"People raised as communists can’t be racists"
Tamar Peleg-Sryck, 91, human-rights lawyer
When she was 60, an age when regular people start to shift into lower gear ahead of retirement, Tamar Peleg-Sryck, a graduate of night-school studies in law, left the teaching profession and started to clerk in the law firm of Avigdor Feldman, where she could focus on human rights. A tireless lawyer, she has helped thousands of Palestinian detainees, many of them children, who have been maltreated by the occupation authorities. She retired five years ago, after intensive work in both dusty military courts and the High Court of Justice.
Born in Poland, Pekeg-Sryck survived the Holocaust thanks to the Tehran Children rescue operation, which brought some 1,000 Jewish children to Iran in 1943, and from there on to Palestine. “I am a survivor thanks to the Soviet Union,” she says. “We were sent to Kazakhstan in 1940 and remained alive by a miracle.” Catching herself talking about miracles, she stops to correct herself: “Not by a miracle – with difficulty.”
Perhaps because of her life experience she also has something to say about the comparison that’s sometimes drawn between Stalin and Hitler: “People like to say that they were the same thing. But Hitler fulfilled his principles in his deeds, whereas Stalin betrayed part of his principles in some of his deeds.”
Peleg-Sryck, today a Tel Aviv resident, was born in 1926, less than a decade after the October Revolution. Like everyone who was interviewed for this article, she terms herself a communist, even if she doesn’t belong to Israel’s Communist Party (she left in 1965, when the party split in two, and she didn’t join either branch).
I asked her what it means to be a communist in 2017. “With the world turning bad, the choice of communism appears increasingly correct. Morally speaking, the basic principles of communism have proved themselves. For example, equality between all peoples, equal rights for every person, and the principle of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according his needs.’
“It’s not just economic equality. Each person should be allowed to be whatever he wants. What’s not allowed is discrimination, meaning to be a racist. I recently read Yuri Slezkine’s book ‘The Jewish Century.’ He offers marvelous data about the Jews in the communist revolution. It was actually a Jewish revolution; the percentage of Jews involved was astronomical.”
Peleg-Sryck finds a link between her life’s project to defend the human rights of the Palestinians, and the communist approach: “It was the embodiment of my communist principles. In the civil-rights movement, there is the left and there is something close to the right, even though people don’t like to hear that. For example, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel didn’t recognize until recently that there are also economic rights or workers’ rights. Nor do they take into consideration possible victims of freedom of expression. ACRI supported the march of the Kahanist right in Umm al-Fahm. I had a problem with that, but I wasn’t able to persuade them. The feeling in some human-rights organizations is that Jews are worth more. And a person who was raised in communism can’t be a racist.”
Do you see any prospect that the world will soon move toward communism?
“I’ve despaired of that. At the moment, there may be no prospect, but there is a need.”
"The Israeli left exploits Arab workers"
Albert “the Bulgarian” Salomon, 83, upholsterer
For many years, the upholstery shop owned by Albert “the Bulgarian” in central Tel Aviv served as a center for street dwellers, artists and people who wanted to talk in the morning and listen to him play the accordion. When he retired five years ago, he abandoned his kingdom (“That was a mistake”). While looking for people to interview, I remembered Albert because of the pictures that decorated his workshop – one of Karl Marx next to one of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Finding him was easy, thanks to a Facebook page created for him by his grandchildren.
“Communism is Torah,” he explains to me. “It’s like the Bible. A person who’s read the Bible in a yeshiva might stop being religious, but deep within he doesn’t forget the heder. And he’ll want Kaddish said for him after he dies. It’s the same for a communist. The most beautiful period of my childhood, between 1944 and 1948, was when I was in the Young Communists in Bulgaria. They taught me the meaning of love of humanity, helping others and peace. When I came to Israel, I tried to become part of the Communist Youth Alliance, which was based in Jaffa and was full of Bulgarians.”
