It was a winter’s night in Canberra, 1974. My American mother had come from sunny LA to help look after my kids, but she found Australia’s capital less than hospitable. It was too cold and I was too busy. The Whitlam government had just been re-elected after Gough had called a double dissolution. It took two weeks to learn whether they were still in office or not.
I was the bureaucratic back-up to Elizabeth Reid, Whitlam’s women’s adviser, and we had a lot of work to do. We were working to get a child care program up, finding funding for refuges and plans were afoot for the International Women’s Year program the following year. We had done our best to make my mother feel welcome, but she was bored in the company of women. We were going to change the world, but my mother had been around and had her doubts. Would Australia become a feminist paradise? She didn’t think so. I did arrange for her to have dinner with Moss Cass, Whitlam’s environment minister, and she was happy with that, but she remained highly sceptical. She was an actor, and had been blacklisted in the McCarthy years. She was exasperated with our seeming naivete.
The kids had gone to bed, and we were trying to get warm in front of the house’s one oil heater. (This was Canberra in the 70s.) Suddenly my mother blurted out, ‘You women think you’re such hot shots. You had an aunt who was a member of the Soviet Politburo!’
What? I had never heard of this woman, but it turned out that she was one my grandfather’s sisters. I had known the other two, but not this Lisa. That was her name – Lisa Fich. It also turned out that my mother had all her facts wrong. Yet when I eventually did learn the story, I found it far more compelling than anything my mother had said. Of course, her aunt had never been on the Politburo – no woman had. And though my mother had said she was some kind of high-ranking apparatchik, that wasn’t true either. What Lisa Fich was was a dedicated Zionist who went to Palestine after the first world war, changed her name from Lisa to Leah, and joined the G’dud Ha’Avodah, or Labour Battalion. Even before the Battalion split into factions, she and some of her colleagues had joined the Communist party and in 1929 were sent back to Russia, where they set up a kolkhoz, Voya Nova, in the Crimea.
My dream was to write a biography of her, and I began by learning Russian, and saturating myself in Russian and Zionist history. In my search for her story, I interviewed many people, including one who knew her when she was still alive. But I was stymied on a couple of occasions – once, when I got to Israel and found that the Central Zionist Archives were closed for renovations; another time, in Moscow, when I was given a wrong lead and lost an opportunity to look for her in the recently opened Soviet archives. And because of changes in my personal life, I wasn’t able to travel anymore, so I finally decided to abandon my idea of a biography and write another novel. This is As the Lonely Fly – my sixth. The shorthand is that it took 25 years of research and writing, but there were many interruptions, including two other novels in the meantime.
Only last year, as this latest novel went to the printers, an Israeli friend found a mention of my great aunt. She was listed as the G’dud’s delegate to the Histadrut conference sometime in the 1920s. This would have been before the G’dud was ostracised by the Labor Zionists – Ben Gurion’s crowd. I would like to follow this up, but it was clear almost from the beginning of my research that she and her comrades were dissidents who came to renounce the idea of a Jewish state. Their reasons were partly ideological – they subscribed to Trotsky’s permanent revolution, to which they gave priority over nationalism – but the catalyst for their breaking with Political Zionism was what they saw what was happening to Arab labour. With the advance of Jewish settlement, idealistic as it was, many Arabs lost their jobs, and they were as well excluded from the Histadrut. For the first time in my life, I began to see, through this story, that the path that Herzl laid out for us was a very dangerous one indeed. It was sobering to realise that there were many, including my grandfather’s sister, who saw that right from the beginning.
Now, some say, we have the fact on the ground - Israel is a nation, a Jewish state, and it’s far too late to question the wisdom of its creation. But my answer to this is that knowing that there were paths not taken can help us find a way out of the very grave situation the Jewish-privileged state is in. I have come to believe that we in the Diaspora have a very important role to play in this; we need to probe our consciences and recognise our responsibilities. There is, in my opinion, no escaping this.
As the Lonely Fly is a novel, not a polemic. The characters throw light on the complexity of the situation and, through them, various perspectives are explored, each of them with sympathy and understanding. The story is the story, and it’s a big one – bigger than you or me – but the Jewish tradition that I was raised in was, above all, a tradition of justice, and I’m very proud of that. But I have had to ask myself, where does justice lie now?
Sara Dowse's As the Lonely Fly is available for sale from our website today.