Sunday, November 04, 2007

memorial evening for shimon tzabar

Remembering a “Hebrew-speaking Palestinian”

“We don’t have enough people like Shimon Tzabar in the Middle East, in Israel, in Britain, in America, everywhere. If we did, the world would be a better place. It would be a world based on what he believed in, what he fought for – justice, peace, equality, whether equality between people or equality between nations.”

These were the words of the Iraqi writer, journalist and satirist Khalid Kishtainy at a memorial evening held a few days ago at University College, London, to commemorate the life of his old friend, the Israeli dissident Shimon Tzabar [self portrait below]. Tzabar died in March at the age of 81 in London where he had lived since leaving Israel after the 1967 war. He called himself “a Hebrew-speaking Palestinian”.

During his life Tzabar was a man of many parts: activist, fighter, satirist, artist, poet, mycologist, author, children’s writer, journalist, columnist, husband, lover, father. The compere of the evening, Daphna Baram, said he was “an enemy of occupation and oppression in all their forms”. He possessed a gift for friendship, and the evening was attended by many members of his wide circle of friends and admirers.

In a packed lecture theatre, a succession of speakers went to the rostrum to pay tribute to different aspects of Tzabar. His old friend and comrade the mathematician Moshe Machover, emeritus professor of philosophy at King’s College, London, said that the 1967 war had been the turning point in Shimon’s becoming a political activist. The decade before that had been “the most quiescent in the history of the Arab-Israeli problem”. In the 1956 Suez War, Israel “revealed its expansionistic claws - I remember Ben Gurion declaring the third kingdom of Israel.” But the decade that followed “allowed people to forget, and therefore when the 1967 war happened, most people not only in Israel but around the world believed that Israeli was fighting a defensive war against annihilation. Very few people were not fooled, and Shimon was one of them.”

In September 1967 Shimon published an advertisement in Haaretz newspaper in which he and 11 other signatories, including Machover, called for an immediate withdrawal from the occupied territories. The advertisement accurately predicted the course of events over the next 40 years in the absence of a withdrawal. It read: "Our right to defend ourselves from extermination does not give us the right to oppress others. Occupation entails foreign rule. Foreign rule entails resistance. Resistance entails repression. Repression entails terror and counter-terror. The victims of terror are mostly innocent people. Holding on to the occupied territories will turn us into a nation of murderers and murder victims. Let us get out of the occupied territories immediately."
Tzabar then made the momentous decision to take himself into political exile. “He wasn’t running away, and it wasn’t just an expression of disgust,” Machover said. “He understood very clearly that because of the role that Israel was playing internationally, it was, and is, very important to fight not only from inside but outside to make world public opinion aware of the truth of what was going on.” One of the first things he did in exile was to start publishing in London the satirical political magazine Israel Imperial News. The recently revamped website of this publication is at:

One of Tzabar’s sons, the BBC radio producer Rami Tzabar, gave a touching son’s-eye view of Shimon. Being Shimon’s son was like having several fathers: he would teach him how to mix oil paint, and also how to mix cement on a building site, how to turn the coffee grinder exactly thirty times to make a decent cup of coffee, the difference between a real and a false chanterelle, and that Matisse was more interesting than Monet.

Some of the best times had by father and son were summers trundling around Europe in what was known as the “chicken coop”, made when Shimon took a Renault 4, “one of the least valuable cars, and devalued it by cutting the roof off and replacing it with a wooden hut ... it turned the car into a mobile Swedish sauna.” Rami remembered too his father’s “experimental cuisine”.

>During the memorial evening there were readings of several of Shimon’s works. One of his closest friends, Rami Heilbronn, read two of his poems, “Intensive Care” and “In this Moment”, which Rami had translated from Hebrew. Rami’s wife Ruth read from Shimon’s (as yet unpublished) “unauthorized autobiography” a passage on the dire effects of eating a certain hallucinatory mushroom. Liz Nussbaum read a fable from Israel Imperial News.

Khalid Kishtainy first got to know Shimon in 1968 when Shimon contacted him to ask if he could republish in Israel Imperial News an article Kishtainy had written for Peace News. The two became friends. “We were both painters, artists, writers, journalists, and satirists. The only difference between us was that he was a worldwide authority on mushrooms, and I don’t like mushrooms.”

Kishtainy recalled how Shimon had once asked him if he would agree to meet the press attaché at the Israeli Embassy. The press attaché was a friend of Shimon’s but had criticized him for defending the Arabs. He had said: “Shimon how can you defend people who aren’t even prepared to sit with us at the table or talk to us?” He challenged Shimon to “produce for me one Arab willing to sit and talk to me.”