Salomon left the party and its youth movement at the beginning of the 1950s, though he remained a communist. The Korean War, which erupted in 1950, was a turning point in the history of young, socialist Israel. David Ben-Gurion chose to side with the United States and even plotted to send soldiers to fight in the war. A demonstration against that war on Allenby Street in Tel Aviv was met by police brutality.
“We marched with posters,” Albert recalls, “and we were beaten by mounted policemen. That broke me, and I left the movement. But the ideology remained. I am a communist idealist, not a functionary.”
Did you vote for the local communist parties?
“No, but in my heart I always felt like a communist. I have tattoos with communist symbols – Lenin and Che Guevara. I was a dreamy youth and I dreamed about them all the time. But I don’t like the left.”
A communist who doesn’t like the left?
“The left in Israel is hypocritical – a left that uses Arab workers and exploits them. The wealthy in Israel are in the left, you know. I am first of all an Israeli, then a communist. There’s no better place than Israel. [Max] Nordau said that every ideal that’s fulfilled ceases to be an ideal, and that’s true of communism, too. I prefer communism as an ideal. I believe that the sheen of capitalism will be revealed to be false and that the sparks of communism will flare up again. As Lenin said, the east will rise on our street. People will understand the reality. In Bulgaria, 30 years after perestroika, people miss communism. There was no luxury then, it’s true, but there was tranquility.”
"We preserved the principle of Jewish-Arab partnership"
Tamar Gozansky, 77, politician
When one talks about communism in Israel, it’s hard not to think of Tamar Gozansky, one of the most activist MKs in the country’s history. Long before social justice became fashionable, Gozansky sponsored social-justice legislation that also benefited many who didn’t vote for her party (Hadash).
She joined the Young Communists at the age of 14. For 17 years she edited the movement’s mouthpiece Zo Haderekh (This Is the Way). She retired from the party’s central committee five years ago, in order to pave the way for a younger leadership. Gozansky, who always placed action and ideas before politicians themselves, didn’t want her photo taken. As a result, we asked another interviewee, the artist Zoya Cherkassky, to paint her picture.
What does it mean to be a communist in 2017?
“Being a communist has nothing to do with a particular year. Communism is a worldview, an aspiration to make society more just, to remove wars from the agenda. To see every person as a whole world. To see human needs as no less important than the needs of society as a whole.”
Communist parties or people who espouse ideas close to communism are achieving leadership or near-leadership positions, such as the Syriza party in Greece or Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. But Hadash [one of the four component parties of the Joint List] continues to hover around four Knesset seats.
“The Communist Party established Hadash as a Jewish-Arab movement under very specific conditions, in 1977, on the eve of Likud’s ascent to power, when the Labor Party basically collapsed. From our point of view as communists, the decisive thing is not the size of the party but the degree to which we can build cooperative ventures. We will not succeed in fomenting deep political changes on our own. The precondition for a leftward turn is not the size of the party. First of all, the path has to be correct, that’s the decisive element. Do you know how many people told me, ‘We have no problem voting for you, but stop working with the Arabs’?”
That’s what prevented the party from growing?
“From the establishment of the Palestine Communist Party in 1919 to this day, we have worked under tough conditions. There were always the urgent political issues, the struggle against nationalism and coping with anti-communist persecution. The achievement is that in these complex circumstances we succeeded in preserving a Jewish-Arab partnership. When I look back, the history of the Communist Party in the Land of Israel is a source of pride.”
"Communism and feminism go well together"
Fathia Sageer, 62, teacher
The communist consciousness of Fathia Sageer, a retired teacher from the Galilee city of Shfaram and head of the Arab-Jewish, feminist Democratic Women’s Movement, dates back to when she was 19. “When I completed high school, I looked for a place to continue my studies and for funding. I got hooked on meetings of the veteran communists. I loved to hear them talk about the rights of the Palestinian people and the struggle for peace. Communism is hard to achieve in Israel’s political situation, but I try to apply its principles in my day-to-day life and to transmit them to the group of women who work with me and in my children’s education.”
