My mother was nine years old when she arrived in England as a kinder-transport refugee. Her father had been forced by Nazis to paint the Yellow Star and words ‘juif’ on the pavement outside his shop in the Viennese suburbs. Then scrub it off. Then paint it again.
My mum’s parents just made it out of Vienna a few months later, but many of her relatives were murdered by the Nazis. She spoke no English and never spoke about the holocaust. My granny later suffered dementia, retreated to speaking German, and died in Friern Barnet.
My mother’s silence was a pall over our lives. My next book of poetry will be devoted to ‘mining the silence’. She was resilient but anxious and, being a sensitive child, I picked up that suppressed emotion. And suppressed my own when my parents divorced. in later years, I had a breakdown and still suffer terrible bouts of chronic repetitive thoughts and anxiety at times of major stress in my life. Some of this, I am sure, is due to the resonance of history I must have felt in the family home.
We used to go to my father’s parents for seder on Friday nights. My great great great grandfather was Samson Rafael Hirsch, the founder of neo-Orthodox Judaism in the second half of the 19th Century who promoted a practical and ethical following of the Torah against what he saw as the splintering of Judaism through the reform movement and assimilation.
My grandfather had come to England in 1913 before the first world war. His family changed its name from Guggenheimer to Gilbert as the former was too Germanic. Assimilation has always been one tactic of the Jew. But invisibility carries its own risks.
Grandpa Joe was the kindest person I have ever met. He founded the Hillel movement and on student campuses, there are ‘Gilbert Houses’ for Jewish students. My great uncle was a communist. My great aunts were leftist zionists. My grandfather and grandmother proud and spirited supporters of the new Jewish state. They all saw Israel as the necessary homeland after six million of their brethren had been wiped out. And they believed in a socialist state. I have cousins in Israel who would vehemently oppose my political views now.
My uncle was an educated gay cosmopolitan Jew who worked throughout his life for the cause of better Arab-Israeli relations. He played a central role in helping the Falasha Jews move to Israel in the early 80s. And set up many vocational endeavours that spanned Arab-Israeli boundaries. He worked to help liberate young women from the Haredi orthodox sect and set up the Jewish Aids Trust. His partner, a Swiss non-Jew, an abstract artist worked for the International Red Cross. My lovely uncle Robin was best friends with Rabbi Lionel Blue, who made a speech at my wedding – talk about people who tried for peace!
(As I write this, a robin comes to feed off tea cake crumbs on my plate in the garden! The notion of Jews feeding off crumbs comes into my mind).
Being a Jew
Being a Jew is not simple. They say ‘two Jews, three arguments’. I have mixed feelings about Israel, to say the least. And about being Jewish.
Politically, I am a soft-lefty. I liked what Tony Blair did, until the war in Iraq. I was a Labour Party member and have always voted for Labour.
Internationally, I have grown to dislike what the Israeli government has done, and is doing to Palestinians and see the injustice. I am ambivalent and torn about the cause of zionism. On the one hand, I bow to its necessity at that historical juncture. And yet I weep sometimes for what it has become.
But I hear too much from the left and from pro-Palestinian leftists (themselves seemingly unaware of how they are being ‘played’ by wider forces) about ‘destruction’ of the State of Israel.
And I have come to dislike Jeremy Corbyn for his continued inability to tackle anti-semitism, at least as much as for his collusion in Brexit (IMO). Yes, I know the right wing forces control the media. Yes, I know the Israeli government are stoking some of this. I am not a fool. But you have to understand the resonance of the current discourse for people like me who have known of ‘denial’.
We have also heard those words ‘destruction’ before. How do you think that sounds to the son of my mother. Where do people want Jews to go after ‘the destruction’ of Israel? Or do they want Israelis to be destroyed too?
We tried to assimilate and we got wiped out. We set up a State that has gone in the wrong direction, and extremists want to wipe that out too. Nu?
This is not simple for me, and I am trying to work out what a Jew who has married out, who has two sons does with his Jewish heritage.
What I do know
What I do know is that I did not ever think that I would witness the rise of the far right. Or of the far left in this country. And their virulent intolerance – of Muslims and of Jews respectively. Both far right and far left have hatred running through their veins. And lets not even talk of Trump and the forces of Brexit. Remember, ‘first they came for the Socialists…’
Oh how I wish Jews and Muslims could come together at this moment to realise their common experiences. We are being played by wider forces. And both religions have peace running through their veins. More in common than that which separates us. I am agnostic, but feel that the true spirituality and humanity that breathes like a wind through true Jews, Muslims and Christians, despite what human institutions have done to us, is a force for good.
But let’s come back to earth. And psychology. I write this not primarily to make any particular political point. Am no historian or political writer.
The Stolen Pen
I write more of a fear that rises in me – to describe the resonance I feel when non-Jews try to articulate what being anti-Semitic is and is not. And how, to me, that sounds perilously close to denial. A closing down to another’s experience. An ‘othering’ that resonates for Jews who are only, at most, one degree of separation from the six million who died.
I have never, as a white, tried to describe what anti-black racism is or is not. I have never challenged a black person when they say they feel discriminated against.
I have never, as a man, tried to describe what feminism is, or is not. I have never challenged a woman when they say they feel discriminated against.
Anti-semitism is one of the oldest forms of persecution – the idea of the invisible enemy within is a trope of both the left and right. But I thought the left in the UK – where tolerance has usually reigned – knew better. There is a better leftist to be revealed than that currently on display. And it comes as a shock, but no surprise that many on the far right have come to support what Corbyn has said in recent days.
Corbyn argues he is using the ‘right terms’ for zionism. That he wants us to understand ‘irony’. That he never inhaled. That he never had sexual relations with that woman.
Yes, it is time for diasporan Jews to question and challenge the Israeli government, and (for people like me) to once again, like my uncle, strive for dialogue and peace. Between two states.
But it is also time for those who deny anti-Semitism in the UK and the left and the labour party to recognise what they are doing… before it is too late. I am a Jew. I am human. In fevered times, we need to pause. Stop the hate.
I have been looking for, am looking for, ways to forge dialogue – whether in the health service, in mental health, through arts, and perhaps in Arab-Israeli Jewish-Muslim dialogue like my wonderful uncle.
Maybe I can help a little though writing? I don’t know. My mother told me once that she stole a fountain pen from her father and smuggled it deep inside her coat pockets the night before she left Vienna.
Dear Mum. I am holding on to that pen, metaphorically.
© 2018 David Gilbert