Sunday, 18 January 2009

No joke in Gaza

If there’s one thing that gives me pleasure in my Jewish ancestry, it has to be the humour. Even when few other people had a good word to say for Jews, the wry, self-deprecating way that the Jewish joke extracted laughter from adversity gave it an enduring popularity.

An illustration is the story of Shlomo and Moishe facing a firing squad. The officer approaches and asks them whether they have a last wish.

‘A cigarette,’ says Shlomo. The officer gives him a cigarette and lights it for him. He turns to Moishe, who spits in his face.

‘What are you doing, Moishe?’ exclaims Shlomo, aghast, ‘You could get us into trouble.’

In a sense, what Israel is doing in Gaza today could be viewed as a massive sense of humour failure. Presumably when Israeli soldiers moved a hundred civilians into a building for refuge, only to shell it the next day, it wasn’t as some kind of practical joke. At any rate, it’s hard to see it raising a laugh.

Admittedly a constant rain of Katyusha or Qassam rockets on your frontier communities must put your sense of humour under considerable strain. Israelis live in fear and they have the power to hit back at those who frighten them, a lethal combination. It would have been admirable if they had retained their wry warm-heartedness, but OK, when all’s said and done, they’re no more admirable than anyone else. But even if the sense of humour goes, it would be good to retain the sense of humanity that inspires it. That’s something that might actually help Israel achieve its goals.

In one of the other intractable conflicts of the last century, in Northern Ireland, Britain also resorted to force against insurgency. In 1972, paratroops went into Derry but all they achieved was to make martyrs. Droves of young men were recruited to the IRA. It took 25 years of vicious troubles to get to the Good Friday agreement and the current slow process towards lasting peace.

Over that time, as well as attempting to crush terrorism directly, Britain adopted a strategy on two parallel paths. The Security Services carried out outstandingly effective intelligence work. By the end, the IRA was shot through with informers. At the same time, a new framework of law required fair treatment of both communities. The Chief Executive of a Northern Irish hospital told me that he had to show fair representation of the communities at every level, from porters to Board. And that didn’t mean the same proportions as in the province as a whole, but the same proportions as in the drive-to-work area around the hospital. Nor was it easy to define a Catholic or a Protestant: it was no good asking them because what mattered wasn’t how individuals saw themselves but how others classified them – that’s the basis of discrimination. The ultimate test was which primary school the person had attended: primary schools are heavily segregated, so the one you went to defines how you’re perceived.

As well as enforced fairness at work, heavy investment also took place in infrastructure and, in particular, in housing. Many of the old slums have gone and been replaced by attractive new estates.

The result? When Collum announces that he’s popping out to spend a little time with ‘the boys’, his wife replies, ‘the boys? The boys? You’ve got a job to hold down, a mortgage to pay, a child upstairs, another on the way. You can forget the boys. You get a pint on a Friday night and you’re lucky to have that.’

Cut off the basis of support in the community, turn what’s left of the organisation inside out. Now that’s smart work against terrorism. And for all the abuses, it has its essential humanity.

So what has Israel been doing? Terrorising the population of Gaza. Destroying its infrastructure, housing, schools, hospitals. Killing hundreds, starving the rest. Creating a whole community of traumatised, bitter people with nothing left to lose.

Not particularly humane. Not particularly smart. And not at all funny.

Afterthought. The key to all this may be the impact of Israel on the Jews. Most of the jokes came from Europe, specifically Central Europe, from Jews who spoke German or the Jewish version of the language, Yiddish. Their cultural roots were in the humanist Renaissance, running back to that melting pot that was twelfth-century Cordoba, where Jew talked to Christian and Christian talked to Moslem, and all three learned to think together. Humanist Jews sought to end not just their persecution but all persecution, they sought for a tolerance which they felt that they in turn should extend to others. They produced outstanding figures: Moses Mendelssohn, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx. Though on reflection perhaps Marx wouldn’t appear high on a list of tolerant humanists.

Then came the Aliyah, the ‘return’ to Israel. The Jews who went learned Hebrew and changed their inspiration to a book in that language, the Old Testament. Of course, the jokes continued and many still come out of Israel today. However, when we think of Israel it isn’t wit that comes to mind, but the doctrine of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth – though Israel likes to take rather a lot of teeth for any one tooth, to make sure the message gets across.

In the move from Yiddish to Hebrew, something essential was lost in Jewish culture. Which is why one of my favourite Jewish jokes is the bitter-sweet one of the mother with her son on a Tel Aviv bus. The boy talks to her in Hebrew, but she keeps replying in Yiddish. Eventually one of the other passengers intervenes.

‘Madam,’ he says, ‘your son is a citizen of the State of Israel. Our national language is Hebrew. You should not prevent him expressing himself in it.’

‘Yes,’ she says, ‘I understand. I just don’t want him to forget he’s Jewish.’

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