Telling people what they don't want to hear

Jeremy Gordin reviews Roy Isacowitz's biography of his father Jock

Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear: A Liberal Life Under Apartheid by Roy Isacowitz. Kibbitzer Books, Tel-Aviv, 2020. Kindle Edition. 

At the beginning of 1971, Roy Isacowitz, 19-years-old, from Berea, Johannesburg, having matriculated and completed his mandatory SADF training, travelled to Israel to study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Although some came on different flights, he was joined on his journey by several buddies, including Lawrence Migdale, now a well-known US Bay Area photographer, and Jeremy Gordin, now a lesser-known South African journalist. But also travelling with Roy, in his heart and head, though he was only barely aware of them, was his father, Jock Isacowitz, and Jock’s history and reputation.

Jock had died in January 1962, when Roy was nine, and although Roy knew his father had been “notable” in certain circles as (what we would now call) an activist, including during the post-1948 years as an anti-apartheid activist, Roy did not really know the details of his father’s life.

Nor was Roy deeply seized by Jock’s history. Roy’s main interests then were sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. Besides, in the early 70s, late-20th century activism, to which Roy was also attracted, seemed to offer far more exciting options (anarchism, radical Leftism, hippiedom, the Black Panthers, Che Guevara) than what Roy knew of Jock’s brand of activities.

In the ensuing 49 years, Roy worked for some years on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, did his time in the IDF, did a stint (much later) for a company installing high-tech TV gear in China and returned to SA a few times to work on the tech side of business journalism. But mostly Roy has earned his daily pita as a journalist and writer, working for newspapers in the UK, the US, Australia, and SA, ending at Haaretz newspaper as what we’d call a Senior Night Editor.

Roy also wrote a collection of short stories, The Ingathering of the Exiles: The Strange Adventures of Remarkable Jews in Contemporary Israel (2014), one of the funniest and most insightful books I’ve ever read about Jewishness and Israel – a book I’ve always thought could have brought Roy considerable fame and fortune, if only he’d had the “requisite” connections in the US and/or UK publishing worlds.

Then, a couple of years ago, having quit the daily grind, Roy, now 68, with a wife (Dodik) and three daughters, and living in Tel-Aviv, resolved it was high time to put some flesh and clothes onto, and soul into, the life of Jock, his father. There was a problem, or rather a plethora of problems, however.

First, Jock died young – of acute myeloid leukemia in 1962, six weeks short of his 47th birthday. So: no paper trail of diaries, notebooks, manuscripts or even an unpublished memoir, only childhood poetry, a couple of university essays, notes for speeches, and some letters. Second, by the time Roy came to focus on writing about his father, his mother, Eileen, had died.

Third, as Head of the Wits School of Governance Prof. David Everatt has noted (in a private email), “[Jock] is a figure who repeatedly appears in the archive – attending this, speaking on that – but [is] somehow simultaneously obscured [my emphasis].

“Where most people would know of Alan Paton, or Ruth First, or Helen Joseph, or any number (of the admittedly small base!) of whites who actively opposed apartheid,” Jock has not been written about in any detail, let alone celebrated – partially, in my view, because he was gone at an early age.

Exacerbating this “problem” is another two-fold one. First, much of the history of the Struggle or pre-Struggle days that we read nowadays has unsurprisingly been written, or is mainly populated, by ANC or SACP members [1]. But Jock was not a member of the ANC (whites weren’t allowed in till 1985) and he left the Communist Party in 1946, “increasingly unhappy [with its] totalitarian character … which offended my conscience because it was contrary to my democratic convictions,” as Jock wrote in a 1954 letter to then Justice Minister CR (“Blackie”) Swart. Jock was contesting his banning order – the first to be imposed on a Liberal Party member – in terms of what became the Suppression of Communism Act.

Second, although there exist quite a few books and articles about the Liberal Party (LP) [2] and related subjects, Jock was gone from the scene by 1962 and the LP has not for a long while been considered a sexy subject. Have a look, if you will, at local publishers’ lists or at undergraduate history syllabi at leading local universities. It’s probably fair to say that to most young South Africans, including born-frees, and to their “teachers,” LP members were obviously members of the ODWEM (Old Dead White European Males) club.

