Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Remembering COHEN A. and COHEN H. (Or the short trip from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip)

How did I get from my holiday visiting the Flanders Fields of Belgium all the way to the Gaza Strip? From the Western Front to the bombed wreckage of homes in Al-Shejaea? 

It turned out to be a much shorter journey than you might think.

Private COHEN A. from one of the many London regiments, and rifleman COHEN H. from Ireland had disappeared somewhere on the Ypres salient between 1914 and 1918. The fact that I and my two sons had found their names carved on the limestone walls of the Menin Gate meant their bodies had never been recovered.

Perhaps they had sunk into the mud of No Man's Land or been blown to smithereens in an artillery barrage. Either way, there was nothing left of them but their names. 

They had 'fallen', according the the inscription on the Menin Gate, 'Ad Majorem Dei Glorium' 'To the greater glory of God'. For COHEN A. and COHEN H. and the 54,896 other disappeared men from Britain and its Empire, their 'sacrifice' had been made 'Pro Patra, Pro Rege'. 'For Country and for King'.

There was no way to find out if my two namesakes had joined up voluntarily in the earliest days of the fighting or, more likely, had been conscripted, making their ultimate sacrifice on the orders of the British government.

The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who knew first-hand what conscripted sacrifice looked like, was far from impressed by Ypres' classical archway honouring the dead. As the world marked the 1914 centenary this week I doubt there were many quoting Sassoon's poem 'On passing the new Menin Gate' which ends with this accusatory couplet:
"Well might the dead who struggled in the slime
Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime"
Sassoon was right, we go to great lengths to honour our fallen of the Great War in order to cope better with their state sanctioned killing.

In all, 60,000 British Jews served in the armed forces during World War One and 3,500 were killed. In the German trenches there were 100,000 German Jews of whom 12,000 were killed. So Jews were shooting at each other, in the name of 'King and Country' and for 'The greater glory of God' on both sides of No Man's Land.

And in the immaculate Commonwealth war graves dotted across the Belgium countryside, the white headstones make no distinction between military rank or the nominal faith of the soldiers they name. Every headstone is identical with the occasional Star of David emblem sitting neatly between those marked with Crosses. In death all are equal in both rank and faith.

I wondered if the news had ever reached COHEN A. and COHEN H. that in November 1917 the British government had issued the Balfour Declaration. Would they have been pleased by the news that Prime Minister Lloyd George now supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine? Did the COHENS I had found see themselves as part of a 'homeless people' in need of their own nation state? Were they romantic Zionists, like the war poet Isaac Rosenberg, dreaming of an ancient glory. Or were these COHENS communists or bundists or socialists? Or perhaps A. and H. were content to make their way as best they could in the country that had given their parents refuge.

And then my mind began to wander and to play games with history.

What if everything had turned out differently?

What if the Manchester University chemist, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, had not been successful in bending the ears of the British wartime cabinet and persuading them that their diplomatic needs melded perfectly with his? What if the Balfour Declaration had never been signed?

What if the Jewish voices who opposed Zionism, such as Lucien Wolf, Claude Montefiore and Edwin Montagu, had won the argument?

After all they had made some good points. Hadn't the days of a Jewish Kingdom long gone? Surely for Jewish nationalism the camel train had left the station two millennia ago. There was no going back. And if you did, how would such a restoration change the status of the millions of Jews who had won citizenship in countries around the world? And anyway, the ethnic diversity of Jews made it obvious that they were a people of shared faith but with differing histories and no consistent culture or spoken language. The blood and soil nationalism of 18th and 19th century Europe did not quite fit the Jewish reality. Jewish self- determination had to look different.

What if Lloyd George, and his Foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, had instead decided to honour any of the other multiple and contradictory pledges about the future of Palestine that their ministers and officials had been cooking up with the French government, and with the Turkish and Arab nationalist leaders?

