Norman Rothfield: A Lifetime of Political Activism and its Fruition

By David Rothfield
Norman and Evelyn Rothfield at an AJDS function, 2003
Norman and Evelyn Rothfield at an AJDS function, 2003
  Searching for meaning Towards his adolescence, Pop – my father Norman, began to feel the need for something more meaningful than what he’d called ‘token Judaism’. He had grown up in an observant Jewish family in England. When it was time for him to prepare for his bar-mitzvah, his father was not content for his son to merely recite one parasha from the weekly Torah portion, as is the usual custom. His son was to conduct the whole service from beginning to end. To achieve that, Pop was sent to private Hebrew lessons under the guidance of a devout Orthodox Jewish teacher. Pop saw how this man loved his work, and was deeply impressed by his scholarship and sincerity. By age 13 Pop had embraced Jewish religious practice in its entirety and had become a firm believer. Yet during his high school years, he found his religious beliefs were often being challenged. When his mother began managing a kosher student guest-house he frequently became involved in lively political debates with the students. He started reading feverishly and was particularly impressed by the writings of George Bernard Shaw about Capitalism and Socialism. Given the deep regard for social justice absorbed from his mother, the writings of Shaw and other progressive thinkers about a new social order made sense. At the age of 19 Pop began university studies whilst also studying at the Yeshiva. The two central foci of his intellectual and spiritual life were on a collision course. Wishing to reconcile his religious orthodoxy with Socialism and Darwinism, he read The Jewish Religion (1891) by Michael Friedlander, the Yeshiva founder. When he came across the sentence, “In the final analysis, it is a matter of faith”, it was like having a cold shower. How could he accept a dogma as the cornerstone of his way of life if it was not founded on reason? It took him a few months more to readjust his thinking but eventually he discarded all religious belief. During his university years he was briefly attracted to Zionism. He thought there was a need for a Jewish homeland in Palestine and he saw the Zionists as the underdogs who deserved to be supported against British Imperialism.   Finding safe ground The 1930s were tumultuous years in Pop’s life.  The Great Depression forced him to quit university and to look for income. He witnessed the rise of Fascism, both in England and in Europe. He had become increasingly involved in the Labour Party and at the age of twenty-two he was elected councillor for the London Borough of Marylebone. He met Mum – Evelyn – and very quickly they wed and started a family. Then, with war on the horizon, they migrated to Australia to start a new life. Through all of this turbulence, Pop remained very politically involved. Years later Mum would write, “When I first met Norman, I hadn’t realised that he would always be a man with a burning mission”. Very soon after arrival in Australia in 1939, both Mum and Pop became involved in a number of fronts. They both became active members of The Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism and also joined the ALP. They became members of the Melbourne Left Book Club, their window to other spheres of leftist intellectual activity. Politics in the post war era were coloured by the Cold War, fear of communism on the one hand and fear of a revival of Fascism and anti-Semitism on the other. The Jewish State came into being. The world lived under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust fuelled by the nuclear arms race. All of these issues featured in my parent’s political activity both in several executive roles they filled and as public speakers. But over time, the focus of their activity shifted from the Jewish Council to the peace movement. First it was the campaign for nuclear disarmament and against nuclear testing. Then in 1965 when the first Australian troops were sent to Vietnam with the slogan, ‘All the Way with LBJ’, the campaign against the war, and against conscription, became their new focus. Pop was one of the organisers of the mass rally and march held in Melbourne in 1970 under the Moratorium banner. This rally attracted a record crowd of 100,000 marchers. It changed the public perception of opposition to the war and after a second such march, a year later, the new ALP leader, Gough Whitlam, called for the withdrawal of Australian troops from Vietnam. Following the Six Day War of 1967 and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 Pop found himself at odds with many of his erstwhile colleagues in the peace movement who towed the Soviet line. And in Israel, after the 1973 Yom Kippur war there was growing mistrust of the Labour party and its institutions amongst voters there. At the same time there was a resurgence of the peace movement on the back of a growing realization that the status quo of The Occupation was unsustainable.   