The Trials of That Woman

Even during the Great Terror, the believers kept believing; in Israel, before and after independence, many people remained loyal.

Haim Guri
Haim Guri
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Haim Guri
Haim Guri

It reminds me of that woman, on that kibbutz, at the foot of Mount Gilboa, who eventually became a symbol and an allegory for me. For three years I was an "external child" in that place, a political child on a very political kibbutz.

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Haim Gouri, back row (fifth from left), on Kibbutz Beit Alfa in 1936.Credit: Hashomer Hatzair Archive, Yad Yaari

It reminds me of that woman, who "took things to heart." Perhaps because I too take things to heart, despite the song: "Don't take it all to heart / There's no call for it to smart." I know many of those bleeding hearts, who can never find peace of mind.

It was in 1938, during the purge trials in Moscow of everyone Stalin saw as a rival - Communist Party old-timers, most of the Central Committee, genius generals, intellectuals, scientists, artists, writers and poets such as the remarkable Osip Mandelstam. Hundreds of thousands of them were led to the firing squads after confessing to crimes they did not commit. There was [Grigory] Zinoviev, one of the founders of the Bolshevik Party, and [Nikolai] Bukharin, one of its greatest leaders. They were imprisoned and tortured physically and mentally until they confessed their "acts of treason" in court. Israeli historian Shmuel Ettinger told me that a similar story, about Zinoviev, appears in three different books. Before the chairman of the Communist International was executed he kept shouting "Just let me make a call to Comrade Stalin!" When he was stood up against the wall he fell to his knees and recited "Shema Yisrael." A bodyguard of Stalin's witnessed the bizarre sight and related it to Stalin, who almost died laughing.

But the woman did not laugh. She locked herself up in her room, on an extended penitential fast. She did not believe in those false trials, and felt as if her world was crashing down. She was a kibbutz member, a Communist Zionist for whom Red Moscow was the holy city of the Revolution. She fell into a sorrow worse than anger - the loss of faith.

It was then that Arthur Koestler wrote "Darkness at Noon," which deciphered the code of those confessions, in the days of the Great Purge. It was followed by "The God That Failed," which even shocked many people of my own generation. The book's editor was British MP Richard Crossman, with contributions from African-American writer Richard Wright, Italian author Ignacio Silone, French intellectual Andre Gide and English poet Stephen Spender.

I recall "150,000,000," the poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky in which the poet prays to God and asks "the one who dwells on high" to come down, "God of flame," "God of metal" to work "the wonder and the miracle" on human beings. "God in Our image, God of flesh." Mayakovsky eventually took his own life.

But even during the Great Terror, the believers kept believing. In Israel, before and after independence, many people, even among the Zionist left, "in the world of the revolution," remained loyal. This was definitely due to the Soviet Union's heroic stand in the war against the Germans. Despite its terrible early defeats, the Red Army, still recovering from Stalin's purges, went on to victory at Stalingrad and carried on until the red flag was hoisted over Berlin's ruins. After the war, Andrei Gromyko's support for Jewish independence, and Soviet recognition of the State of Israel further contributed to pro-Soviet loyalty in Israel.

But the dispute in this country over positions on the USSR did not end even when the Stalinist terror was renewed - with show trials in the Eastern Bloc, the transformation of Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito into an ostracized traitor, the murders of the greatest Jewish writers, the Prague Trials and the trial of Mordechai Oren. To these can be added the blood libel of the "doctors' plot."

I heard MK Yaakov Riftin, from Kibbutz Ein Shemer, during the Jewish doctors' trial, declare at Tel Aviv's Allenby Cinema: "The hand that reaches out against the Soviet centers of power shall be cut off!"

In the early 1950s I brought my girlfriend, Alika, to Tzavta Tel Aviv. She heard the great poet Avraham Shlonsky declare: "The revolution is history's surgeon, even though its hands be bloodied." She recoiled, asking, "These are your friends?" Later on I asked Zvia Lubetkin, of Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta'ot, how she explained the continuing loyalty to Stalin's Soviet Union of so many kibbutz members. "We didn't want to be closed cadres who fixed their own world, we wanted to be part of a movement of millions that sought to change the world," she responded.

In the early '50s the United Kibbutz Movement was riven by bitter conflict that led to population transfers among the kibbutzim. "I will not have that Stalinist teaching my children!" My late father, MK Israel Gouri, mediated between the warring camps on Kibbutz Ein Harod. One day he said to me, in a broken voice, "What are they doing to themselves?! What are they doing to us?!"

I recall that woman from Kibbutz Beit Alfa, closed up in her room, mourning over the destruction of her faith. What remains of that Soviet Union that captivated so many?


