|The Story of Simha Tzabari|
A revolutionary life By Dalia Karpel Born to working-class Jewish parents in 1913, Simha Tzabari joined the underground as a girl, was sent to Moscow for further training and at the age of 21 was already one of the leaders of the Palestine Communist Party and the partner of its Arab secretary general.
The turbulent life of Simha Tzabari, who died two months ago at the age of 91, has enough content for three different women. The Palestine-born orientalist, the daughter of Yemenite parents, was raised in a religious Jewish home, became a revolutionary from girlhood, was arrested for the first time at the age of 16 and then, five years later, became the first women on the Central Committee of the Palestine Communist Party (PKP), which operated in the underground at the time.
At the age of 41, after becoming bitterly disillusioned with Stalinism, she weighed two options: either drown herself in the Mediterranean or rehabilitate her life. Choosing the latter, she went back to high school, successfully completed the matriculation examinations and embarked upon an academic career.
Tzabari was a feminist without knowing it. She never married or had children, but she did have several love affairs, including one with the secretary general of the PKP, Radwan al-Hilu. The poverty and distress in which she grew up, without a mother, affected her life deeply, even when she lived in relative comfort. She was always hard on herself, an ascetic who lived off air, say her friends, who always had only one demand of her: that she join them at the table and partake of a hot meal with them.
From an early age Tzabari was perceived by her colleagues as an extraordinary person. The “iron lady,” they called her, because of her strong character, her stubbornness and her resolve. She was fully committed to the ideal of social equality. Even when she understood the tremendous human and social price of the Communist way, she did not forsake the ideas of justice and equality that underlay it and in which she continued to believe. Until she fell ill with Alzheimer’s two years ago, she never missed a demonstration of the left, and used to regularly give envelopes filled with money to left-wing organizations, especially the Arab-Jewish cooperative movement Ta’ayush. She remained a true revolutionary until the end.
In 1927, when she was 14 and attending the Yehieli Girls School in the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Tzabari was already active in the Communist children’s organization, The Pioneer. The children kept their activity a secret from their parents and teachers. At the end of ninth grade, she left school and home and went underground. Three years later, Tzabari, 17, who worked in a factory that made cigarette cartons and was a member of the Communist Youth League, was sent by the party to the Soviet Union to study. Her father, Saadia Tzabari, a working-class man who raised four daughters on his own, knew nothing about his youngest daughter’s affair with Communism. According to Tzabari’s sister, Esther Levy, now 93, they learned about Simha’s trip to Moscow from one of her Jewish friends.
`Yamina’ in Moscow
Tzabari spent three years – until 1933 – at the Communist University of the Workers of the East. In her personal file the pretty albino student is called “Yamina,” because of her Yemenite origins. “All the evaluations made of her during her period of study were positive,” a document of the Communist International (Comintern) states. In 1935, the same document notes, Radwan al-Hilu, the PKP’s delegate to the Seventh Congress of the Comintern and Simha’s lover and partner, offered the following evaluation: “Takes seriously every assignment she is given and struggles to implement it actively and enthusiastically. Knows underground work, very cautious, carried out every directive of the Party meticulously and without failures.”
Avraham (Barto) Inbi, Tzabari’s good friend and political colleague, related this week that when he joined the Communist youth organization Tzabari was already one of the three leaders of the party, alongside al-Hilu and Meir Slonim. Al-Hilu was thin and short, with a small mustache, and according to Inbi, he lacked charisma: “In 1941, at 11 P.M., [no date given], a meeting took place on Napoleon Hill next to Hayarkon Park [in Tel Aviv], with about 400 people in attendance. Al-Hilu spoke, and every few sentences people shouted `Ya’ish! Ya’ish!’ meaning `Hurray! Hurray! and said admiringly that he was the Lenin of the Middle East. To me it looked ridiculous. If Lenin was like that, I thought, his worth has declined tremendously.”
“Yamina,” a Comintern document noted, “is an educated and developed woman, who is well informed on the political issues, and among the comrades she is treated with special respect and prestige, and she can be moved up to more responsible work.” Thus, beginning in 1934 Tzabari was not only al-Hilu’s partner, living with him at 48 Nahmani Street in Tel Aviv, but also a member of the Central Committee and the number-two official in the party.
According to Dr. Eli Rekhess, an expert on Arab politics in Israel, who was a student of Tzabari’s, her affair with al-Hilu was above all ideological in character. “They were the pioneers who supplied the model of physical and conceptual alliance for all the mixed Jewish-Arab couples in the Communist Party. Tzabari was the role model.”
