At 10, she was already old. She had seen too much to be innocent ever again.
At 6, she was smuggled with her parents out of the Warsaw Ghetto, concealed in the crowd of Jewish forced-laborers shoved out of the ghetto for a day's work. With her parents and aunt she hid in a nearby village as they plotted their escape from Poland. But the Nazis came sooner than expected.
The shrill whistle sounded in the distance. The train was coming to take them to their deaths.She raced into the woods with her aunt. Her parents raced in another direction -- and were caught. They were taken to Treblinka. r
The child hid for three more years, posing as an Aryan in a Catholic orphanage. In 1946, her aunt, who had escaped the concentration camp ovens with forged Aryan papers, came for the child. They were going to the promised land of Israel.
An American journalist went along on the danger-fraught passage with the refugees -- jotting down notes in that lurching, chugging, crowded, antiquated ship that meant freedom.
The child became a paragraph in his book: "Underground to Palestine."
"Our oldest passenger was seventy-eight; our youngest ten . . . a dark haired Polish-Jewish girl . . . She was clever, sharp-tongued and precocious and wrote poetry in Polish."
She had crossed five borders illegally to reach that ship.
This year, 34 years later, the child met the journalist again in Washington. He is I. F. Stone, iconoclast, raconteur, Greek scholar and longtime observer of the Middle East. She is Yoella Har-Shefi, a leading Israeli journalist and former war correspondent. The two found that they share more than memories of a distant passage. They both deplore the Israeli government's hard-line Palestinian policy, which, Stone predicts, "will push Israel into an endless sea of troubles."
No less sharp-tongued in her mid-40s than when she was 10, Har-Shefi speaks out in a fast-paced staccato against the perceived ills of her adopted country -- the treatment of Arabs as second-class citizens, discrimination against women, self-censorship of the press, the ultrareligious settlements in the West Bank, Begin's hardline obduracy.
The word "pogrom" is once again recalled by Har-Shefi, but this time, ironically, it is used to refer to Israeli treatment of Arabs.
Har-Shefi is nothing if not blunt. She refuses to sentimentalize anything. Short and slim, with curly hair and snapping eyes, she is fired with an intensity that exhausts her listeners; she seems like the Oriana Fallaci of Israel.
"You cannot call what Israel has done to the Arabs by any other name than pogrom." When yeshiva students and soldiers were shot several months ago by Arabs in Hebron. Har-Shefi says, "I felt as though the other shoe was dropped." She speaks critically of Israeli practices -- house arrest of Arab villagers after demonstrations against their occupied status, retaliatory raids on Lebanon, expulsion of Arab mayors, the insistence on building Israeli settlements near Arab villages.
"The only valid way for Israelis and Palestinians to stop bleeding each other to death is by mutual reconciliation and coexistence," she says.
"Beyond the Gunsights," Har-Shefi's latest book, published by Houghton Mifflin, is a novel but is based strongly on Har-Shefi's experiences as an Israeli journalist who makes friends with an Arab family in Israel and begins to feel their discrimination.
The "Middle East problem" becomes human as she details the Arab patriarch who loses his land, his crusading politician son and others in the family.
Har-Shefi says her one family in "Beyond the Gunsights" is representative of thousands. She shakes her head as she speaks of the urgency of listening to both sides in the long-running Middle East discord.
"Unless these two people have reconciliation -- unless this happens," she says, repeating her ominous prediction, "these two people will bleed themselves to death."
"What I say should not be construed to justify in any way the tactics of the PLO. If there were no Arafat or the Palestinian problem, it would make me very happy. But they exist -- and what is right for the Jews cannot be wrong for others just because they are Palestinians."
She dismisses those who feel that a Palestinian state would threaten Israel's existence. A willingness to cooperate would bring recognition from the Palestinians, she feels. Far more ominous, says Har-Shefi, is the present state of affairs -- with the fragile peace treaty between Egypt and Israel threatened during stalled autonomy talks, with the escalation of Arab-Israeli hostilities in the West Bank. A few months ago, Israelis banished some Arab families to crumbling, abandoned refugee camps after Arab youths stoned Israeli army vehicles.
Nothing seems to stop the tide of terrorist attacks. With tension mounting in the area, two West Bank mayors were wounded earlier this summer when their booby-trapped cars blew up, and seven Arabs were wounded in a hand-grenade attack on the crowded Hebron mail square.
"This I know for sure," says Har-Shefi. "If they don't have their country, we won't have ours . We cannot be racist in our treatment of them, just because the Holocaust happened to us."
Har-Shefi -- who was a front-line correspondent during the Yom Kippur War -- is among the vocal minority, such as the Israeli "Peace Now" movement, grown weary of revenge and counter-revenge, death and destruction, an eye for an eye . . . "Israel is a country at siege all the time," she says with a sigh. "We are always in a war or coming out of one or getting ready for one." s
Above all, she sees as the "root of evil" the growing Israeli settlements in the West Bank. "I am completely opposed. Take Hebron. Begin says of such places that they were once Jewish -- until the Jews were slaughtered during the British mandate."
"What he says sounds very reasonable. Why shouldn't Jews be allowed to settle in Hebron? But it is a vicious misrepresentation of the case!They don't want to settle as individuals or stay as Palestinian citizens if it becomes a Palestinian state. They want to change the borders of Israel. If we want to go back and claim what used to be Jewish, why, the Arabs ask, are they not allowed to go back to the houses that used to be theirs in Jaffa?"
