Miki (Miriam) David, a founder of JfJfP. Interviewed May 6th 2017 by Sarah Benton
Miriam David, one of the founders of JfJfP, begins our interview directly: “What I’m going to talk about is what kind of family I came from and how I came to change so that by the 21st century, having been born in 1945, I rejected a lot of how I’d been brought up and became much more concerned with the plight of Palestinians.”
The brief answers to how, why, when, are all ‘through the networks she moved in’. She describes herself as feminist, socialist, Jewish. The feminist definitely comes first now. When she was teaching social policy at the University of Bristol (from 1973-1985) her left-wingism defined her main network and it was from other socialists that she heard, for the very first, serious criticisms of the state of Israel.
“Quite early on in Bristol I did meet lot of socialist-feminists and I met Irene Bruegel (even earlier in London in the late 1960s). We were involved in childcare and the National Childcare Campaign1. Irene was too, and very active in feminist politics, very.
“Slowly but surely I began to realise that I felt very critical of Israel, of the Israeli government. I did get involved in Peace Now but it was very wishy-washy and later on (1980s) a women’s group in London (for a short time) called Rosh Hodesh, (New Moon) a Jewish feminist group, but it was rather religious. (Lira Winston, Robert Winston’s wife was in it).
“A lot of groups were springing up in the 1990s about Israel/Palestine. I was feeling very disaffected with left-wing policies as well as with Israel. And what was happening in Israel. By that time there was the failure of Geneva accord2 and the Second Intifada.3”
One thing which has not featured in JfJfP is the level of violence in Israel/Palestine. JfJfP has not been about violence. We contemplate this, then Miki says, “In my view the people we’re trying to change use incredibly violent language”.6
Tell me how you got involved in the creation of JfJfP?
“I became very friendly with Irene (when I moved to London from Bristol in the mid-1980s). In the 1990s, I supervised her PhD by publication at South Bank – she had published many papers on feminism and economics. Unlike me, Irene came from a completely secularised Jewish family in Czechoslovakia. She did masses of research on her family background through the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR). She led me to join it too.”
Around this time Irene began talking about a new group. She was very friendly with other left-wing Jews – Sue Himmelweit, Ines and Mike Newman [whose elder brother was Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, well-known progressive rabbi for Finchley Reform Synagogue].”There was an early discussion at a feminist seder at my house with about half a dozen people, in 2000 or 2001: Irene Bruegel, Mary Davis, Naomi Pfeffer, and Jude Bloomfield were there. It was all to be very collective.”4
The first public meeting for JfJfP was held in a pub. Miki remembers “Naomi Wayne, Vivien Lichtenstein, Mary Davis and Jude Bloomfield being there and Mike and Ines took the minutes, I became the first treasurer.” [Everyone I interview remembers a different group of people]
Why were the early meetings mostly women?
“Because of our networks and feminist politics, I think it was the feminist networking. There were a lot Jewish women, in the early women’s movement here and in America. It produced a critique of the family. Nira Yuval-Davis, a close friend, anti-Zionist Israeli and sociologist wrote an important critique: ‘Women – the bearers of the collective’5. Some of the distinctive qualities of JfJfP grew from these early feminist meetings – such as no formal leadership and a desire to look outwards to all Jews. This is why JfJfP never called itself anti-Zionist. It got get over 1000 signatures very quickly”.
Do you think JfJfP would not have come into existence without the feminist network?
“Yes I do, undoubtedly. Why? Because of our networking, because of our thinking on social justice, on civil rights. At that first public meeting in the pub, Irene was very much leading it and us sitting around tables in a circle saying why we were there, what we wanted to achieve. Irene was the intellectual behind it. I think it was a brilliant move by Irene to bring us together and fight for something that was liberal Jewish values and justice and to try and transform the Jewish community behind that using socialist-feminist principles of collective working. We sat around trying to find a name”.
“When I was in Israel in 1963 and again in 1967 I didn’t like lots of aspects of it. It was a slow awakening, very slow. I didn’t like Israelis. I didn’t like the fact that I still felt marginality. I didn’t belong there either.
“From childhood I had had an ideological commitment to Israel without the evidence to counter it. In Bristol, I was friendly with an Israeli couple: Arnon Bar-on and his wife Tammy. Arnon came to do his PhD on how children and families were treated on the West Bank6. His father had been an Israeli diplomat in USA, so a pretty elite Israeli. He rejected Israel and he was extremely critical of the ways Israel treated the Occupation. I learned a hell of a lot about policies in West Bank from Arnon. He was militantly opposed to Israel because of the Occupation of West Bank.”
Did you expect to suddenly feel at home?