When Tzabari turned 85, a party was held in her honor with the participation of her many friends from the various political incarnations of her long life: she was in the PKP almost from the beginning; in the 1940s she joined the Jewish Communists and after Israel’s establishment entered the left-wing party Mapam with them. However, she spent only a few years in the Zionist party, and in 1954 left Mapam with the faction headed by Moshe Sneh. Tzabari was then teaching Arabic at a school in Ramle, and when the Sneh group decided to join the Communist Party of Israel, she found herself without a political home and took up studies.
At the party Tzabari was asked how she had spent three years in the Soviet Union without noticing that Stalin had launched purges and that Communist officials were disappearing. She explained that she had been totally preoccupied with reading and studying. “That’s not surprising, she fought for knowledge,” says her friend Yehudit Bialer, who was in the Communist Party from 1943 and worked as a pedagogical instructor at the Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv. “Knowledge was what shaped her life and her biography, and it was what later caused the intellectual and mental upheavals in her life.”
Bean soup over a paraffin stove
Her mother, Zahara, married Saadia Tzabari, a caretaker in a girls school, when she was 17 and he was a few years older. They both arrived in Palestine with their families in the First Aliyah, the wave of Jewish immigration from 1882-1903. Zahara and Saadia lived in a room off Neveh Tzedek. After their first-born son died, Rivka was born in 1907, Rahel in 1910 and Esther a year later. Simha entered the world at the end of 1913. She never knew her exact date of birth and used to say that she was born during Hanukkah week, only she didn’t know which of the eight candles was lit that day.
The girls were raised in a religious home. In 1917, when British forces advanced on Palestine from the south, the Turks expelled the residents from Tel Aviv. The Tzabaris and their six children (Zahara had given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, a few weeks earlier) wandered first to nearby Petah Tikva and then to Kinneret, a village in Galilee. The twins died during the arduous journey. They spent the winter in a hut, Esther Levy recalls, and then moved into a tin shack at Sejera, their diet consisting largely of pitas that were baked in the courtyard from flour that was distributed to the refugees. Not long after they arrived in Sejera, Zahara went to Tiberias for the hot springs, but caught a serious cold and died, probably from pneumonia. “Mother was tall and beautiful,” Levy says more than 80 years later.
Saadia Tzabari returned to Tel Aviv with his four daughters, only to find that his brother had taken over his job. He found work as a construction worker and rented a basement on Lilienblum Street which had only one bed. At night he spread blankets on the floor. The family had no furniture and life somehow was conducted on the stairs, where the girls did their homework. In the morning Saadia placed a pot of bean soup on a paraffin stove in a niche below the staircase, which served as the kitchen and where the bathroom was located as well. He came home on his lunch break to put out the fire and make sure the girls ate.
Esther Levy relates that their father was good, warm and loving, and consistently told them one thing: “Study and get an education, so you won’t end up like me.” After a time the family moved to another basement, in Neveh Tzedek. It was only some years later, when the older girls had already started to work, that they moved to a two-room apartment next to the Shabazi neighborhood.
Information about Simha Tzabari’s hard childhood can be found in a book written by her classmate, and later fellow party member, Leah Trachtman-Palhan. Trachtman was born in the Ukraine and arrived in Palestine in 1922, at the age of nine. She attended the girls school together with Tzabari. When the Communist Party sent Tzabari to Moscow, the British deported the 18-year-old Trachtman to the Soviet Union because of her party activity. It was not until 40 years later, in 1971, that she managed to return to Israel, with her two sons, who were aliyah activists.
Her memoirs, “From Little Tel Aviv to Moscow,” were published in 1989. Even though more than 60 years had passed since she and Tzabari joined the PKP as girls, Trachtman decided not to use the real names of the party members. Tzabari is called “Dalia” in the book and is described as a brilliant girl who used to get to school early, before everyone else.
The Trachtman family was poor, too, but the abject poverty of the Tzabaris was unusual even for that period. The girls received clothes from the school, Esther Levy says. The parcels were sent by American Jews and included used but lovely clothes, which had a scent of perfume from America. Both Simha and Leah were eager to learn and at the age of 10 were voracious readers of books they borrowed from the municipal library – Russian classics in Hebrew translation, as well as French and English literature.