There is even an unheard-of rebellion among young Israeli soldiers, says Har-Shefi. "We now have young Israelis who sit in military prisons because they refuse to serve beyond the Green Line [the boundary between Israel and the West Bank]. They feel politics is for civilians, not for soldiers. It is demoralizing to police old women and children. We even have the phenomena of some boys who are refusing to enlist."
Har-Shefi predicts that Begin is on the way out. "I see a slight victory for the Labor Party in the next election. The question is what kind of territorial compromises will be made by a new regime. It is not clear how the Palestinian issue will be solved. But one thing, the fanatical religious ayatollah-type solutions will be done with!"
Har-Shefi smiles as she recalls the guile and cunning that kept her alive so long ago when the Nazis hunted down jews.
"If I had been a boy, I would have been circumcised -- and wouldn't be alive today." As it was, hiding her real identity in a Catholic orphanage was precarious enough. The Nazis used to make periodic checks in their search for Jewish children. "I knew they were after me -- but they wouldn't like to kill a Catholic child. I knew it was me against them."
One day, Har-Shefi was brought into a room where a Pole and a German official were waiting. "They looked at me and the Pole talked very animatedly to the German. I watched very closely, trying not to be obvious. The dispute was that the Pole said I was a Jew, but the German did not agree. So I walked up, confidently, and they started asking questions, 'Where is your father, where is your mother? I quickly said, 'Oh, but the most interesting person is my Italian grandmother.
Everyone says I resemble her.'" Har-Shefi the 10-year-old chattered on in seeming innocence. "My German was perfect." There were no telltale traces of Yiddish inflection or phrases. "Soon they were all smiles -- and I was passed over."
Har-Shefi, the survivor, is scornful of today's fascination with the Holocaust. "I think the Holocaust is used in the States as a 'squeezing apparatus' -- to squeeze out money and sympathy for Israel -- and it is being elevated to sphere of mysticism and 'Jewish destiny.' You can get a mental sauna treatment -- just enough sweat and tears to feel elevated -- and then you're free of it. If it were for remembrance alone, I think it should be forgotten. The only reason to remember the Holocaust is to try to understand what happened, how it happened and what should be done to make sure it never happens again."
She sees her "personal commitment" as being "on guard against the things that made the Holocaust possible. Look at the Arabs. We should not discriminate against them just because the Holocaust happened to us."
Being critical of Israel is difficult for an Israeli journalist, says Har-Shefi. She alleges that journalistic criticism of the type that flourished in America during the Vietnam war would have been "next to impossible" in Israel.
"Security of the state is easily extended to almost everything, and certain things are above reproach. You cannot criticize the army."
Self-censorship is practiced by journalists steeped in the traditional government view that they must protect the small, vulnerable, young state, she says. There is also a corruption based on low salaries, Har-Shefi contends. "The average monthly journalist's salary is difficult to live on and many take jobs outside the newspaper to exist. It is not unusual, say, for a music critic to work for the company that puts out records." Her controversial analysis of the Israeli press, "Not in the Headlines" -- which will be translated into English soon -- got her fired from a Tel Aviv newspaper. She is now a political columnist for a left-wing publication.
Americans, used to the stories of Israeli women soldiers, doctors, lawyers and even women supreme court judges have a distorted view of women's rights in Israel, says Har-Shefi.
"It is a certain schizophrenic condition for Israeli women. They are an active, outspoken part of a progressive society -- but there are laws that dicriminate extremely against women. Women cannot give testimony in religious courts. These courts are extremely important. They handle all matters pertaining to personal status, marriage, divorce and property.
"In Israel there is no such thing as a civil marriage. The only existing marriage is the religious marriage."
The private lives of Israelis are governed by ancient tribal laws as interpreted by the Orthodox rabbinate. Not only is the woman unable to instigate divorce proceedings, "the male has proprietary rights on her. Therefore, when a woman is widowed without having any children, and her deceased husband's brother is alive, she is not free to marry because the husband's proprietary rights are passed on to the brother. It takes a special religious ritual of setting her free. And nobody cam compel him to set her free. Each war gives us waves of young widows who did not have time to be pregnant. Hundreds of cases.
"This rule is used to blackmail the widow and the government. The brother will say, 'Give me a license to run a cab, or give me a special loan, and I will set her free.'" And the ritual to set her free? "She is spat upon. She has to be on the ground, undo the lace of his shoe and he spits on her." Har-Shefi tosses her head scornfully." A very dignified ritual, no?"
A major scoop of Har-Shefi's was discovering the "blacklists" kept by the Israeli rabbinate listing all Jewish Israelis whose right to marry is restricted by Orthodox rabbinical law. For example, children who are of a "forbidden union" -- based on convoluted, arcane reasoning -- are not allowed to marry."
"Among the reasons a lot of Russian Jews have decided not to come to Israel is that mixed marriages are not recognized in Israel. They face a new kind of discrimination against their children.
With a sardonic laugh, Har-shefi says: "All this does not go hand-in-hand with the brochures, with the image of the modern, young, hora-dancing Israel, does it?"
The larger problems of Mideast strife cannot be solved easily, and Har-Shefi sees her continuing role as pushing for moderate solutions. Other internal problems, she feels, could be "solved easily by a secular constitution for Israel -- one that, for example, would allow civil marriages."
Finally, Har-Shefi emphasizes that she has no desire to be an Israeli expatriate. It has been her country from the earliest days of its birth.
"Do not get me wrong. I am terribly much for Israel. If I was against it, I would just leave," she says. "There is a helluva lot which is right."
Then the activist, crusading journalist take over. "But we should not -- and cannot -- be allowed the luxury of our excesses."