Nia Davies reviews Jasmine Donahaye’s biography of Lily Tobias, ‘The Greatest Need’.
The Greatest Need: the creative life and troubled times of Lily Tobias, a Welsh Jew in Palestine
It is significant that Jasmine Donahaye’s biography of Lily Tobias, a Welsh-Jewish novelist and Zionist, arrives in the same year as her own memoir – Losing Israel. The timing, intentional or not, means that we can’t help think of the two books (and thus lives) as companions – mirrors and/or opposites of each other.
We could apply one of Donahaye’s favourite constructions as a prose writer here – the contrasting comparison. Someone or something is very often described in these books as like another but also unlike that other. The semblance and difference of Tobias and Donahaye themselves as writers is striking – both are/were intimately connected to both Wales and Israel-Palestine and both write out of intertwining creative and political standpoints – particularly that of self-determination for oppressed peoples and languages. For both writers the personal is political and the political, especially through writing, has become personal. Both books deal with trust and doubt and the impact these different, though subtly similar, forces enact on life.
Tobias’s life starts in nineteenth century Wales and ends in Israel. Donahaye writes now out of Wales, having been brought up in emotional proximity to Israel. The books map the arcs of two lives, lived at opposite ends of a long twentieth century of geopolitical development. But unlike the life detailed in The Greatest Need, Losing Israel charts a journey into doubt. A troubling love/hate relationship with Israel emerges painfully as Donahaye uncovers details of the Arab villages that were emptied to make way for the kibbutz where her mother was born. As details are revealed, she carefully questions her own assumptions and desires. The author’s questioning of the Israeli national project and her place in it is mirrored in turn by the Israeli state’s own suspicion of her as she is repeatedly questioned at airport security every time she travels to the country.
Lily Tobias, on the other hand, writing in an earlier time, never questioned her hopeful Zionist vision where nation and identity could not be separated. Questions of where we belong, what we believe in, how we define ourselves as grouped in with some people or against others – this is the complex web which Donahaye examines. The utmost care, skill, insight and sensitivity is a hallmark of both books.
Lily Tobias was born in Swansea in 1887, a daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russian Poland; she grew up speaking Welsh, English, Hebrew and Yiddish, in the only Jewish family in Ystalyfera. She did not accept the traditionally restricted life laid out for her but struck out with admirable energy to speak up and create. She wrote fiction and journalism and adapted Daniel Deronda for the stage. Her politically charged novels and stories often curiously prefigured events in her own life. She moved to Swansea, and later, after marriage to Philip Valentine Tobias, to the Rhiwbina housing co-op in Cardiff, and on to London. Finally, she emigrated to Palestine with Philip in the 1930s.
Sympathetic to both Welsh and Jewish nationalism, Tobias was a pacifist and an anti-imperialist, a writer, a feminist and above all – as Donahaye so carefully details – a committed Zionist. The realisation of a lifelong hope and dream – the Zionist desire/need for a nation for the Jewish people in Palestine – was to be realised in her lifetime. She had to be there and she was. But tragedy, personal and political upheaval was to come.
Tobias had several loyalties and passionate convictions, many of which seemed to compete and contradict each other at different times of her life. One of Donahaye’s strengths in exploring the interplay of these commitments is the way that she brings one particular impulse to the fore: the (often racist) notion that the immigrant or ethnic other has dual loyalties and cannot be trusted.
Did Tobias’s loyalties clash? She was an anti-imperialist, reacting against the British Mandate that she felt let her and other Jews in Palestine down. But she does not see the imperialistic potential of the Zionist project – and does not seem to consider the people living in Palestine before Israel is created as worthy of her passionate sympathy. It is suggested that Tobias shared the British imperial view – typically orientalist – of Arabs as ‘natives’. She was also a fervent pacifist; in the First World War she energetically campaigned for Conscientious Objectors in South Wales; her brothers were among them, going against the grain of ‘patriotism’ at the time. But by the time of the cluster of wars in mid-century Palestine, at the birth of the Israeli state, she cheers on the Jewish military efforts with patriotic fervour; peace is still her chief concern but fighting is justified now, she says: ‘if it has to be done, then the spirit prevailing here can only be termed the finest form of patriotism’. Her sympathy for the oppressed does not (or perhaps no longer) extends to ‘the enemy’.
It is a perplexing turnaround, expertly explained by Donahaye. Such a change could be occasioned by the inherent problems of nationalism and of the times themselves but also by something cataclysmic. It is big and it is personal: the murder of Lily’s beloved husband – fellow pacifist, Zionist and businessman Philip Tobias – by a mob in one of the Arab revolts in Haifa in 1938. This trauma, combined with the failings of the British-led police investigation that took place after the event, must have been a crushing blow to Tobias who never wrote a piece of fiction again. Donahaye says:
Philip’s murder alone could not have shifted Lily’s anti-militarism and humanism, but his murder combined with British intransigence and injustice, and her profound sense of being let down by the government all contributed to her decisive shift towards a Jewish militarism that was utterly at odds with the political beliefs in which she had grown up and by which she had lived. Perhaps more than anything else, that shift was the most grievous outcome of Philip’s death, for Lily’s humanism and her anti-militarism were what brought the two of them together and what they had worked for together in their shared life as political organisers and, in her case, with his support, as a writer.
How should we judge Lily Tobias’s politics now? How am I placed as a reviewer to judge her? Should we judge at all, given the gulf of time and the events that have happened in the last 30-40 years? And yet how can we not judge? Donahaye herself does not – except to note that Tobias’s views would now seem ‘hopelessly limited and naïve’. But she does lay a case for the importance of Lily’s life and work – what we can learn from this.
What the Greatest Need lacks – the stylistic eloquence of personal and intricate emotional terrain in Losing Israel – it makes up for in its broad scope and contextual detail. The interjection of Donahaye’s views, as above, are rare but have a necessary clarity to them. The way Tobias’ life played out – the build up to her emigration and the aftermath of her husband’s murder – lends the book a structure that swings on a pivot. The chapters that chart her early development in the UK are essential as they allow us to understand who she was and how her views and life changed, yet for me they dragged somewhat. Near to half way, I was starting to feel that the book was a little turgid, laid down with its own research and careful overlay of detail. Until, that is, the crucial middle section after Lily’s move to Palestine. Philip’s murder is already outlined in the opening of the book and this allows for some narrative suspense but does not quite propel the reader forward enough. I’d urge readers to keep going: once I’d reached the pivot I was gripped by the story of this fascinating writer and human and wondered how much we can learn from her.
For there is much potential here for insight: Tobias’s life and work reveal a fascinating and crucial intersection between pacifism and nationalism. As such Donahaye’s work in this book should be seen as a key document to thinking about self-determination, nationhood and pacifism – particularly in the context of Wales, Palestine and Israel. Alongside the excellent, moving Losing Israel, it should also remind us that Donahaye is raising important questions – and is certainly one of the most significant writers and thinkers working in Wales at the moment.