Simha, who was an albino, wore a white cotton hat with a wide brim, to protect her sensitive skin from the sun. Rivka, the eldest of the sisters, was also an albino. Rivka was a mother and a supportive friend to Simha. She was also the only one of the sisters who kept in touch with her after she left home and joined the PKP, and she visited her regularly in prison during the periods when she was incarcerated. According to their sister Esther, Rivka and Simha had similar character traits. Rivka, who became a nurse and in 1930 went to England to study social work, was also a woman of principle and a perfectionist, like her younger sister. She died two years ago of Alzheimer’s, at the age of 95.
Simha’s relations with the two other sisters were not always very close. The second sister, Rahel, was the only one of the four who went straight from elementary school to Levinsky Teachers College for Women, where girls who excelled were sent. When Simha was a leader of the Communist Party, Rahel was an active member of the Hagana – the precursor of the Israel Defense Forces – in Jerusalem, in charge of the nurses who volunteered for the organization. Rahel Tzabari became a teacher and spent three years in Britain (1936-1939) studying pedagogy. After Israel’s establishment she worked as an inspector in the Education Ministry and in 1952 was elected to the Knesset on the Mapai ticket (Mapai was the precursor of today’s Labor Party). In 1971, when she found herself omitted from the list of party candidates, she decided to do a doctorate in New York and spent 12 years there, until contracting Alzheimer’s and being sent back to Israel. She died here in 1995, at the age of 86.
Esther Levy had musical talent and dreamed of becoming a pianist. She had no money for lessons, but a teacher who lived nearby agreed to take her on as a pupil in return for Esther cleaning her house once a week. Later, Esther started to work as a laborer to save up money for a piano, but instead of buying the instrument she got married – the only one of the four sisters to wed – and had a son and a daughter. As a wedding present, Rivka and Rahel bought their sister bedding and other household utensils, so she would have a dowry, as was then the custom. This infuriated Simha. “She should have fulfilled her dream and bought a piano,” she told her sisters.
Into the underground at 14
Trachtman relates in her book that the homeroom teacher of their class, of whom Simha was especially fond, once visited the small, dark basement in which the Tzabaris lived and saw the girls doing their homework on the stairs. He suggested that Simha move to his spacious apartment, where he lived with his wife and son, but Simha refused. She could not imagine bettering her circumstances while her sisters and father would continue to live in such harsh conditions.
Until fifth grade, Tzabari and Trachtman belonged to the Girl Scouts. It was in fact two group leaders, one female and one male, from the Scouts who turned the girls on to the Communist ideal. The female (called Riva in the book) was Rivka Peker, who years later joined a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. The male (called Boria) was Baruch Krechman (Amir), a fierce opponent of the Zionist enterprise. In her book, Trachtman relates how, as part of their ideological training, Krechman took them to dance evenings for pioneers and road builders who lived in communes.
The girls’ enthusiasm grew gradually. Krechman, a handsome man whom most of the girls had a crush on, arrived in Israel as a teenager in 1913. He became a Communist under the inspiration of his aunt, a revolutionary in Russia. After the party established a youth movement, which also operated in the underground, he founded a “labor battalion” in 1925 in order to recruit members of the various youth movements. In the first stage, Krechman took Trachtman and Tzabari out of the Scouts and had them join the “labor battalion.” In his book “Reds: The Communist Party in Palestine,” Shmuel Dothan writes that Krechman lived in a wooden cabin in the center of Tel Aviv, from which he organized the activities, including a debating club, reading of famous Russian novels and mock trials. To fire up the girls and direct them to the desired political activity, he occasionally assigned them secret missions.
The “battalion” was dismantled in 1927, when Krechman went to the Soviet Union. Most members of the group went their own way, but about 15 children, mostly girls and including Trachtman and Tzabari, joined the Communist Youth movement, which meant going into the underground. Esther Levy said this week that one day Simha seemed to disappear. “The movement took her and after that we didn’t see her much. Sometimes she came for a few minutes and then left. Dad didn’t know that Simha was involved with Communism. He never intervened in our lives, because he trusted us.”
To live in the underground, Trachtman writes, was to suffer persecution by the British government, the police and the Zionist Yishuv and its institutions – and they were only 14. “I was like a nun who devoted her life to God but didn’t like him,” Trachtman says about her underground period. She was ambivalent in her views, whereas Tzabari was confident of her path, and ambitious.
The two girls were then in eighth grade. At the party’s behest, they did not go to school on May Day, and their absence raised the teachers’ suspicions that they were Communists. In that year, teachers in the Jewish Agency schools went on strike because they had not been paid. Trachtman and Tzabari were active in organizing a students’ solidarity demonstration with the striking teachers. They prepared the slogans in the home of the Scout leader Rivka Peker – “We want to learn” – along with slogans calling for the schools to be removed from the Jewish Agency’s authority and placed under government responsibility.