As I hope is clear, even from the little I have written above, there existed yet another problem complicating Roy’s initial semi-ignorance about the man who had been the national chairman of the Springbok Legion, a moving spirit behind the Torch Commando, one of the founders of the Liberal Party, and who post-Sharpeville was imprisoned, without trial, in the Johannesburg fort (Constitution Hill) and Pretoria Central along with many other well-known activists.

This “problem” was that Jock was far from being a “black and white,” or a cardboard cut-out, type of person. He started off as a Communist but, as we saw above, turned his back on the party. He was a Liberal but by no means a shrinking violet progressive.

What, looked at through the prism of the events of the last 60 years, especially in SA, was Roy to make of him? Merely some sort of quaint, anachronistic fuddy-duddy – whose principles and actions were nullified by Afrikaner Nationalism (for 30 years after his death, anyway) and then by the National Democratic Revolution (for we know not how long)? Or?

Turning to another facet of Jock’s life, he started off as an anti-Zionist but later moved away from this stance too, so much so that he became heavily involved in Jewish communal affairs and Zionism. Why? Roy, who would place himself on the far left of the present Israeli political spectrum, had to investigate this too, especially as Roy and many others would agree that the response of the local Jewish community qua community to the Nationalist government was spineless.

As Roy himself has written, “[Writing this book,] I had to reshuffle my internal pack to come to grips with a period in which Zionism could be regarded as redemptive and the ANC was not out to ransack the coffers”.

Additionally, this book is also about a son, now a 68-year-old man, looking for the father he never really knew. Those interested in such matters will know that Telemachy is a term applied to the first four books of Homer’s Odyssey; because just as the Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, the four chapters tell the story of Odysseus’s son Telemachus journeying from home in search of his missing father. This book, then, is also a species of Telemachy.

How Roy has handled these issues is by putting together a history-cum-biography. It is neither one nor the other; it’s an amalgam, in which Roy is also present. For each chapter of Jock’s life – childhood, family, studies, service during World War 2, the Springbok Legion, the Liberal Party, etc., etc. – Roy has dug out all he could scrounge about Jock’s personal life, but this information is skillfully, and remarkably gently, intertwined with a thoughtful history of the era or event.

So, for instance, the story of Jock’s time in the East Africa campaign of the Union Defence Force, as it was known, also tells the story of that campaign. Delivering a somewhat back-handed compliment (also in a private email),  professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University Gideon Shimoni has written: “I never imagined you would produce such a deeply researched and profoundly knowledgeable and analytical work ... [A]s an academic, I find your book truly valuable.  I find it in many respects positively enlightening.”

So here it is for you to read. Besides being a guide to a particular period of our history, seen through the prism of his son’s eyes, mind and heart, it is the story of Jock Isacowitz who, to use Everatt’s words again, “was part of a small cohort of whites in the 1940s and beyond who spent their time ‘Telling people what they don’t want to hear’ ...”

Jock, as Roy has written, “fought hard for the classic liberal values of equality, civil and human rights and freedom – values that were deprecated under the apartheid regime and remain elusive in many countries today, including some of those that call themselves democratic”.

A man worth reading about, then. Finally, you won’t, whatever your views, regret reading about him – because from its opening scene when a passport official at Israel’s Lod Airport (now Ben Gurion) plants a kiss on the forehead of an unsuspecting 19-year-old because he is “Jock Isacowitz’s son,” until the end of the book – the Isacowitz story is told deftly, vividly and with intelligence and good humour.

* “Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear,” is available from Amazon.com in ebook format (click here). The paperback version will be available from mid-June.


[1] Rusty Bernstein, in Memory Against Forgetting (Viking, 1999), does mention Jock numerous times.

[2] Liberals against Apartheid by Randolph Vigne (Macmillan,1997), in which Jock is also mentioned numerous times, comes to mind.