Sageer grew up under the impact of her parents having left their native village of al-Damun, northeast of Haifa, in 1948. “My parents were moved to Tamra, three kilometers away. My father’s dream was to return home, to return to his land, but he died at the age of 44. After his death I was left with the dreams. I found what I needed in the Communist Party in Tamra and in the May Day demonstrations. Communism and feminism go well together. Communist theory doesn’t discriminate between women and men. I was in Moscow two years ago, and women were [still] crying because the communist regime had been destroyed. In the new regime, the main losers are women, children and old people who lost their rights.”
Looking back, how do you view the great crimes of communism?
“There were mistakes along the way, but also achievements. If only we could achieve a situation in which the wealth would be divided among the people, and there would not be only a small layer of very rich and all the others very poor.”
If Hadash in its various forms used to be the central party among the Arabs in Israel, today’s young people appear to prefer a different alternative.
“The Islamic stream caught those who lost hope. Many view religion as a place to escape to. When they can’t find answers to questions of poverty, they find religion to be a place in which they feel safe. I’m pleased to be on the side of communism and not in other places – of capitalism or fundamentalism.”
"Swinish capitalism has taken over the world"
Faten Ghattas, 57, a director of the Israel Cancer Association
Faten Ghattas, from the Galilee village of Rameh, was a philosophy student in Bulgaria from 1985 to 1990, in the waning period of the communist regime there. As a Marxist-oriented philosopher, he found few job offers in his field back in Israel, and switched to management. He is currently the director of activity of the Israel Cancer Association among the country’s Arab population.
“The capitalist model is fragile, it’s obvious that it can’t go on like this. Despite the false illusion of freedom and democracy, there is regression in every sphere in the West. We see democracy as it is in the United States, for example. Communism brought results even for those didn’t really believe in communism. Thanks to the revolution, the social-democratic model was created in northern Europe, as a counterweight to communism. Many people were happy at the fall of the Soviet Union, but afterward swinish capitalism took control of the whole world.”
Maybe it would be better to give up on social democracy and not try to achieve communism, which led also to such tragic results?
“It’s not that there is one formula. There are clearly a number of approaches, and it’s also clear that the road is long.”
What was it like living under a communist regime?
“It was very interesting, but there were many paradoxes. People lived excellently in Bulgaria under communism but dreamed of capitalism, on the assumption that it would produce a better life. From my visits in recent years, it looks as though they have only regressed in terms of the living standard.”
Can you give examples of mistakes made by communism?
“People should have been given more freedom, allowed to move toward a freer economy. Lenin himself, a few years after the revolution, decided to change direction and grant the farmers more freedom, and that was a greater change than he’d thought originally. The reality should have been grasped more quickly, and more flexibility allowed. Communism erred in not understanding that people need to live better now, and not in another hundred years. I also saw the transition from communism. People celebrated Christianity. It shouldn’t be a big deal to go to church; communism should have allowed them to do that.”
"Communism isn’t just Stalin"
Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi, 40, artist
Zoya Cherkassky is a prominent artist, a member of the New Barbizon group of local female artists who were born in the Soviet Union. She herself was born in Kiev and immigrated to Israel at the age of 15. In contrast to many other immigrants from the former USSR who have a conniption fit when they see a red flag, Cherkassy, who now lives in Ramat Gan, considers herself a communist.
“In my childhood I really believed in communism,” she says. “Communism has become a term of ridicule and has lost its honor. When I arrived in Israel I was totally anti-communist – communism looked like the worst thing going. Many people from the Soviet Union who came to Israel felt that they had entered the Free World. But as in the [former] communist bloc, in Israel, too, young people who were born in the Soviet Union feel very disappointed in capitalism. They came to understand that it is not a liberal paradise with equal rights and equal opportunities. Our parents’ generation is under the illusion that they didn’t succeed because of personal failure, but the young generation sees the failings of the capitalist system, despite the anti-communist propaganda.”
Wasn’t the communist system also a failure – the millions killed by Stalin?
“There has never been a true communist state: namely, a society in which there is no money. It wasn’t fully realized, and it failed. Along with terrible things, there were truly good things. I do not admire Stalin. Communism isn’t just Stalin.”