The demonstration set out on Sunday morning from Allenby Street, watched by a large crowd. The girls led the procession. Tzabari was the main speaker. She climbed onto stone walls to deliver speeches, just as she had been instructed by the party. Finally, the demonstrators reached City Hall, and Tzabari spoke again.
Everyone thought the demonstration had been a success – until the next day’s newspapers reported that it had been organized by the Communist Party. At first the Zionist teachers held lengthy conversations with the girls to try to persuade them to leave the ideological path they had embarked on, but without success. Trachtman notes that at 14 Tzabari was already a “zealous Communist.”
The teachers turned their backs on the two girls. Five top students, including Tzabari and Trachtman, were candidates to attend Levinsky College, but the final reports of the two young Communists lacked the signatures of the teachers and the principal. The girls’ protests were to no avail. They were not admitted to the college and had to look for work.
They got jobs in the factory that made cigarette cartons, where they had to meet a daily quota. The party instructed them to organize a strike and demand higher pay and the shortening of the workday from 12 to eight hours. The veteran workers, who were older, agreed, but the two girls were fired on the spot.
Hora and polka in Bethlehem
Party life was conducted in the underground. Cell meetings or talks by senior party figures were held outside the city in the middle of the night. According to Trachtman, she and Tzabari were liaisons with the task of visiting the safe houses of the comrades to inform them about the times and places of meetings. The information was classified and compartmentalized, and only a few people knew the location of the party secretary general.
Tzabari was arrested for the first time at the age of 16. She was incarcerated in the prison in Jaffa along with prostitutes, Gypsies and several insane women. Before Trachtman was deported she was incarcerated with Tzabari in a prison in Bethlehem, too, where political prisoners were held. The prisoners also included Arab women, especially women who had murdered a husband or other relative. Once a day the prisoners were allowed to walk on the roof and along the corridor. They read a lot, and sometimes danced a hora, polka or krakoviak.
The PKP was furiously opposed to Zionism. In the party’s view, Palestine was an Arab country that was under foreign imperialist rule, under the protection of which the Zionist movement was establishing a colonial project. The PKP was founded by Jews who arrived in Palestine as left-wing Zionists and were astounded to discover that the Zionist activity was dispossessing the Arabs from their land (”redemption of the land,” in the Zionist coinage) and from their places of work (”Jewish labor”). While constantly recruiting new members, the PKP also lost many comrades, who preferred to go to the Soviet Union and take part in building socialism.
The PKP succeeded in recruiting few Arabs. In 1930, following the disturbances of the previous year, which the Communists called an Arab national uprising, the Comintern ordered that the PKP’s leadership be placed in the hands of Arabs in order to reflect the fact that they constituted the majority in the country. An Arab, Sidqi Najathi, was appointed secretary general but was immediately arrested, and for the next few years envoys of the Comintern ran the party. In January 1931 the PKP took part in the elections for the Elected Assembly (the Yishuv’s representative institution), running as the Proletarian List. Trachtman writes that the party printed an anti-imperialist leaflet which she and Tzabari helped distribute to voters entering the polling stations. A few days later the British arrested many of the activists in the three central branches of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa.
The members of the Tel Aviv group were sentenced to three months in prison. Those among them, such as Trachtman, who were not native born or did not hold Palestinian citizenship, were deported.
Bombs in Tel Aviv and Haifa
The PKP was officially founded in 1923 and effectively fell apart 20 years later. Throughout its existence it was wracked by splits, most of which reflected the national tension between Arabs and Jews within the party and outside it. At the same time, the Palestine party was not immune to the upheavals affecting the world Communist movement, and personal disputes also played a part. Like all Communist parties, the PKP leadership was called upon to represent the positions of the Soviet Union.
At the beginning of 1935, Radwan al-Hilu was appointed secretary general. Tzabari, who was in favor of the party’s Arabization, worked closely with him, and the two young people – he was 27, she was 22 – ran the PKP. The Jaffa-born al-Hilu held his position for nearly nine years, during which he served three prison terms, a total of 18 months. Like her, he had also worked from childhood: at the age of eight he had to help his father in the family bakery, and at the age of 18 “his illiteracy came to an end in the form of evening classes of a national youth organization,” according to a Comintern document. The party sent him to Moscow to study, and the document notes that his first wife and his daughter were living in the Soviet Union.