Paths to Peace Pop found himself closely involved in these developments, perhaps partly because one of his sons (myself) was now raising a family in Israel. So, after a short-lived attempt to establish a ‘Jewish radical’ presence on Melbourne’s political scene, my parents decided to commence publishing a journal to be called Paths to Peace. In its first issue in June 1974, Mum and Pop wrote that “only when Israel and the Palestinian Arabs recognize each other can there be a true and lasting peace”. The publication aimed to promote an exchange of information between Jews and Arabs. Some articles would be sourced elsewhere, others would be written for Paths to Peace. Indeed, the first few issues brought insightful commentary from such authors as Nahum Goldmann – ex-president of the World Jewish Congress, Jehan Sadat – wife of the Egyptian President, Egyptian and Israeli peace activists and other prominent political observers. Paths to Peace became widely available to policy makers, academics and commentators in Australia and its mission was highlighted in a feature article in The Melbourne Herald in 1976. During the magazine’s twelve years of life, Pop was frequently invited to speak to community groups and also on the radio about ‘paths to peace’ in the Middle East. The magazine received many accolades and also a UN media prize in 1979. Over that period, my parents made several visits to Israel and the Occupied Territories. On one occasion, under the auspices of The Australian Institute of International Affairs, they also visited Egypt, Jordan and Syria and met government ministers and PLO officials. In the 1970s Paths to Peace recorded significant changes to the attitudes towards Israel within the Palestinian Liberation Organization leadership. At first there were reports on back room talks with Israeli peace activists. Then the Palestinian press in the West Bank began printing articles by Israeli peace activists. Then, in 1977, the PLO announced it was ready for a state in the West Bank and Gaza that would live in peace alongside Israel. The onus then was clearly on Israel to respond. Something memorable happened that year whilst attending an international symposium on peace in the Middle East held in Tel-Aviv. Many notable scholars and statesmen were present. It was announced that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who had earlier sent greetings to the gathering, was about to arrive in Jerusalem and would address the Knesset. In Israel there was a surge of euphoria surrounding the visit. In that address, Sadat told the packed house that Israel had to return all land occupied in 1967 in exchange for peace and that the expansion of settlements would not provide Israel with the security it sought. The Palestinians must be permitted to create their own state, he said, and Israel must be accepted by its Arab neighbours. He made a passionate plea for peace, to avoid causing more pain to both Jewish and Arab mothers. Despite the subsequent peace agreement reached with Egypt Israel continued its settlement activity in the Palestinian territories and invaded Lebanon. Paths to Peace recorded the growing polarization of Israeli society during this period under Menachem Begin and later under Yitzhak Shamir. It recorded the growth of Jewish settler vigilante and terrorist activity that was tolerated by the Shamir government.   A progressive Jewish voice In 1984, Pop saw the fruition of one of his dreams, the establishment of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society. For many years he had been seeking the creation of such a progressive organisation with a broad agenda. The organization attracted considerable interest on many fronts. It elected Dr. Moss Cass, a minister in the Whitlam government, as its first president. It gained access to Radio 3CR for a regular broadcast that was called ‘Jewish Forum’. The AJDS also began publishing a quarterly magazine, The Australian Jewish Democrat. Pop remained on the Executive for fifteen years or so and saw regular successful and well-attended functions held on nuclear disarmament, racism and aboriginal rights. He was keen to keep AJDS active in many areas. But almost inevitably, much activity centred on the Israel-Palestine conflict. We cringe at the Jewish establishment’s myopic approach that demands Jewish allegiance to the Israeli Government’s expansionist policies that deny natural justice to the Palestinians. It is left to the AJDS to voice an alternative position on behalf of a growing number of Jews who are uncomfortable with the establishment speaking on their behalf. The values that underpinned all of Pop’s political activism were humanism, social justice and peace. He was proud of his Jewish heritage but he did not allow pride to become hubris. It was that pride that fuelled his optimism and belief in a better world.   All quotes are taken from Norman Rothfield’s memoir, Many Paths to Peace (1997).
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