How I became a dissident Jew

March 25, 2017
Sarah Benton

Portrait Portrait (2)

Ann Jungman, writer, publisher and founding JfJfP signatory, interviewed March 14, 2017 by Sarah Benton.

Ann passed her bar exams – and became a school teacher. The first book Ann wrote was Fang the Fiery Dragon, published in 1972. She is probably best known for her series of books about Vlad the DracShe wrote her 2004 book the Most Magnificent Mosque, [Frances Lincoln Children’s Books] set in Medieval Spain, because she “wanted to show that there had been a tolerant society in Europe a long time ago, and that the Muslims had been in Europe for a long time and had left a great legacy. There is no reason why Jews, Christians and Muslims can’t live side by side”



I got into JfJfP through Sue Himmelweit. Our fathers knew each other and we met while working for Bernard Crick.

My family were very anticlerical. My mother’s family were very rich my father’s family were all doctors. My parents came from Berlin. met at a socialist ball in the ‘20s.. Very atheistic, secular, v hostile to all religion, Judaism in particular. We ate pork. The only Jewish thing we did was not work or go to school on Yom Kippur. My father said ‘you have to show the world you’re not ashamed of being Jewish’. They emigrated from Berlin to London in 1933.

During the war, I was sent to a Quaker school in Wales. When we were going home we all had to take a chair out into courtyard and the teachers began saying what had happened to each child’s father during war, what they were going home to. They came to me and said ‘Well Ann’s a bit different from the rest of you.’

I thought what a load of old rubbish, I’m exactly like you, I’ve got two eyes…They said ‘We’re hearing terrible news from Germany about these people called Jews, some terrible massacre or something like that’.

I thought if nasty things happen to these Jews then I don’t want to be one. I think I’ve always felt very ambivalent ever since then. When I came home my parents had heard the news about the holocaust and that their parents had died. And then we had people come to stay with us, who had been hiding in various places who were in a terrible state and I thought this being Jewish business was very unfortunate. Heine said to be born a Jew is to be born to a great misfortune. That was how I felt. This got worse because I didn’t get invited to certain events. Billy Butlin’s children went to this private school I went to in Hornsey Lane and I didn’t get invited to their parties in Bishop’s Avenue because I was ‘one of them.’ I didn’t know what they mean at but I knew it wasn’t good.

And of course in 1947 when the Stern gang were blowing up British soldiers being Jewish wasn’t a terribly good thing to be. I do recall that in 1948 there was an American film called Sword in the Desert. It starred Jeff Chandler, who usually played Cochise all bare chested, but in this he played a Jewish terrorist. There were such riots outside the cinemas – they had to take that film off. It wasn’t a great time, it was very austere anyway and that added to it. So I was never very enthusiastic about being Jewish.

When did you come into your Jewishness?

It took a long time. My parents discouraged it. In the 1950s when I was a teenager the way young people met each other was to go to church groups. There were very few Jews at my secondary school and they all went to a Jewish club in Muswell Hill but I wasn’t allowed to go because my parents said, “I’d meet the sons of shopkeepers.” They felt very superior to the English Jews.

When I was going into the 6th form I had a French teacher who was an observant Jew. She decided to emigrate to Israel in about 1954 and she said to me ‘I’d like to meet up with your parents, would you ask them if they would receive me? So they said OK and she said to them ‘You should be ashamed. Ann doesn’t have a clue who she is. It is dangerous to be Jewish and to be so unaware.’ And they said ‘What should we do?”. She said tell her to go to Jewish prayers for a start and not to go with the Christians to Scripture lessons. So I was then told I had to go to Jewish prayers where there were about ten of us. I was the oldest so they said to me ‘As you’re the oldest you’ve got to take Jewish prayers’. I said ‘I don’t know what to do’, so we read a psalm every day and then they said we had to say the Shema. I said ‘Is that the same as the Lord’s prayer?’ and they said ‘Noo!

So that was my main involvement with Jewishness, going to Jewish prayers and saying the Shema. And then I got curious about religion and I went to church and I went to Quaker meetings and I did go to shul once. I couldn’t believe it. Upstairs in the gallery all the women talking and not listening. And then on Yom Kippur one year I went to Odeon Swiss Cottage, it was turned into a schul for the overflow from the synagogue, where someone my parents knew was going and I couldn’t understand a word.

It was a complete waste of time and I gave up on it.

My sister and Mother’s brother had married out. That was the message – assimilate.