However, when he returned to Palestine they remained there, and al-Hilu and Tzabari became a couple. This week one of his daughters refuted the widespread assumption that they were married. Arwa Kutana (al-Hilu), who lives in Jerusalem, described the extensive family established by her father, who died in Jericho in October 1975. His eldest daughter, a physician aged about 70, lives in Russia, and Kutana is not in touch with her. His second wife was a Hungarian woman (some say she was Jewish) whom he met in Palestine, and they had twin daughters in 1945; both now live in Hungary. After Israel’s creation, in 1948, al-Hilu moved to Nablus, where he had a relationship with a Palestinian woman, which produced a daughter. Not long afterward he crossed into Jordan and was imprisoned there for a number of years. In 1955 he married Zinab and they had two daughters, Arwa and Riam.
In 1936, a year and a half after al-Hilu was appointed PKP secretary general, the Arabs in Palestine launched a general strike in protest against British rule of the country and against Zionism. The PKP supported the strike, even when it was accompanied by attacks on Jews. Not all the members agreed with this position; the objectors established the “Jewish Section.” A memorandum to the Comintern from the secretariat of the Jewish Section, dated September 1939, is critical of what happened in the party while what the leadership described as a confrontation between two camps – the Arab national camp and the Zionist imperialist camp – raged in the country.
“The Jewish comrades,” the memorandum states, “were given the task of assisting the fighting progressive camp using the same means and methods by which the Arab camp fights, and when the Arabs moved to partisan warfare the Jewish comrades were called upon to help in this warfare by throwing bombs in the Jewish street, among other ways. The bombs were not intended to harm people but to heighten the confusion in the Yishuv.”
According to Dothan, the Arab comrades did not take part in making these decisions. A squad led by Daniel Abramovich scattered nails on the roads for a few nights, to harass Jewish transportation, and also cut down electricity poles. Two bombs were thrown in Haifa, one of them at the building of the Labor Council. There was also a plan to attack the new dock that was then under construction in Tel Aviv, but it was too well guarded, so the activists set fire instead to a pavilion of the Orient Fair.
Dothan maintains that Tzabari, who was then the only Jew on the Central Committee (Meir Slonim was in prison), bore responsibility for the terrorist policy. He attributes this to Arab nationalism, which in his view Tzabari advocated, and to her desire to show that despite her youth she was worthy of her senior position in the party.
Dothan quotes a leaflet written by Tzabari in July 1936, which explained that by “destroying the economy of the Zionist occupiers through acts of sabotage and partisan attacks, the Arab liberation movement seeks to make the continuation of Zionist colonization impossible.” The leaflet was not distributed because of the objections of the comrades in the Tel Aviv branch, which was the largest in the country. The branch was “purged of opponents,” Dothan writes, but this also “put an end to the participation of Jewish Communists in terrorism.”
Dr. Musa Budeiri, a historian who is the author of a book on the PKP (”The Palestine Communist Party 1919-1948: Arab and Jew in the Struggle for Internationalism,” Ithaca Press, 1979), maintains that Radwan al-Hilu objected to such actions for political reasons. Al-Hilu, he says, told him this in an interview in 1973, in Jericho, and also explained that the Jewish members urged carrying out the actions and then went ahead and did so at their initiative and contrast to his opinion.
The difference in outlook between al-Hilu and Tzabari was also evident in their personal life. In 1936, Mohammed Ouda, a teacher, joined the PKP. Al-Hilu co-opted Ouda to the leadership, which proved a costly move, because Tzabari left him for the impressive and educated Ouda. Ouda left the PKP in 1939 and went to Baghdad, where he joined the supporters of the exiled Mufti of Jerusalem. Years later, in an interview to Budeiri, he said that the PKP leadership never asked the Jewish members to perpetrate armed attacks against the Zionist Yishuv, although he, in contrary to al-Hilu, supported such operations.
“I have read about 90 percent of the Comintern documents and I found no mention of these terrorist operations, apart from criticism of the attack at the Orient Fair. The word `bomb’ is not mentioned, either,” says Leon Zahavi, a veteran Communist and journalist, whose book about Jews and Arabs in Palestine, based on Comintern documents from 1919 to 1943, will soon be published (in Hebrew) by Keter. According to Zahavi, “It is clear that it was al-Hilu and Tzabari, the leadership, who decided on the operation and bear responsibility for it, and it is also obvious that they acted with mutuality and with support from the Comintern. But everyone washed their hands of it, and there is no document saying `I gave the order and I accept the responsibility.’ I don’t know who did it. No one knows, and certainly not from a firsthand source.”