“Yes I did. I had a fantasy, a huge range of fantasies, that either Israel or America would be the land of milk and honey. When I went to Israel after the 6-day war, I was rather conflicted but very eager. I had a very idealized notion of Israel (like many Jews). By this time I had a lot of left-wing friends who had mixed feelings about Israel; I felt anxious about telling left-wing friends I was going to volunteer in Israel.”
When did you first come across the fact of Palestinians?
“In Bristol. I was uncomfortable about anti-Arab feeling, aware of debates about the attacks on Palestinian villages, aware of debates about Jaffa, whether it should have been created as a beautiful Arab village, I did know about the battle of Ramle. I was aware about conflicting issues about war, aware of debates about Jaffa, whether it should have been created as a beautiful Arab village, I did know about the battle of Ramle I was aware about conflicting issues about war.”, aware of debates about Jaffa, whether it should have been created as a beautiful Arab village, I did know about the battle of Ramle, the image of tanks on the road to Jerusalem , I was aware about conflicting issues about war.” 7
My left-wingism made me attracted to kibbutz movement not to Israel as a whole.”
To get the measure of how much Miki has changed we go back to her childhood.
“I was brought up in a kosher Jewish (partly German Jewish) family but we couldn’t be very religious because there were no other Jews around (in the West Riding of Yorkshire). My father used to walk twenty miles too and from Keighley to Bradford shul for Yom Kippur. He used to say Hitler made him more conscious of being Jewish. He arrived in England in 1936. He was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany and went to university first in Darmstadt then in Berlin and was there when Hitler came to power. He lost his position doing a doctorate at the Technical University. He then went East to the very edge of the German empire, to Neisse. He was an engineer. He’d done mechanical engineering as an undergraduate. He got a job in Manchester and so came to England8.
“I did know my father was anxious and fearful because of what had happened to his family.We weren’t allowed to buy things German, we weren’t allowed to go to C&A. It was run by Nazis in Holland, so my father said9.
“My mother’s family were probably at least as Orthodox and Zionist. They were an Eastern European mixture. My mother’s mother, Golda, had come as a little girl from the Ukraine. My mother’s elder brother – Uncle Jo – was very friendly with Norman Bentwich, whose wife was Helen Bentwich (chair of the Education Committee of the Greater London Council) (and aunt of Rosalind Franklin). I did know that Norman was something big in Palestine, the first solicitor-general in Palestine10
“My grandmother’s younger brother was Phineas Horowitz, who was also very active as a British Zionist11. His son (my mother’s cousin) Cyril was a pilot for Palestine at the end of the Second World War. Cyril married a Sabra (a Jew born in Palestine – rare in those days). There was lot of Zionism around in my family, as with Cyril – relatives who went to Palestine out of Zionist belief.”
Did you feel defensive about Israel?
“Yes, defensive because of the ideology, not the evidence. Even in the early days of JfJfP I was still defensive. I remember feeling more akin to Vivien [Lichtenstein] who had come to JfJfP out of Peace Now.
“So there was a lot of fear, a lot of worries about Germany at home, so there was a lot of commitment to Israel as the home for Jews. I was in Habonim – a socialist-Zionist youth movement: I was very committed to all of that.”12
Did you feel separate?
“Yes I did. I felt marginal to all parts of society. Sandra Acker, a feminist American Jew whom I met at Bristol University used the sociological notion of marginality13
“My parents had been left-wing in Zionist youth groups. Both of them found living in Keighley difficult. They were very committed Jews. We kept Friday nights and we kept all the festivals, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, Succot, Pesach and Shavuot. We would be taken out of school for them. We kept a kosher home but were not kosher outside.
“My socialism came partly from my parents’ left of centre position. I see myself as international, metropolitan and that’s part of my socialism.
What did you know as a child about Israel and antisemitism?
“I can’t remember ever not knowing. I learned about Israel’s foundation early on and acted in a play about it in Habonim when I was 13 or 14.
“I was taught Hebrew by an Israeli woman – Atara Perzelan – who came to Bradford with her husband to learn about textiles. Her husband had been a parachutist into Jerusalem in the 6-day war. He said ‘the only good Arab is a dead Arab’.”
Rousing her parents’ anxiety and approval she went with her older sister as a volunteer to Israel.
“When I was there in ’67 I didn’t like lots of aspects of it. Really it was the kibbutzim that attracted me to Israel, not the country itself.
“It was a slow awakening, very slow. I had had an ideological commitment to Israel without the evidence to counter it.”
Did you feel defensive about Israel?
“Yes, defensive because of the ideology, not the evidence. Even in the early days of JfJfP I was still defensive.