Discovering Israel

I was at quite an advanced age before I realized there was a place called Israel. My parents felt guilty about the dreadful education I was getting so they packed me off to a finishing school in Switzerland one summer which was ghastly. That was full of antisemites and that was a bit of a shock. People saying things like ‘those two girls in the photograph they were Jewish, but do you know, they were quite nice’. I got very friendly with two girls there, sisters, who were Lebanese. So that pushed me forward a little bit. They were Christians. They started talking about this place called Israel and how awful it all was. I said I didn’t know anything about it so they explained it all to me. I said ‘but what about the people who were already there, what happened to them? I have felt that way ever since. We started corresponding, and then the Suez crisis happened and I never heard from them again.


Then the kibbutzim. Quite a lot of my parents’ relatives had gone to Israel though they never talked about it. They were kibbutzniks. They were the ones who were too young to have had a university education in Germany. So the way to get out was to go to a kibbutz. My mother’s cousin, Walter Ullman turned up in this country because reparations went to the kibbutzim and the people who brought the money in were allowed a trip so My Walter (Uri)visited and he brought an avocado from his kibbutz which we’d never seen and he talked about it.

And then I had my heart broken and I was betrayed by my best friend, and I was in a bad way – one’s first experience of betrayal is devastating.

It was just before Christmas and it was pouring with rain and I was shopping in Oxford Street and I kept getting pushed into the gutter so I was utterly miserable, staggered out of the gutter and into a shop doorway. It was where the old Academy cinema used to be. I was sheltering there and trying to get myself together and I saw a thing which said Jewish Agency. And I don’t know how I knew but I knew that the Jewish Agency would pay for me to get away from Britain. I went in [22, got a degree, just taken bar exams]. It was another freezing winter so getting away seemed a good idea. So I went in and signed up for six months on a kibbutz. Just to get away. I would never have done it had I not been distraught.

I went to this kibbutz called Ma’agan Michael between Tel Aviv and Haifa. And the kibbutz made a huge fuss of me because all my relatives on the kibbutz rang up and said our niece our cousin is coming and you’ve got to treat her particularly well. So when I arrived they said which one is the girl with all the relatives on the kibbutz. They gave me all the best jobs. They decided I was one they were going to keep. Then the others complained that I was getting favoured treatment. So then they gave me the worst jobs very conspicuously. I had to gut fish and I remember having to water the Christmas trees which were surrounded by thistles and watering them wasn’t much fun.

The fish farm at Ma’agen Michael kibbutz

Then I had another unfortunate relationship, I did make a habit of it at that age, and I left the kibbutz. I ran away and went to Tel Aviv and got a job. The kibbutz were furious with me and I was banned, which I found bewildering then. Now I understand.

Was the atmosphere in Israel religious?

No, it was 1962 and it wasn’t religious at all. It was a very new state and it was a very secular kibbutz. The religious people were almost entirely in Jerusalem. I’ve never seen anything like it. People in all the gear in the sweltering.

I liked Israel actually. I didn’t like living and working on a kibbutz but I liked the ambience. Israel was very relaxed at that time. It didn’t cross my mind to stay.

What was your knowledge of Palestinians and your contact with them?

The kibbutz I was on had an Arab village next door and we walked there one day. It was really very shocking. The kibbutz was green and lush, very pleasant. In the village there was sand everywhere and there was a dead donkey rotting away and children crapping in the sand. My first view of the third world, I was shocked. They [kibbutzniks] said ‘we’ve offered to give them water, we’ve offered to give them this, that and the other, but they’re not taking it because they’re worried that if we get pushed into the sea they will be seen as collaborators. So as I saw it they were just being stubborn and frightened. I assumed that every kibbutz had an Arab village next door.

There was a café nearby where Christian Arabs and non-practising Jews used to go to eat pork and I went there a few times and that was a very nice atmosphere.

One day as I was hitching back from Tel Aviv I got a lift in a police van and there were these Arab prisoners manacled and as we got near to the prison they took off the manacles. And I said ‘aren’t you worried that they’ll try to escape?’ And the policeman laughed and said ‘Oh no, they know we’d shoot them in the back’. And the Arabs went ‘Yes they shoot us, no problem’. I was really shocked. The other thing I noticed while I was there was people got very excited by my blue eyes…Blue eyes, beautiful they’d say. I mention this because it seemed inappropriate in Israel, a preference from Nazi Germany I felt.