I think of retired Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen, born to an Orthodox family in Germany, whose response to God's silence in the Holocaust was to turn away from religious observance. But other Jews, starving in the death camps, forwent their meager portion of gruel and bread on Yom Kippur and fasted.

The cover of the newspaper Al Hamishmar, may it rest in peace, bore the legend "Zionism, Socialism, Fraternity of Nations." It eventually became clear that the components of this holy trinity contradicted each other. Zionism was realized through wars and hostility, even though it did not, in advance, condition the redemption of the Jews on the destruction of the neighboring people. The word "nakba" has returned to remind us of all the unpaid accounts.

In "Khirbet Khizeh," S. Yizhar, the greatest of Israel's 1948-era writers, wrote: "My guts cried out. Colonizers, they shouted. Lies, my guts shouted. Khirbet Khizeh is not ours. The Spandau gun never gave us any rights." [ (translated by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck ) Ibis Editions, 2008]

Israeli socialism - with the holy trinity of Al Hamishmar's motto, with its kibbutzim, moshavim and cultural life - is withering in the face of privatization and the rise of the national and religious right. Israel is undergoing haredization from within, and is shunned, cursed at and delegitimized from without.


I continue my self-reckoning: where I was right, where wrong. Since childhood I clung to the idea of Greater Israel, our patrimony. During Pesach 1998, dozens of kibbutz members came from throughout the country for a discussion on "Greater Israel - Farewell to a Dream?" I prepared by rereading "Bivritkha," published in 1938 and known to few Israelis.

Written by members of the Noar Haoved Vehalomed and Mahanot Ha'olim movements, it is a screed against the Peel Commission's partition plan of 1937. Not Betar and its "two banks to the Jordan: one is ours and the other too," not Gush Emunim, but rather the youth movement that built Beit Hashita, Beit Ha'arava and Maoz Haim. The founding document of that Beit She'an Valley kibbutz, from 1938, already spoke of a future when "the work lights of Jewish settlements shall shine in Gilad, Bashan and Horon, in Judea and Samaria and the Jordan Valley."

At that conference, I noted the absence in "Bivritkha" of any mention of Arabs, adding that it was written at the height of what came to be known as the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, which had already claimed hundreds of lives. "Each of us has taught himself that this land is united, whole and indivisible." These words, written 73 years ago, now seem beyond history and reality. Yossi Sarid once wrote: "Rabbi [Meir] Kahane draws his insanity elixir from the springs of the United Kibbutz Movement."

At the end of my book "Ad Alot Hashahar" ("Till Dawn" ), from 1950, I wrote after the Green Line was established: "From our watchtowers we see the expanses of the captured land ... our paths rub up against their watchtowers, our ways are windings and the borderline passes through our souls, which are torn and not made whole."

Years went by, until the Six-Day War, in which I fought as a company commander in Jerusalem. Motta Gur declared: "The Temple Mount is in our hands!" We continued north, to Ramallah. I felt as if I had come home, to those biblical vistas. But I came upon many Arabs, who do not exist in "Bivritkha."

I was in the heart of reality, among the neighboring people under our control, in that confrontation that puts beliefs and opinions to a cruel test. There were increasingly blunt discussions over whether to call "those territories" "occupied," "liberated" or "meshuhzakim," a Hebrew neologism that combines both these words. What to do with all those Arabs? "The Seventh Day" was published, kindling the no-holds-barred confrontation between Peace Now and Gush Emunim, between Yeshayahu Leibowitz and Israel Eldad. Settlements were added in the heart of the Arab space, followed by bloody intifadas and another war in Lebanon. We won the wars of movement, maneuvers and breaching. We lost the wars of attrition.

The Greater Land of Israel became, for many of us and our grandchildren, the "land of the pursuits." Many arguments in our extended family ended in tears. At that conference in Beit Hashita, members of the Bivritkha generation and their children tried to answer the bothersome question: "When did we say goodbye to the Greater Land of Israel, which we never stopped loving, to the very last stone?" It was a cumulative process: I too concluded that only through a compromise on the separation of the two peoples, in partnership, would life here be possible. Our rule over another nation corrupts and distorts the face of Israel, rending its people and crushing its society.

I know a woman, on a kibbutz in the north, who reminds me of that woman, in the Gilboa foothills, in 1938, during those terrible trials. No, there is no analogy, but they meet in the realm of bruised faith. In our long conversations I sense that the acknowledgment of the rightness of the path and the necessity of the action from within the real, historic and ethical has become an existential problem for us. For me, too, it is always the topic of the day.



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