Simha Tzabari was arrested again in October 1938 and incarcerated in the women’s prison in Bethlehem until she escaped in March 1941. Tzabari and a friend, Pnina Feinhaus, sawed through the bars and then through the barbed wire fence and disappeared into the stormy night. Once outside, they were assisted by an Arab activist who was sent by al-Hilu. Documents of the Shai (the Hagana intelligence service) state that the police mounted an intensive search for “Musa’s wife,” as Tzabari was described. She hid out in Jaffa, dyeing her hair black and wearing Arab clothes.
The ideological cement that held Jews and Arabs together in the PKP was gradually weakened as the Jewish population of Palestine grew and with it the awareness that a public was emerging whose national rights would have to be recognized. In the summer of 1939 the party held a debate on this subject at the initiative of a group of comrades headed by Shmuel Ettinger (the following summer the group left the PKP and established their own organization, called Pravda – “truth” in Russian).
In 1939 the members of the PKP also had to cope with another blow, which was inflicted on them from Moscow. The Soviet Union, suspecting that the Western powers were inciting Hitler to attack it, signed a nonaggression pact with Nazi Germany. The PKP activists were instructed to defend the Soviet move and to dissociate themselves from the war of the British against the Nazis, which as labeled an “imperialist war.”
In July 1941, a few weeks after German forces violated the nonaggression pact and invaded the Soviet Union, seven Communist activists in Palestine were arrested, among them al-Hilu and Tzabari. Communist leaflets and literature in Hebrew and Arabic were seized in the Nahmani Street apartment. One of the detainees died after being beaten by Jewish policemen. Four of the detainees were released in November 1941, but Tzabari and al-Hilu were held in prison until the following February, when they were brought before a Magistrate’s Court judge, Dr. Zalman Cheshin. Representing themselves, the two told the judge that since the documents that were found in their apartment had been printed the political circumstances had changed: the Soviet Union had joined the war against the Nazis, the PKP had changed its attitude toward the war, and it was inconceivable to send anti-fascists to prison.
Cheshin asked Tzabari where she had learned her fluent Hebrew. “I am a Yemenite who was born in this country and educated in the Hebrew language and culture,” she replied. Cheshin smiled and said, “I would be far more pleased to see you as a member of a Yishuv association.” The judge ruled that the two were a menace to the public as long as they continued to hold the opinions for which they had been brought to trial, but those opinions, he said, were not reason for incarceration. He released them on bail of 100 Palestine pounds.
In June 1942 the members of the Pravda group returned to the PKP, the British having permitted the party to operate legally as a goodwill gesture to their new ally, the Soviet Union.
Division, disintegration, disillusionment
Rahel Givon, who was a close friend of Tzabari’s, relates that when the two first met, she loathed what Tzabari stood for. The meeting took place at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds in 1943, where factories in the service of the British operated, which paid low wages to the young people who worked in them (there were some 50,000 employees, about a third of them Jewish). “Simha showed up in the dining hall, because she was a worker there,” Givon recalls. “She was then my enemy. They, in the leadership, claimed that this was Palestine, but I and a few others in the party said it was the Land of Israel, and that was of course forbidden.”
Rahel (Welner) Givon, who was born in 1923, arrived in Palestine in 1935 from Berlin. It was important for her to be an anti-Nazi, and she joined the PKP.
In 1943 the Jewish workers in the British factories organized a general strike to demand that they be paid a cost-of-living increment. Givon recalls that this was the cause of another split in the party. Simha and Kalman Gelbard, who was then her boyfriend, said that “we must not go on strike with the Histadrut [the Jewish labor federation] but with the Arab workers. But the Histadrut was stronger, and as a workers committee member I urged that we join their strike.”
Givon draws a distinction between the PKP members who were anti-Zionist and those who were a-Zionist, like her. The PKP rejected Zionism, “and Tzabari had the same view, because that was the official party line.” In 1943 the surging national tensions tore the PKP apart, and the party split into three main groups. The Arab members established the League for National Liberation and fought for the expulsion of the British and the establishment of a Palestinian state in which the Jews would have equal rights. A similar approach was espoused by the Jewish PKP loyalists.
The Pravda group veterans created an organization that worked for Jewish independence, and after the Soviet Union’s decision to support the partition plan for Palestine they declared the establishment of a new party and called themselves “Hebrew [Jewish] Communists.” Simha Tzabari, adhering to the position taken by the Soviet Union, and perhaps also under the influence of Kalman Gelbard, joined the latter group.
