Obituary: Barry Shenker

Joseph Finklestone
Thursday 15 October 1992 23:02

Barry Shenker, political activist, born Cape Town 5 May 1944, died London 9 October 1992.

IF ONE man in Britain personified the philosophy and idealism of Mapam, the left-wing Zionist party, with its insistence on peace and understanding with the Arabs, it was Barry Shenker, who died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 48 last Friday.

Shenker remained an idealist in an age when idealism arouses suspicion. His total refusal to compromise his ideals made his search for suitable employment even more difficult at a time when any such work was in short supply. At the time of his death, despite his rich talents, he was unemployed.

Born in South Africa, where Zionism among the Jewish population, mostly originating from Eastern Europe, particularly Lithuania - though his own father was from Leeds - was and is strong, Shenker early played a leading role in the Zionist youth movement, Habonim. As a very young man he decided to leave for Israel and settled at the Tzorah Kibbutz near Jerusalem, where he remained for eight years.

While in Israel he married another young South African, Ziona Sebba, and they had two children. They followed him to London in 1974 when he decided to undertake a doctoral study at the LSE on the comparative structures and ideals of the kibbutz movement and similar innovations. He obtained his doctorate but his marriage collapsed and he and Ziona were divorced. She died in 1986.

While working at the LSE, Shenker became associated with the Richmond Fellowship, whose task was to help people in need of advice and support after leaving mental hospitals. There he met Mary Taylor, another worker, with whom he set up home and had a further two children.

Becoming increasingly left-wing in his Zionist orientations, Shenker wrote voluminously on the needs of becoming reconciled with the Arab population of Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. He found his spiritual home in Mapam, whose aim was to 'vitalise Anglo-Jewry in the spirit of Jewish humanism and democracy' and to 'complete political, social and economic equality for all Israeli citizens, with religion left to the conscience of each individual'. So enthusiastic was he in propagating these ideals, and so single-minded, that he became known in Britain as 'Mr Mapam'.

Barry Shenker held posts in communal and educational and academic Jewish organisations, such as Bipac, the Institute of Jewish Affairs, and the Spire Institute, but it is as Mr Mapam that he will be remembered and mourned, even by those who did not share his political views.

(Photograph omitted)

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