In the glory days of the late Forties and early Fifties, when immigrants from English-speaking countries were eschewing cars, chocolates, and holidays in luxury hotels for the privilege of calling Israel home, a poster tacked up on Jewish Agency walls trumpeted: “We never promised you a rose garden.”
Zelda Harris, now 91 and happily ensconced in a comfortable apartment in a trendy suburb of Tel Aviv, can relate. She was not yet 20 when she came on aliyah for the first time, and it was no bed of roses. “Even at 91 I am still involved in causes and politics, but time waits for no man or woman,” she says, adding that she aims to publish a book on her life by the end of this year.
Harris is no stranger to challenges. Born in London, she was an only child whose father died when she was young. During the Blitz she was evacuated from home to home, never getting a proper education “except for four wonderful years” at North London Collegiate when World War II ended. The aftermath of the carnage brought horror stories from Jewish survivors who made it to England. Filled with a burning desire to do something, Harris sought out the Hashomer Hatza’ir Youth Movement.
“I got out of the tube at Euston station,” she recalls, nearly 80 years later, “and hooligans were shouting ‘Jews go back to Palestine.’ Then I walked into the hall where Jewish youngsters were dancing the hora and dreaming of moving to Eretz Yisrael. It was a no-brainer for me: I was going to join them.”
Fortuitously, her boyfriend, a handsome British soldier from a very secular Jewish family, also not yet 20 years old, knocked on her door shortly after and announced that he was going to live in the nascent Jewish state. Harris did not hesitate, and very soon the couple boarded a flight to Brussels, got themselves to Marseilles, and from there to Palestine.
Moving to Israel in 1949
Forget flowers – in Haifa, where the youngsters made their home in 1949, there was barely any food. “We bought a boat,” explains Harris, “and ate the fish we caught.” No care packages arrived from a London under strict rationing; newfound South African and American friends shared candies and peanut butter with the Brits. Eventually, a few buddies came up with a plan: they’d buy a bigger boat together and fish commercially. “Leon and I had no money to invest,” says Zelda, “so we returned to England to get married, and returned with the wedding checks.”
But a few pounds did not go far in the fledgling state. With no education, no qualifications and not too much Hebrew, the newlyweds found it hard to get ahead. When Zelda needed an operation for a hole in her stomach, and the doctors warned that they had run out of disposable gut (thread) and plastic gloves, the pair, feeling like they had failed, went back home.
In London, Leon found a job in fashion while Zelda worked as a showroom model. They had two children, saved some money, and came back to their other home – Israel – where their third son was born. Leon continued in the garment business, his wife worked in a nursery at the Caesarea Golf Course, and all was well until illness struck again. This time the husband was hit with a debilitating bladder condition, and the family relocated again to London, returning to Israel for the final time just after the Yom Kippur War.
And through all the thorny patches, including the death of a son and the chronic illness and then the death of her husband, and throughout the good times too, Zelda Harris worked to make a difference. In London she was active in the 35s – a group of 35 women aged around 35 – who tirelessly campaigned for the right of Soviet Jewry to leave the USSR. The activists, all comfortable suburban wives and young mothers, first rallied for Raiza Palatnik, a 35-year-old Jewish woman imprisoned in an isolated cell in Odessa. She was accused of “keeping and distributing materials slanderous to the state,” and daring to request to immigrate to Israel. She had not been allowed any contact with her parents or lawyer.
The 35s, Harris among them, slept in the street outside the London Soviet Consulate, creeping in to use the bathrooms of a swanky hotel. The media loved it, and astonishingly, Palatnik was soon moved into an ordinary cell, and finally released to Israel in 1972.
Buoyed by this success, the group took up the cause of Soviet Jewish prisoners of conscience and “refuseniks” including Ida Nudel, Natan Sharansky, and Yuli Edelstein. Within a few years, the 35s had thousands of members in nine different countries spanning both sides of the Atlantic.
The women were also resourceful. In solidarity with activists in Russia who had lost good jobs and were forced to become street cleaners, the women swept the grounds outside the Soviet Embassy; paraded a goat down the streets of London to protest the scapegoating of Jews; chained themselves to railings; walked out of Bolshoi Ballets en mass; and gave passersby tastes of Soviet prison meals – boiled cabbage, hot water, herring, half a potato, and black bread.
British police kept close tabs on the group. Once, when Harris was zipped into a lion’s suit to protest the British Lions rugby team playing the Soviet Union, a detective sidled up to her. “I know you’re in there, Zelda,” he proclaimed. “I know your height, I know the size of your feet, I know the sound of your voice.’
Back in Israel, Harris continued to work tirelessly for many causes. Together with Chaim Herzog, Israel’s Irish-born sixth president, she set up the Committee for Concerned Citizens to try to change Israel’s electoral system to one of regional proportional representation, where the MK for whom you vote represents you, as happens in Britain. Worried sick that many talented young Israelis were leaving the country, Herzog felt it was partly due to Knesset members not being accountable to their electorate. The initiative was ended by the first Lebanon War. Had it succeeded, Israel might have looked very different today.
Harris is responsible for one very visible difference – on Israel’s roads. She was a co-founder of Metuna, the Road Safety Organization that received the speaker of the Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives, and was instrumental in getting roundabouts constructed on dangerous corners. She also served as the director of BIPAC (British Israel Public Affairs Committee), and is still a member of Women Wage Peace.
Harris still believes it’s a great privilege to call Israel home, although she is worried sick that the next election will see Benjamin Netanyahu reelected and set to “destroy our democracy,” as she puts it.
Until 120, Zelda! ■