Saturday, 27 January 2018

Yehe Shmeh Rabba Mevarakh

It was mortifying to find a few weeks ago that two Jewish friends of mine had cut me off for being an anti-Semite. They'd read something I'd written (not here) opposing nationalism and had saying I didn't believe that 'countries have a "right" to exist, nor that populations have a "right" to have their sense of identity expressed in particular political arrangements that might be defined as a nation-state'. They took this as opposition to the existence of Israel, and decided not to talk to me again. A Welsh nationalist friend thought I was referring to Wales; in fact the piece was inspired by the political crisis in Catalonia rather than anything else, notwithstanding the echoes that might be discerned in other clamours and conflicts. The reactions show the sensitivities around these issues.

In fact, I take the view that if there is one polity in the world which does have a 'right' to exist, it's the state of Israel. This is because it isn't a nation-state in a normal way, created from the sense of self-identity of a group of people who want that identity expressed by political arrangements, customs and laws. It's a country-sized refuge enabling a particular group of people to feel they aren't going to be rounded up and slaughtered at the whim of the people around them as they have been over and over again for three thousand years. You don't have to agree with everything that state does in this cause, but it lends its actions a different tone.

The passionate anti-Israel stance of some people I've encountered in church circles is indeed suspicious, a sort of geographically-displaced instance of the 'Jerusalem Syndrome' to which Western visitors to the holy city are prone. They feel a kind of connection with the Holy Land which seems to lend a right to comment, and an interest in commenting, on what happens there, rather than on any of the other similar conflicts going on around the world. In fact, it's weirder than the unthinking pro-Israelism of some extreme evangelical Christians, which does at least have some Biblical warrant if you take a particular view of the Scriptures. For myself I've concluded that being part of a religion which has disadvantaged, persecuted, tortured and murdered Jews for centuries, and particularly being British given the atrocious record of British involvement in the Levant, affords me no right to pontificate on tensions there at all. 

In 2007 Holocaust Memorial Day fell on a Saturday, too, and it coincided with the Requiem Mass I used to celebrate at Lamford. It so happens that by heritage Il Rettore is Jewish - he only discovered after her death that his mother was in fact born a Jew, which makes him one as well. He knows Hebrew and Aramaic fairly well. As part of the service he solemnly sang the Kaddish, and it's still one of the memories of my time there which moves me most. 


  1. Particularly interesting. Perhaps au fond you have concerns about "rights" - I do, because the over-easy use of the concept can carry assumptions which are unrealistic.Seems to me that rights are not inherent in 'the nature of things' but they are created by people, and therefore they come from a particular place and time; it may not help to see them as absolute. As someone put it once, "your right to freedom of action ends a couple of inches from my nose." Your line on Brits not pontificating about Levantine tensions is helpful.Must mention it to some of my friends...

  2. Indeed I've always been suspicious of the language of rights - there's a reason why the Universal Declaration on Human Rights is minimalist. 'Rights' ascribed to groups of people, or nations, or even putative nations, seem particularly spurious to me. The ability of individual human beings to enjoy their rights, that is, the things that they need to live a decent human life, are very often impeded by the messy, violent business of establishing and defending nations, and nationality doesn't seem to me to be a knock-down means of defining what should be a state.

  3. Perhaps that is why the world is in such a Right Old State...