Admiration for Israel

Israel was much admired at the time – it had women in the army and integrated all the North African Jews.

Barbara Castle was our next door neighbour and I used to collect her Labour Party sub and she was thrilled that I was going to Israel. ‘Oh if I was a young Jew, I’d be there in a flash. It’s marvelous what they’re doing, making the desert bloom and the girls in the army and the girls can ask the boys out and they’re building a wonderful nation out of nothing led by the trade unions.”

I too admired Israel at that point. I’d visited a couple of times on holiday, went to see my rellies whom I quite liked.

Most of the pictures of the Sabra and Shatila massacre, young bodies piled in heaps, are too gruesome to reproduce. This one from Occupied Palestine.

But then I had a road to Damascus moment. I was staying in a communal house for authors, much later, and I had the news on and the news came through about Sabra and Shatila [1982]. I never recovered from that. I hardly talked for two days I was so shocked.

Quite a well-known writer, said to me ‘Why are you so withdrawn and your eyes are all red so I told her and she said ‘Oh so there are some disadvantages of being Jewish’.

I have always felt there were only disadvantages!

Becoming a partisan

After that I started joining “Jews Against the War in the Lebanon”, that was the first one, that was people like Steven Rose and some lawyers and Benedict Birnberg and people like that.

I went to some human rights meeting at St. John’s Wood synagogue with a friend who was an Liberal Jew. There were all these seemingly Arabs outside shouting ‘Death to the Jews, death to the Jews’. It was really quite shocking. Then I went to the loo and coming out I saw these same Arabs take their head-dresses off and putting on yarmulkes and join in the thing as trouble-makers. It was quite hard to come to terms with, the fact that there were ruthless Jewish, racist agents

Was it a shock, racism?

I think it [racism] was going on while I was there but I could shrug it off. You know what it’s like, you meet people like yourself don’t you, you meet graduates, you meet Europeans, you meet cultured, radical people who’ve lived in America. Some of my rellies were pretty right-wing and I was shocked.

Had you accepted your Jewishness by 1982?

I was becoming more Jewish. I worked on an oral history project on British Jews and I interviewed lots of people. I tried to get money for it and I couldn’t get any bit I did go to Israel to try to raise funds and the Hebrew University said they would give me money provided it was all about Mosley and the East End and I said ‘but that’s only one story really’ and became very aware that was what Israel wanted, stories of antisemitism. I didn’t go on doing it but I did interview about 10 people and I read a lot about the Jewish East End and waves of immigration so I got very interested in it. And of course there’s lots of novels, Isaac Bashevis Singer and his brother Israel Joshua Singer, who I think is better. He’s not religious in the way that Isaac is, much more about assimilated or would-be assimilated Jews.

What was your first involvement with dissident British Jews?

I went to odd meetings with Sue [Himmelweit]– we’d met at Birkbeck (1971) – we went to some Mapam meetings particularly after 1982. I think we both felt we ought to be doing something but we didn’t quite know what. So we were flailing about, trying this, trying that, funny little meetings in cellars off Finchley Road. I did join the Jewish Socialists but that was a bit later. Actually I wasn’t well enough informed enough about socialism or indeed the Middle East to be in that camp. And I was a bit older than people like Michael Rosen and David Cesarani, David Rosenberg and Julia Bard.

There were and are lots of Jewish groups. When did you think there should be a special one focused on Palestine?

It didn’t come from me. It came from Sue saying Irene Bruegel, whom you don’t know, is organizing this group, do you want to come? I’d probably have joined eventually when I heard about it but in those early days I thought it was a good thing. My response to those Lebanese girls, what about the people who were there originally, had, and has, continued to resonate with me.

Irene Bruegel, instrumental in starting JfJfP and Richard Kuper’s partner, she died in 2008


Groups to join

At first I joined Peace Now and I didn’t like it. Occasionally I went to Mapam. I joined the Jewish socialist writers’ group. German Jews are different from others, much more upper class, much more snobbish and much more bourgeois. When I bought earrings my mother said ‘take them off, you look like a Yid’. There was a lot of self-hatred going around. There’s a lovely story in A Friend of Kafka by Bashevis Singer where he says all the Jews wanted to be German Protestants, they didn’t want to be Czech Catholics and I think my parents also wanted to be German Protestants. The Protestants were the real Germans, the Prussians, the fine upstanding… I have to say that growing up middle-class in Prussia is a very unfortunate thing to happen to anybody. I think it was a horrible society.