What if the words of Lord Curzon, another member of the War Cabinet and a future Foreign Secretary, had been heeded instead?
"What is to become of the people of the country?...[they] have occupied the country for the best part of 1,500 years, and they own the soil...They will not be content either to be expropriated for Jewish immigrants or to act merely as hewers of wood and drawers of water for the latter."
What if...?

And every now and then another BREAKING NEWS alert would drop into my Blackberry inbox to remind me that a hundred years after the Balfour Declaration, its fall out was still being felt.Currently in a loud and deadly way in the homes and in the streets of Gaza.

And then an even more treacherous thought entered my head.

What if COHEN A. and COHEN H. and their brothers in arms from all parts of the British Commonwealth, had failed to hold the line of the Ypres salient? What if the Germans had broken through and captured the channel ports and crossed to England? What if Kaiser Wilhelm had won the First World War?

No Treaty of Versailles.

No Weimar Republic.

No Adolf Hitler.

No Holocaust.

And, in all likelihood, no Jewish State as it is today constituted.

And while my 'what ifs...' were piling up, where might the descendants of the families of COHEN A. and COHEN H. be now? In my alternative universe, none I imagine would have be conscripted into something called the Israeli Defence Forces. None would have been asked to defend a Jewish nationalism that in the last month has had to justify to the world the killing of more than 400 children in the name of Jewish self-determination.

Perhaps these are silly mind games to play. 

No doubt history would have thrown up alternative scenarios just as dreadful as the ones we have had to live through in the last hundred years, including different challenges and threats to the Jewish communities of Europe.

But my point is this. History does not follow inexorable lines. There are always alternative routes to follow. Different voices to be listened to. Different names that even now could be rescued from historical oblivion to be hallowed and celebrated.

As I write, a ceasefire is holding in Gaza. There is hope that it could lead to talks on the long-term issues of the conflict. But I doubt such talks will get very far while the same power dynamics remain in place. After all, the Israelis have already rejected all of Kerry's and the Palestinian's compromises since last summer.

The last month has brought Israeli terror to the Palestinian people of Gaza. The loss of life and the destruction of an already impoverished economy bares no relation to the threats faced by Israel, especially with the Iron Dome at its disposal. This was a war of choice from the moment Netanyahu blamed Hamas for the murder of three Israeli teenagers on the West Bank. The Palestinians have paid dearly in order for Israel to wreck the Fatah/Hamas Unity deal and divert attention from the failed Kerry peace initiative.

The last month has put on display, like never before, an Israeli society willing to tolerate the most extreme expressions of racism, and even calls for Palestinian genocide, by its parliamentarians and leading rabbis. It is a society that has backed, with overwhelming support, a massively disproportionate attack on a vulnerable people whose land it effectively occupies.

As for Diaspora Jewry, when this Gaza war finally ends, it will be left with one fundamental question to be answered.

How many children will have to die before our communal Jewish leadership decide that they cannot 'Stand by Israel'?

Attempting to blame the victims for their own death has become a sickening argument as the days and weeks have passed. Israel has a right to defend itself! Well, yes, but 'defence' is hardly what we have witnessed in the last four weeks. Claiming that Hamas cares nothing for its women and children and is happy to use them as human shields is contemptible once you have watched toddlers screaming from the pain of shrapnel wounds on their backs and fathers carrying their children wrapped in tiny white shrouds. 

If our Jewish leadership and our synagogue councils cannot understand what most other British citizens do, it is because their moral compass has been thrown into spasm by the demands of defending Zionist principles.

After this summer, our Jewish leadership can watch the campaigns for Israeli economic, academic and cultural boycotts grow. And they can watch as as anti-Israel fury fails to distinguish between Diaspora Jews and the government of the State of Israel. I hope they will begin to understand their responsibility for all of this. They could have spoken out. They did not.

It was indeed a short journey from Flanders Fields to the Gaza Strip. And if I could take COHEN A. and COHEN H. to Al-Shejaea or Beit Hanoun, would they rise from the slime and recognise that a crime has been committed in their name...and mine.

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