“By the time I went to Bristol I was a fully committed socialist-feminist, that’s the work I wanted to do, teaching social policy and that overtook my Jewish politics. I did meet lot of feminists there and became active in the Women’s Liberation Movement, teaching women and social policy too.
“When we moved to London, I became head of the social sciences department, South Bank, 1985-86, I wanted to get more involved in feminist politics. Feminism was more important than even the socialism or the Jewish bit. The Jewish community in Bristol was tiny and in Willesden where we [she and husband Robert, a fellow sociologist] moved to and lived in London it was tiny as well so we were always, always in marginal communities.
“So maybe I was drawn to JfJfP because it was a way of expressing my marginality to the Jewish community and a commitment to another marginal group which had been overlooked in all these debates, which was the Palestinians.
“When Robert and I broke up, in the early 1990s, I started a series of feminist seders with Mary Davis, who was a colleague at South Bank. We just met and did things together. Feminist seders. We, feminist Jewish friends, had meals together. Mary knew a lot about Israel and Judaism but was more of a socialist than a feminist.
“‘The unhappy marriage of Marxism and feminism’ I think it IS an unhappy marriage.14
“I personally have had an ambivalent relationship to the Labour party.15 I was a member in Bristol in the 1970s and stood as a councillor but became bottom of the poll. I decided to throw my lot in with the Labour party recently. Last Saturday I went to a Labour Women Leading conference and Jeremy came, I thought he was tremendously impressive. Most of the feminists, and the Jewish ones, were very supportive of Jeremy.”
Having felt marginal to so many important events, places, movements perhaps cosmopolitan London, with its large number of Labour party members and dissident Jews, is a place she’ll feel at home in.
1Caroline New & Miriam David 1985, For the Children’s Sake: Making Childcare More than Women’s Business, Harmondsworth: Penguin
2 The Geneva Initiative, also known as the Geneva Accord, is a draft Permanent Status Agreement to end the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, based on previous official negotiations, international resolutions, the Quartet Roadmap, the Clinton Parameters, and the Arab Peace Initiative. The document was finished on 12 October 2003.
3 Second Intifada, 2000-2005.
4 Miriam David, 2003, Personal and Political: Feminisms, sociology and family lives, (London: Trentham Press) pp.190-191.
5Nira Yuval-Davis (1980) The Bearers of the Collective: Women and Religious Legislation in Israel Feminist Review No. 4, pp. 15-27
6 Arnon Bar-On, 1994, Citizenship, Social Rights and the Ethnic State: The Case of Structural Discrimination against Arab Children in Israel, Journal of Social Policy, vol 23, part 1, pp1-21.
7 Ramle was an Arab town. In July 1948, in Operation Dani it was captured by IDF and, on Ben-Gurion’s orders, the Arabs were driven out. Jaffa, like other Palestinian cities, came under Israeli occupation after the 1948 war. This led to the expulsion of many of the city’s 120,000 residents – more than 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly evicted from their homes at the time. Many had their properties confiscated by the newly-formed Israeli state, and its Absentee Property Law (1950). Approximately 15 percent of all Palestinian refugees trace their origins back to Jaffa.
8 See the map:.
9 Retailing giant C&A pandered to the Nazis during the Second World War and profited from slave labour, a new book has claimed. The revelations are made by German economic historian Mark Spoerer, who was commissioned in 2011 by the company’s owners to research the company’s dealings with the Third Reich. He says the firm sent a letter to Nazi Germany leaders in 1937 boasting to have never employed Jews and as a result, the regime kicked Jewish businesses out of their premises allowing C&A to move in and expand. In return, the firm paid money into the Nazis’ propaganda fund for their protection. Mail Online, September 2016.
10Bentwich served as Senior Judicial Officer at the start of the British Mandate, then Attorney-General in Palestine until 1931. They returned to England in 1932. See Norman & Helen Bentwich, 1965, Mandate Memories 1918-1948 London: The Hogarth Press.
11 Phineas Horowitz, 1927 Jewish Question and Zionism London: Ernest Benn & The Jews, the War and After 1943 London: Lloyd Cole
12 Habonim was founded in 1929 in the United Kingdom and over a period of years, spread to all English-speaking countries. Each country developed its own independent version of the original movement whilst sharing the core ideology of being a Jewish Socialist-Zionist cultural youth movement.
13 Sandra Acker (1994) Gendered Education: Sociological Reflections on Women, Teaching and Feminism Buckingham: Open University Press Modern Educational Thought. Introduction by Miriam David
14 Heidi Hartmann and others, Pluto Press
15 Miriam David (2016a) Reclaiming Feminism: challenging everyday misogyny Bristol Policy Press & Miriam David (2016b) A Feminist Manifesto for Education Cambridge: Polity Press and numerous other books, chapters and journal articles.