Sidney Zion, who died earlier this month at age 75, didn’t start out to be a writer, and he might never have become one if not for the 1962-63 newspaper strike – the longest in the city’s history and one that affected all the local dailies.
In December 1962, Zion was a 29-year-old New Jersey lawyer. That month, he contributed a piece to a parody edition of the New York Post. The faux newspaper, called the New York Pest, sold well at otherwise empty newsstands.
The article mimicked the style of legendary columnist Murray Kempton, and Post publisher Dorothy Schiff, far from being offended, offered Zion a job at the real paper.
Zion would spend the rest of his life as a journalist – first as a reporter with the Post and then The New York Times, and later as a prolific freelance contributor to a wide array of publications and a columnist for the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Too much the iconoclast to pigeonhole politically, Zion nevertheless was a man whose instincts inclined leftward on most issues. But – and here is the great anomaly – on the Middle East he was virtually alone among secular journalists in proclaiming a historical narrative that was long the purview of Revisionist Zionists and anathema to mainstream Jewish liberals – namely, that it was the Irgun that blew the British out of Palestine while Ben-Gurion’s Jewish Agency worked with the occupiers.
“Leave it to my Jews,” Zion wrote upon the election of Menachem Begin in 1977. “They make a revolution and twenty-nine years later the leader of the revolution comes to power. First the collaborators, then the revolutionaries. The Hebrews don’t just learn it backwards, they do it backwards….”
And then there was the matter of Jordan and Palestine. Concerning Golda Meir’s famous statement that “there are no Palestinians, only Jordanians,” Zion begged to differ: “Of course, she was wrong. In fact, there are no Jordanians, only Palestinians.”
In 1978 Zion wrote an article for New York magazine titled “The Palestine Problem: It’s All in A Name,” which he would update in 2003 as a front-page essay for The Jewish Press. Zion essentially supported the right-wing Zionist argument against the historicity of the Kingdom of Jordan while opposing the right-wing Zionist argument against the historicity of a Palestinian people.
Zion’s contention was that by pushing the idea that there was no such thing as a Palestinian Arab and acquiescing in the myth that Jordan is “an immutable entity, as distinct from Palestine as are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq,” Israeli leaders had helped obscure the empirical truths that Jordan was the artificial nation and “Jordanian” the artificial nationality.
The reality, Zion noted, was that “what began in 1920 as a mandate to turn Palestine into a Jewish homeland turned into a reverse Balfour Declaration, creating an Arab nation in four-fifths of Palestine and leaving the Jews to fight for statehood against the Arabs on the West Bank.”
Zion felt it would make at least some difference “if the world were to understand that Israel now occupies only 20 percent of Palestine” and that “if it becomes clear that the Arab refugees and their children who crossed over to Jordan in 1948 did not enter a ‘host country’ but rather the Arab part of their own country.”
“When it comes to Jordan,” he wrote in a 1982 New York Times op-ed piece,
the memory bank was closed before it opened. I know people who think it’s two thousand years old. But Jordan was only the name of a river until 1922, when Winston Churchill, then colonial secretary, turned its East Bank into the Emirate of Transjordan – created an emirate out of the British Mandatory territory of Palestine. Transjordan was 80 percent of the land mass of Palestine. Transjordan is Palestine. In 1946, by British fiat, Hussein’s grandfather, Abdullah, became King of Transjordan. In 1948, Abdullah changed the name of his country to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. Presto! The Ancient Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.
In a long telephone conversation with the Monitor several years back, Zion wore his secularism almost as a badge of honor – he said the only daily religious ritual he observed was putting on tefillin and the only weekly one was going down to his local newsstand first thing Wednesday morning to buy The Jewish Press.
His outward observance may have left something to be desired, but when it came to Jewishness of the heart, of his fierce dedication to, as he told the Monitor, “fighting for Jewish truth,” Sid Zion just about put the rest of us to shame.
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org