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by Rachel Lasserson

Rachel Lasserson  |  Winter 2008  -  Number 212


History has offered us a particularly grim synchronicity. The atrocities in Mumbai - and the targeting of Jews in particular – coincide with the commemoration of seventy years since Kristallnacht. What can we learn from history when it repeats itself with such terrifying circularity? That anti-Semitism is a mutating virus, that it is global and that it continues to motivate acts of unspeakable violence. Is there any more than this?  Ours is a tough challenge. While being realistic and comprehending the depth and breadth of the problem we must also take care not to let our Jewishness be shaped by anti-Semitism and fear. Perhaps it boils down to the question: what is the purpose of being Jewish? Is it about continuity and survival? Is there a mandate to offer the world Nobel Prize winners?  

Deeply troubling are the questions raised by Susannah Heschel and Christian Weise’s Kristallnacht essays in this issue. How did the violence of Kristallnacht allow the bullish voices in the Zionist movement to hijack the gradual settlement programme in Palestine based on peaceful co-existence? How were the seeds of the current Palestinian conflict sown seventy years ago when thousands of Jews fled Nazi-occupied Europe? The chauvinism bemoaned by alternative early Zionists like Robert Weltsch in the 1930s has bequeathed a stranglehold of violence and hatred between Palestinians and Israelis. Political discourse has shown neither will nor vision but now, in the brand new world figure of Obama lies hope for a new settlement. Peace will require tough talk, strict measures and vigilant enforcement by the international community, led by the US. Of his many inherited crises, this one is Obama’s most historic, bloody and challenging. Let us pray he is up to the job. Art can venture where politics dare not tread, offering an imaginative landscape in which new possibilities can be contemplated, as Griselda Pollock suggests in her essay on The Object Quality of the Problem. This is the name of an exhibition at the Henry Moore Institute, a groundbreaking attempt to convey the spatial experience of living in conflicted Israel-Palestine territory and it won the London Jewish Cultural Centre 2008 Award for Visual Art. Hopefully such recognition will encourage other art institutions to tackle such a controversial subject.

The correspondence debate between David Shneer and Gil Troy captures a quintessentially Jewish tension between tradition and innovation. They engage, gloves off, with the very foundations of a contemporary Jewish identity, challenging each of us to formulate a more thoughtful personal politics. Both David and Gil will be at Limmud Conference in December, continuing this discussion and presenting individual sessions.

Closer to home, Frederic Raphael’s visceral satire in this issue asks how Jews are talked about in this country, and who is listening. He lends an angry Jewish voice to the current disquiet around David Hare’s latest offering at the National Theatre, Gethsemane - a play about Labour Party fundraising - which is centred around the character of a Lord Levy figure and accusations of anti-Semitism.

These are dark times. Bring on those Chanukah lights. 

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