Gelbard had been a Communist back in Poland, where the Communist Party had been compelled to operate in the underground, and in the 1920s he was imprisoned for eight years because of his activity. Arriving in Palestine in 1933, he joined the PKP and a few years later was co-opted to the Central Committee. Avraham Inbi, 80, a PKP veteran who was a humanities teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, recalls Gelbard as an impressive figure. “He was a good speaker, charismatic and self-confident,” Inbi says. “He didn’t put on airs and he was handsome.” At the time he and Simha began their relationship, in the 1940s, he was divorced and the father of a daughter.
In 1946 Gelbard and Ettinger spent eight months touring Eastern Europe to muster support for their position. When they returned they did not relay to their comrades their true impression of what they saw. At the beginning of 1948 Gelbard went again, this time to mobilize support for the Yishuv in its war and to persuade the Communists in Eastern Europe to recognize the “Hebrew Communists” as the Communist Party of the Jewish public. In addition to the official reasons, Gelbard had another motive for making the trip. “He suddenly fell ill with tuberculosis,” Inbi relates, “and in this country he didn’t get the best treatment, because the Communists were undesirables at the time, and he decided to go back to Poland, where he arranged to be treated in a sanatorium.”
The Hagana Archives contain a letter that Tzabari sent to Gelbard in March 1948, most of which consists of a report about the political situation in Palestine and about the activity in the party branches. “I am feeling well,” she wrote. “Your room has taken on new form. I have whitewashed it. I think you won’t recognize the room. Rivka [her sister] slept over and her golden hands made the room very pleasant – I am waiting for your return.”
After Israel’s establishment the Jewish Communists united and in the elections for the First Knesset ran as Maki (Israel Communist Party). The merger did not last long. The Arab Communists who remained in Israeli territory dismantled the League for National Liberation and joined Maki, while the Jewish Communists left again, under the leadership of MK Eliezer Preminger, and most of them joined Mapam.
Rahel Givon recalls a meeting that was held in her house: “About 45 people showed up. Shmuel Ettinger told us what he and Gelbard saw on their journey to so-called socialist countries. His report finished things off. Not one person spoke that evening. We lost our illusions about the creation of a `new person’ and that something better was going on over there. Ettinger did not talk about the theory; he talked about the implementation. He also reported on the anti-Semitism there. We knew that people had disappeared and about the Moscow Trials, but the accused had confessed to their crimes, so we thought it was all right. That evening we heard about German Jewish Communists who were handed over to the Gestapo by the Russians after the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. Simha Tzabari also became disillusioned that evening.”
For Tzabari, the loss of her illusions had tragic overtones as well. “Someone here sent a letter that described Gelbard as a traitor, and the attitude toward him in Poland changed immediately – they neglected him,” says Inbi, who suspects – and he is not the only one – that the letter was written by two Maki leaders, Shmuel Mikunis and Esther Vilenska. They perceived Gelbard, who was connected to the “Hebrew Communists,” as a traitor.
His health deteriorating, Gelbard sent messages of distress from Poland; at first his friends were able to send him money and hoped to have him moved to Switzerland. Israel Barzilai, from Mapam, the first Israeli diplomatic envoy to Poland, did all he could to save him, but was unsuccessful. Gelbard died on November 18, 1950, apparently by his own hand.
“You have to understand that Simha was a woman who sacrificed her life for the revolution and paid the full price,” Givon says. Even though they were still at odds politically, Givon and Tzabari became friends. Beginning in 1954 they even shared a small home at the corner of King George and Hanevi’im Streets in Tel Aviv, in which Givon and her husband organized a room for Tzabari, who was not very adept at looking after the practical aspects of life. “She had dinner with us on Friday evenings, but aside from that she did not have regular meals during the week. I remember that her sister Rivka would come by to give Simha money and had to hide it under the blanket, because Simha refused to accept money.”
According to rumors in Maki, Tzabari had an affair with the Arab poet and political activist Emil Habibi, though it’s not known when. “Simha never talked to me about her private life or about her love affairs,” Givon says. “It wasn’t appropriate.” Tzabari lived with the Givons for five years.
A vast residue in the heart
In 1955 Tzabari obtained her high-school matriculation certificate and enrolled at the Hebrew University. She took her bachelor’s degree in modern Middle Eastern history and in Arabic language and literature, and she completed her master’s in 1964. Prof. Yehoshua Porath, an expert on the early history of the Palestinian national movement, remembers her from her student days.