What do you parents think about your love affair with communism?
“My father is an old Stalinist and is pleased with my views. My mother doesn’t care.”
A year ago, Cherkassy took part in a conference of Soviet artists in Prague. Communist-era art exercises a considerable influence on her work, she relates. “At the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, we thought that Soviet art was shit, Soviet garbage, but many groups are now referencing the Soviet period in their painting. There are materials that you can work with and continue to develop. That art has been unjustly neglected.”
"The October Revolution was a great achievement for humanity"
Basil Hala’ila, 22, sociology student
Basil Hala’ila, who grew up in the Upper Galilee town of Majdal al-Krum, is about to complete a degree in sociology and political science at the University of Haifa. “As Marx said, philosophers want to interpret the world, and as a communist I aspire to change the world,” says Hala’ila, who has led campaigns to improve the conditions of the maintenance staff at the university.
What is your model for communism? The Soviet Union? Cuba?
“The October Revolution led by Lenin was a great achievement for humanity in terms of establishing a meta-national state and equality for the proletariat. But after Lenin’s death, Stalin took power and the project went awry. The internal suppression he introduced is contrary to the communist idea. Cuba was an interesting experiment. It put an end to the rule of the corrupt tyrant Batista. Despite the blockade and the sanctions on the part of the United States, they have one of the best health systems in the world, and free education. With all the positive aspects of life in Sweden and Norway, those countries live by the rules of the free market. Naturally, in a choice between a capitalist Israel or a welfare state, I would prefer a welfare state, but I aspire to more.”
Hala’ila’s father was head of Communist Youth in Majdal al-Krum in the 1970s. Of his childhood, the student relates now, “I was born into a leftist atmosphere. I absorbed a socialist atmosphere at home. But for quite a long period I was apolitical. I didn’t care much.” He became class-conscious at the age of 17, when he read “The Communist Manifesto.”
When you talk to your peers about class consciousness, they probably say that you’re badgering them with Marx.
“The existing social situation also affects apolitical young people. Issues such as rent, living standards and family relations preoccupy them. I am not speaking at a boring philosophical level. Marx’s ideas can be conveyed to everyone in the world. Communism is also expressed in my day-to-day behavior. In the aspiration to be a caring person who helps others. I will not place myself in the position of being an exploiter.”
How is that reflected in practice?
“I’m currently looking for employment, and it was suggested that I send my curriculum vitae to one of the financial firms that sell dreams and steal money. I declined to go there.”
"The 2011 protest movement made me aware of social issues"
Keshet Zamir, 18, waitress
Keshet Zamir, from Haifa, does volunteer work in the Socialist Struggle, a small left-wing movement. Her primary activity is in gender issues. Firebrand speeches she delivered in local SlutWalk events are available on YouTube. Her first activity after joining the movement, when she was 15, was organizing a protest against schools that didn’t allow girls to wear skimpy attire. “That wasn’t a protest against the teachers, but against a system that tells girls to be ashamed of their body and blames the victim. Like, if you wear skimpy clothes don’t be surprised if you’re harassed. In the case of boys, it’s not an issue. We wanted to advance sex and gender education for children of all ages.”
How did you come to join the Socialist Struggle movement?
“My mother is a member, too. And the protest movement of 2011 made me aware of social issues. I went with my parents to demonstrations. We think about university at an early age and understand what it means economically. What it means to find housing when the jobs that are available pay only minimum wage. The capitalist system has failed completely. So long as the system wants only to increase profits and no one thinks about pausing to shift to green energy, it’s not clear how humanity will survive. It’s hard to be a young person growing up in Israel, with rounds of war every two-three years. An alternative has to be found.”
Didn’t the word “communism” scare your friends in high school?
“No. It only challenged them. Communism also had amazing achievements. Russia was the first country to give an equal wage and equal work, and day-care centers, in order to liberate women from housework. Communism wasn’t only Stalinism and a dictatorial system that oppressed people.”
What are your plans for the future?
“I want to study classical singing at a music academy. Beyond that, my life choice is socialism. That will always be central in my life.”