Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The rivers of Babylon

‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion’ says the 137th Psalm. And later ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’

Evocative words. Full of the sorrow and longing of the exile. You could write a pop song round them.

Down the centuries, the Jews who wrote the psalm have had their fill of exile. My grandmother’s earliest memory was of herself at the age of three, clutching her teddy bear, travelling to London with her mother and brother from her abandoned home in Vilna. Whatever possessions they could preserve were in their suitcases. Ahead of them was an alien land of which they knew little. None of them spoke English. My great grandmother never lost her accent and was always more comfortable in Yiddish.

My great grandfather had left a year earlier. He’d served seven years of grinding misery in the army of the Russian Tsar. He followed political developments closely and in 1902 he could see war brewing between Russia and Japan, though it only broke out three years later. The fighting was in the Far East and many conscripts in the Russian military left their bones there, following their crushing defeat. My great grandfather had realised that Jews, like downtrodden minorities in many armies, would be called up first and sacrificed with the least qualms. He got out to London before it was too late.

British Jews were well organised. My great grandfather had support from a foundation set up by some of the wealthiest members of the community, notably the Rothschilds, which helped new immigrants find affordable accommodation and jobs. Work wasn’t a problem, since he was a skilled craftsman, an orthopaedic shoemaker who could feel a deformed foot in his hands and then build the shoe upper to fit it. Within a year, his family could join him and though they faced hardships, they never had to contend with the crushing poverty that so many others experienced, including my grandfather.

And they avoided the fate that awaited those who stayed behind. Ninety of my grandmother’s relatives disappeared in the Holocaust without trace: we don’t even know where they died.

My family may have wept when they remembered Vilna, but they learned to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.

It’s the fate of most migrants, today as much as then, to face fear and privation with courage and determination as their only resources. That’s why so many immigrants contribute so dynamically to their new communities: they’ve already passed a tough test. That’s as true of Hispanics in the US, Pakistanis in Bradford, North Africans in France as of Jews. In fact, the great argument against the anti-Semites is precisely that there’s nothing special about the Jews: they share the qualities and the faults of all mankind.

And that mixture of qualities and faults could hardly be clearer than in the Jews themselves. The admirable qualities that so many Jewish immigrants displayed are as strong today as they were then. What is new, but unsurprising, is to find that they behave just as badly as anyone else when they are frightened but powerful, as in the state of Israel today.

Faced with the constant threat of terrorist attack from Gaza, Israel has waded in with warplanes, warships, tanks. One and a half million people were in a sealed enclave, in what was already deemed by many to be the world’s largest open-air prison. Today, with nowhere safe left in Gaza, it is more than a mere prison. It is becoming something whose very name is an obscenity to a Jew: the world’s largest open-air concentration camp.

Gazans voted for Hamas – not all of them, but a majority. Some collaborate with Hamas terrorists – by no means all but enough. And Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel which it tries to forward by the ugliest means possible, the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. The complicity of many Gazans in vile acts is obvious. But it’s breathtaking that Israel has responded by inflicting such torment on an entire population of civilians, including old people, mothers, children. How can anything Gazans have done justify what is being heaped on them now?

The killing of the children is perhaps particularly vile. Recent pictures coming out of Gaza are deeply shocking. But it’s interesting too that just as the sorrow of the exile is in the 137th Psalm, so is the killing of children. It’s just that it’s in a bit of the Psalm people don’t tend to quote, for obvious reasons. The pop song, for instance, left it out completely. It’s at the end:

‘O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us. Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.’

From longing and sorrow at the beginning to a lust for vengeance and brutality at the end: quite a distance for a single Psalm. A powerful metaphor for the human personality with its extremes of behaviour. And the killing of the innocent isn’t a new horror but one with a long tradition behind it. The tradition of the book itself.

And if anyone thinks ‘Ah, yes, that’s the Jews’, think again. Jews, Christians, Moslems: we’re all children of the book. Non-believers and believers alike, in the West we live in societies whose cultural roots are drenched in the thinking that inspired the Psalms.

Gaza holds up a mirror to our own culture. We may not like what we see in it. But taking a hard look at it might be a good starting point for badly needed change.

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