My father, Jock Isacowitz, died 50 years ago today. He was in his mid-forties when he died and I was not yet 10. In a very real way, my life has been influenced by the absence of a father, rather than the presence. The same goes for my sister and brother; we all grew up with a void, where there should have been a father. The icon that he became after his death was no substitute; perhaps it was even a burden.
In an obituary to my father, one of his political colleagues (I forgot who) wrote that, had my father’s politics been different, he could have been prime minister of South Africa. That was stretching things a little far, I think, but it did testify to his personal qualities and the strong impression he made on many people. By all accounts, he was a remarkable man.
The politics that his colleague wrote about would be mainstream today: a belief in socially-oriented liberal democracy that values individual rights and human dignity. But in the South Africa of the Forties and Fifties, they were dangerously subversive. His dedication to those principles (with a courage that I have always envied, due to its absence in myself) led to a string of impositions on his freedom by the apartheid regime, including imprisonment in 1960. That stint in prison was the effective end of his life; he died of leukemia within 18 months of being released.
Ironically, the legal basis (or what passed for legal in apartheid South Africa) for the actions against him by the state was his being a “named” communist. He had been a communist for a few years in the Forties, when the Soviet victories over Hitler had resulted in a strong pro-Russian feeling among the South African soldiers, but one of the things that most distinguished his activities in the latter, politically-active part of his life was a deep antipathy to communism. Jock was far too much of a liberal – in the sense of believing in individual liberties – to submit to the ironfisted totalitarianism of Stalinist and post-Stalin communism.
The three cornerstones of his personal ideology were a belief in the right of every person to freedom and political participation, the rejection of communism and a deep commitment to Zionism, which he saw through his own democratic-socialist prism. (In the Israeli constellation, he was close to Mapam.). He represented South African Jewry in international relief efforts for Holocaust survivors after WWII and contributed to the Israeli war effort in 1948, though I have never been able to discover in what capacity.
I was unaware of all those activities at the time, of course, and have remained uninformed about many of them until today. My fragmented memories are of visiting him in prison in Pretoria and of him bedridden during his final illness. One of the sharpest memories I have is of my brother and I squirting each other with water, using the long tubing and lethal-looking needles of his blood transfusion equipment. Otherwise, I remember very little of my father.
Icons may serve a purpose for believers, but they can be a burden – a rebuke, even – for those of us of little faith. My father has always been the dominant influence in my life, though not always a presence with which I have lived easily. One can discuss, argue, fight, even, with a live parent. As we grow up, our one-dimensional, child’s view of the parent takes human form; the parent’s failings and weaknesses come into focus. A live parent is human, both for good and for bad And when the parent eventually passes away, the love that one feels is tempered by reality. It’s an unblinkered, realistic love.
My siblings and I were denied that process with our father. Loving the memory of someone you never really knew – particularly when it has been drummed into you over the years (often by yourself) that he was the embodiment of everything that is fair and good – is more like religion. You have to take it on faith. I’ve done that; I’ve idolized and idealized him. But it turns out that religion is of scant comfort to the irreligious. I still long for something that will never happen: to get to know my father. To see him, feel him and know him in all his strengths and all his weaknesses (which my mother sometimes hinted at but never spoke about.) Fifty years on and I’m still a child who wonders why his father left him.
A few months ago, my uncle Shollie in Australia, the last surviving sibling of my father’s family, took umbrage at something I had written about Israel (critical, as is my wont.) The sense of what he wrote me in an email was that my father would never have thought or written as I did. Shol is the patriarch of the family and I have enormous love and respect for him. He definitely knew my dad a lot better than I did and in ways that I, unfortunately, will never experience him. But I don’t think that any of us could possibly know how Jock would think today.
To the best of my knowledge, my father was the antithesis of a rigid thinker. He resigned from the Communist Party in February 1946, saying that its totalitarian character “offended my conscience.” When the Springbok Legion, an ex-servicemen’s organization of which he was one of the founders and which he served as national chairman, veered towards the communist fold, he left that, too. He was not scared to adapt his commitments and allegiances to changing circumstances.
Fifty years is a long time and the world that my father knew was an entirely different place to what it is today. A simpler, more fathomable place, I think, though perhaps that’s just an illusion. It’s common to see the past as being somehow more harmonious and guileless than the present. What is undeniable, though, is that the certainties of the Fifties have been muddied in both South Africa and Israel; the idealism of those days seems innocent and almost childish to contemporary eyes.
Would my father have approved of South Africa in 2012? It certainly has universal suffrage and a black government, which no doubt would have pleased him greatly. But it also has corruption, racism, gross incompetence, Stalinist rhetoric, the glorification of primitivism and a nouveau black elite that seems to be as pigheaded as its white predecessor. That surely would not have been to his liking?
Similarly with Israel. My father died several years before the Six Day War, an event which, with hindsight, represented a U-turn for the young state; one which diverted it from state-building to colonial aggrandizement. You can be for or against the occupation, but it’s difficult to argue that the current, theocracy-inspired obsession with occupying biblical lands was ever part of mainstream Zionism – certainly not the socialist-Zionism to which Jock adhered. Would he have made the switch from a-home-for-the-Jews to Jewish hegemony over other people’s homes? Neither my uncle not I can answer with any certainty, because the reality post-dates his death. But, in my gut, I believe that he would not have tolerated it.
Certainly, it’s not something that I find tolerable. I was grew up believing that Jews fought for justice. The white opposition in South Africa was populated by people named Bernstein, Goldreich, Sachs, Slovo and, yes, Isacowitz. They may not have been believing Jews and many of them were definitely not Zionists, but they had a Jewish abhorrence for injustice and they fought the good fight. For me, the Israel of today (though by no means all of its people) is an aberration; a mutation of the genetic code.
Is that wide of my father’s mark? I’ll never know. I feel him with me constantly, like a parrot perched on my shoulder, but he’s not a talking parrot. For twenty, thirty, forty and now fifty years, I have had to try to read his mind and then do what seemed to be right. The thing about icons is that they’re always right; it’s the rest of us who are mortal. So, dad, the little good that I might have done, has been thanks to you. The mistakes – and there have been many – are entirely my own.