“She was industrious and thirsty for knowledge,” he recalls. “She worked for a time at the cooperative restaurant and so provided for herself. She was no longer young and she didn’t look so well. You could see life’s difficulties on her; her hands were swollen from her work in the restaurant, where she scrubbed large pots and washed the floor. She was intelligent and very closed and sparing with words, but I saw that she was an unextinguished volcano on which a strong cover was preventing the lava from bursting out. I felt that she was keeping everything she felt locked up. Even when I asked political questions, she replied with the understatement of an English lord.”
Until 1965 Tzabari was the assistant to the head of the Department of Islamic Culture. For her doctoral dissertation she chose a subject that was so esoteric – popular movements in Baghdad during the Abassid period (seventh to tenth centuries) – that no one in Israel was able to act as her adviser. Finally she went to the Sorbonne, after getting a scholarship from the French government. Rahel Givon relates that to prepare for the trip Tzabari started taking French lessons at the French Embassy, but that the course was too slow for her. She borrowed language-learning records from the embassy and came to the Givons’ home to listen to them, as she didn’t have a record player. “She did four or five lessons an hour by herself, and my husband, Gideon, would test her. He was surprised anew every time by what a quick study she was.”
According to Avraham Inbi, on the eve of Tzabari’s departure for Paris, it became clear how unconnected she was to the material side of life. “The group organized immediately to discuss what we should do about Simha, who was no longer young and was neglected and had a serious dental problem. One of her girlfriends told her that she knew a wonderful dentist who was also inexpensive. We made an agreement with him that he cite a ridiculously low price and that we would make up the difference, and that was how Simha agreed to be treated by him.” From Israel, Rahel Givon arranged for Simha to teach Hebrew to the children of friends of hers, and since it was obvious that she would not agree to accept payment, Givon asked them to make sure, at least, that she had a hot, nourishing meal with them.
Ora Slonim, the daughter of Meir Slonim, who was one of the leaders of the PKP, this week told about “the gorgeous, tasteful dress which I wore for years” after Tzabari brought it from Paris during a visit to Israel. “It became a habit that went on my whole life, from childhood until Simha became ill. She had a closet with presents, and whenever I visited I would get something and she would force me to take a present to my mother and father, too. Even though she was not a materialistic person, and considered everything that was not utilitarian as bourgeois, she had a need to give, to give unconditionally.”
In 1972, when she finally received her doctorate, Tzabari had already been teaching for three years in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History. Her courses dealt with subjects such as protest movements and labor relations in Islam. Dr. Eli Rekhess, the expert on Israel’s Arabs, who was one of her students, recalls, “The texts she was especially fond of had to do with the history of the Arab labor movement in Palestine. Thanks to her personal history, she injected new blood into the study of the period from an angle that was neglected until her arrival. On the academic side, although she did not leave a legacy and did not write studies like the great researchers, she was a kind of loose cannon and was able to connect between her personal past and the period in which she left a mark and teaching the new generation of orientalists, who, like me, began to enter the profession in the 1970s.”
Rekhess, who has made a study of Rakah (New Communist List, a party established in 1965 in the wake of a split in Maki) his book “The Arab Minority Between Nationalism and Communism” was published in 1993 remembers Tzabari fondly “for instilling in me the spirit for my research, as a student whose biography had nothing to do with his subject of study.” Already then, he relates, she looked haggard and wore an unfashionable dress along with sandals and white socks. “What she looked like wasn’t important, because she had a tremendous inner strength that she projected.”
After her retirement, Tzabari worked for a few years in the Labor Movement Archives and translated texts from Arabic. Rahel Givon visited her until the end, in her one-room apartment on Mossensohn Street in Tel Aviv, where she wrote the history of the PKP in 12 small notebooks, in longhand. The notebooks disappeared after her death, when her belongings were removed from the apartment.
“A vast residue remains deep within my heart,” says Miriam Geva, Tzabari’s friend (and the mother of the cartoonist Dudu Geva), who was a member of the Jerusalem branch of the PKP. “Simha went to study, yes, but the absence of the ideal, of a better world, of sacrifice and of the contribution she had to make remained a source of disappointment. I think she suffered. There was no demonstration by the left that she did not attend.”
Geva, who was expelled from the PKP in 1941, because, she says, she did not suit the Arab-national line that was then gaining ground in the party, says that Tzabari “was determined and believed with all her heart in the idea, whether she was on this side of the map or the other, in the PKP or in Mapam. Belief always blazed in her. All her life she looked for a cause through which she could contribute to the deprived. If one framework fell apart, she found another, and she sacrificed her life for that ideal. One time she told me that if some political movement would not want to accept her, she would be ready even to wash the floors for them.”