish and Zionist oppression. But I hope it doesn't upset anyone because that's certainly not my intention which is to truthfully describe how it was (and is) for most Jews and to offer the experience for discussion.
I was seventeen the day my Dad brought home the sticker for the back of the car. "WE STAND WITH ISRAEL" in big blue letters. I begged him to take it off but he explained that if we did not stand by Israel, who would? Anyway, we weren't the only ones because next day it seemed every car in Wembley Park had those same words, "WE STAND WITH ISRAEL"

Dad could never just say Israel. It was always “the state of Israel” and his voice would get all serious and sometimes he'd make a little speech about how it meant that we Jews would never again be persecuted. But it was a strange kind of pride. I can hear him hiding his ever-so-slight accent in the restaurant as he ordered "chipped potatoes" and the look that passed between him and my mum that year in Jesolo when a group of Germans sat at the next table. "What a language!" he muttered over his plate. Once he made my mother send back a German food mixer.

Mind you, we weren't like some I could mention. Yok was not a word heard in my house, nor shikse for that matter. Except of course when my Mum was put out with one of the au-pairs, and even then certainly not to her face. But I knew. It was the way they said "English people", or the time I asked why our house was nicer than the other children in my class. And I certainly knew that time in the playground when I got into an argument with David Horsham, one of the Horsham twins, whose father owned the local greengrocers'.
"Anyway, you killed Jesus!"
I hadn't killed anyone except, at that moment in my dreams, David Horsham, so I burst into tears. Mrs Cook demanded to know what had happened and, to her everlasting credit, did not evade the issue. Outside the classroom she told me how proud I should be of my origins, and how much she valued the Jewish children in her class. Then she told me that she had heard that Jewish people loved smoked salmon which made me laugh and think of home.

To the child me, Israel was a sunny garden full of fruit trees and singing children. The sun shone all day, and everyone picked fruit and then, as the sun went down, they danced till dawn. I stuck stamps in my JNF stamp book - tiny trees, five shillings each, collected from friends and relatives, and, when you’d filled the book, a real tree was planted. “to bind the soil.”  Thus did I redeem the land.

In Hebrew Classes Mr Solomon told us how we had returned to our homeland, reclaimed it and then defended it against six mighty armies – “a free people in our own land” he would say.  He pointed to little Israel on the map, surrounded by enemies. Six against one - to any small boy schooled in the intricacies of playground justice, this was not fair. Anyway it was an old story. We had always had enemies. Lying on the kitchen lino (I now know I was six and listening to a news report on the Suez Crisis, on the wireless) the Children of Israel and an Egyptian Pharaoh were fighting each other. But then, as I told the toy car I was pushing round the floor, "Some things never change"

On June 4th 1967 me and Susan Rose had bunked off school and hitched to Southend for the day. We were on our way back when we heard the news. We held hands and rushed home anxious to get home in a time of crisis. Next night, me and Bengy went to a meeting at the Albert Hall. The speaker began his address. "If only Sir Winston were here to see this!" he roared and the crowd thundered back its approval as he lambasted a British government who would sell Jews for oil.
Then, plastic sacks were passed round and I saw men stuff in bundles of money and women pull the rings off their fingers. On the tube home Bengy informed me that Israel didn’t want outside help. “They don’t want another Vietnam!” he said like he’d just heard it personally from Moshe Dayan.

And when it came it was fantastic, like a boil ready to burst. In one day Israeli jets destroyed three Arab airforces. And I saw them - in black and white on the telly - the tanks and infantry sweeping across the desert in clouds of dust. It was like the cowboy films I used to watch after school on a Friday afternoon with Tony and his friends.

That evening at Leo Baeck House me and Bengy went up to the Jewish Agency and packed medical kits. We stood in rows at wooden trestles putting bandages, wool and scissors into cardboard boxes. At nine everyone stopped and rushed to a tiny TV set. Thirty or forty of us, crowded round the set, cheering the Israelis sweeping across the screen and hooting at the Egyptians sitting in the sand, their heads bowed, their boots strewn across the desert. ‘So they can run more easily!’ we laughed. At school next day we were kings and Henry Marks got into a fight with one of the Indian kids.

And then, just as it had begun, it was over. On the Friday at grandma’s Uncle Ruby told the latest story making the rounds at the golf club. "Why did the army stop after six days? Why, to get home in time to light the shabbes candles!"

Six armies, three airforces, a horde of fanatic savages. A nation the size of Wales surrounded on all sides by enemies sworn to its destruction. "Look at the map!" we'd say, "Just look at the map!" And, when we looked at the map it was plain for all to see – tiny little Israel surrounded by a sea of enemies. Jewish soldiers in a Jewish army the like of which had not been seen for two thousand years. Jewish boys in Gadna hats kissing the stones of the Wall. Jerusalem the Golden. There was even talk, not taken seriously by the likes of us of course, of the coming of the Messiah. Even now, knowing what I know, my heart still beats and there's a lump in my throat. So much for one seventeen year old.

But the final touch, the perfect end to my perfect war was when Anthony went off to join the volunteers. He came home one evening and said he was going to Israel and that was that. The news was received with both pride and trepidation but two days later I went with Mum and Dad to Heathrow as proudly but tearfully they watched the El Al Boeing carry their son off to glory. And there, in the viewing lounge, I watched Blanche Greenberg, friend of my parents and mother of Ivor, also off to save the state of Israel, raise her arms to heaven and bless the plane in perfect Hebrew.