Then, on Sue’s invitation, I went to a meeting to set up JfJfP. It was in Irene’s front room [in Tufnell Park] . Miriam David was there and Naomi [Wayne] was there

Was there much argument?

I think the main argument was what it should be called. I think a lot of people thought, and I thought, that having Palestinians in the name would put people off but Irene [Bruegel] and Richard [Kuper] were very insistent that that we stick with the name.

At what point did you register that Israel was an oppressive force for Palestinians?

I did have a fairly starry view about Israel. I encouraged people to visit, gave them addresses of people to look up to see what a nice people they were and what a nice place it was. That died with Sabra and Shatila [1982] completely. I think I’d been having doubts. All these relatives kept coming over from the kibbutzim and my uncle Fritz said you’re going to have to look after these people, I’m too old. Some of their attitudes – huh. My aunt got in touch with me and said ‘My daughter is going to live in America to get people to live in the kibbutz, but she’d never been shopping and didn’t know how to run a home, she’d spent all her life on a kibbutz. Would I show her about shopping and cooking and functioning in a city? So she came with her husband and it was appalling, he was just awful, real white supremacist, and he took it for granted that everybody else was. And then another one came and they were going to run an orange plantation in Mexico. They recreated the whole of Schipol Airport including the snow ploughs.

They went out of their way to talk about “Stupid Africans”.

So you are political and are you political about your Jewishness?

A therapist once said to me the only way I could be Jewish was in opposition and I think that’s true. I do find some people get confused about it. I had a terrific row with a school friend who assumed that all this business about a connection with Israel was pro and I couldn’t convince her that there was a Jewish group that was hostile to Zionist policies.

I organized an afternoon with children to raise money for the Jenin theatre and Mike Rosen came and Leon Rosselson. And Christine my schoolfriend has lots of grandchildren and she said I’m not sending them, I’m not sending them to anything that has to do with Israel. She assumed it was a money-raiser for Israel. And people can’t get their head round it. All Jews support Israel. It’s a fact of life like most people have two feet.

Isn’t that the raison d’etre JfJfP, not all Jews support what Israel does?

It’s another alternative voice to the Board of Deputies. This is one of many rationales for IJV.

Have you been active in JfJfP?

For three successive garden parties I cooked food for 200 people. I cooked myself to death. Vegetarian lasagne and salads. I contributed my cooking skills.

[Brief interlude while we mourn the lack of garden parties or any sort of social gathering in JfJfP today]

The other thing I did for JfJfP was, there’d been some massacre that involved Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. And it was decided a group of us would take flowers to the embassies as a protest against killing regardless of who got killed. That’s where I met Marion Kozak. And Michele Hanson was there. The Israelis wouldn’t let us in. They said what kind of Jews are you, Jews don’t do flowers for funerals. The Jordanians were surprised but very pleasant and the Palestinians invited us in for tea.

What’s your relation to Israel now?

The gap between being a lefty secular Jew and being an Israeli is getting wider and wider. I just don’t identify with them any more….it’s all crazy.

I’m outraged that Jews are behaving like this, I still have a level of outrage, but it’s a familiar outrage, it doesn’t have the freshness of being newly indignant.

Do you have any hope for a less destructive Palestine/Israel relationship?

The Palestinians have been shockingly led, possibly still are. It’s unfortunate that when there were Israelis who they might have been able to come to deal with they weren’t prepared to and now there are no Israelis. Israelis say there’s no-one to talk to but there’s no-one for Palestinians to talk to.

Now because of the ban on people who might have supported any form of BDS at any time, or had any sort of contact with Palestinians at any time most of us would no longer be allowed into Israel now. They’ll have all our names

Oh they knew all about us at the Israeli embassy and they thought Jacqueline Rose was married to Steven Rose so they really went to town on her. Steven was very active early on. He was one of the leaders of Jews against the war on Lebanon. He was very impressive. I heard him talk at County Hall, I thought he was terrific. He’s now backed off and says he doesn’t want anything to do with anything specifically Jewish and so has Michael Rosen.

I don’t think having a Jews-only organisation is a weakness. As a Jew you protest differently. I know they call protesting non-Jews antisemites and protesting Jews self-hating. It has a different feel to it, Jewish protest.

It took me 40 years to come to terms with being Jewish and these bastard have to go and make it difficult again.

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