Shimon said he knew one Arab, Khalid Kishtainy. The skeptical Israeli attaché said: “Don’t believe it, he will promise to come and then when the day comes he will not turn up.” Kishtainy accepted the challenge and went to the dinner, but “we sat and we waited and we waited, and the man didn’t turn up. So it was the Israeli who didn’t want to sit with an Arab for dinner.”

Kishtainy added that on a visit to Shimon a few months before his death he had looked rather sad and dejected. “He told me ‘Khalid, I am very disappointed in the Arabs.’ I said to him, ‘Shimon, you are speaking like an Arab. That’s what all Arabs feel now. In Iraq, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt, North Africa, everywhere, they are feeling disappointed in themselves. The failure of the Arabs is the great disappointment of the century’.”

Three years ago Shimon was taken to the High Court in London by the company Michelin for producing a satirical “Michelin Guide to Israeli Prisons, Jails, Concentration camps and Torture Chambers.” The book, with its shiny green cover, resembled a Michelin Guide down to the Michelin man logo. The first half of the book provided details of the system of prisons and interrogation centers in which Palestinians are held. The second half was a translation from Hebrew of “Checkpoint Syndrome” in which former soldier Liran Ron Furer describes in coarse slang the brutal manner in which he and members of his unit treated the Palestinians in Gaza. Michelin sued Tzabar for trademark infringement, but in the end dropped the case on condition that he stopped distributing the publication.

The memorial evening included a screening of the film “Dear Mr Tzabar” made by Christopher Sykes. The diminutive figure of Shimon, clutching has trademark walking stick and wearing his customary cap, was seen emerging from a tube station on his way to the High Court. In the engaging film Shimon talked about his life as an activist.

Tzabar wrote 27 books in Hebrew, including poetry, fiction, children’s stories and travel. His book “The White Flag Principle: How to Lose a War and Why” was first published in English in 1972 and has been translated into nine languages. A second edition was published in February 2003 by Four Walls Eight Windows of New York.

The author and former Times newspaper journalist Christopher Walker worked with Shimon in 1969 and 1970 on “The White Flag Principle.” He described the text as being “often clownish and earthy but edged with seriousness. One felt there was some kind of fraternity with ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’ and Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch 22’.”

Walker added: “Shimon not only saw the violence and repression of the occupation, he also highlighted the discriminatory regime against Arabs within the Green Line, pointing out how Israeli Arabs could not get decent jobs or accommodation within Israeli society and that the basis of Arab citizenship within Israel is based on a truly Orwellian concept, that of an Arab being at a certain time in 1948 ‘present absent’. It is worth remembering these points today at a time when British supporters of Israel speak of the country’s ‘culture of equality’.”

Before leaving Israel, Tzabar worked as a cartoonist and columnist for Ha'aretz and the weekly Haolam Hazeh, and was an acclaimed artist. Dr Gila Ballas of Tel Aviv University (wife of the prominent Iraqi-Israeli novelist Shimon Ballas) explained how his activism was expressed through his painting as well as his writing.

Bruce Ing, a professor of mycology, first met Shimon when he started attending fungus forays organized by the British Mycological Society in the late 1970s. “My first impression was that he was undoubtedly a ‘character; he was very keen, and he did not like rules. He could be irascible, and he did not necessarily respect the opinions of the experts.” Shimon made meticulous descriptions, and attractive and accurate paintings of his mushroom material. He also constructed a CD-Rom key for the identification of mushrooms and toadstools, with his own illustrations, which he published, produced and marketed himself “with typical Shimon panache.” [photo shows the mushroom man at work in Spain].

Ing described trips Shimon had made all over Europe on fungal forays and meetings on mushrooms. He went to Siberia, living in primitive conditions, “but his joie de vivre was so infectious that the whole expedition was highly successful socially and scientifically.”

In a tribute to Shimon his partner, the psychologist Judith Druks, said: “We all know he did not compromise politically and morally.” She recalled how he had wanted to live in such a way that he did not have contradictions in his life. She was grateful to Shimon for “showing us how to live well, how to grow old well, and how to die well.”

Susannah Tarbush
October 28 2007

1 comment:

Abe Hayeem said...

Susannah has produced a beautifully rounded and warm and moving piece on a real, lovable human being. I used to meet Shimon at various gatherings through our mutual friend Moshe Machover (another hugely significant character) , and he always had his latest pamphlets of Hebrew poetry to distribute free - written in clear Hebrew often based on well known psalms, prayers or sayings, but with an ironic twist on the words that even one not fluent in the language could understand. I wish I had known more of what a significant and important a character he was - and would have spent more time talking to him - but he has left a wonderful legacy that will continue to inspire those of us fighting for the truth and a more humane world.

Abe Hayeem