Cul­tures that should not clash

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - James In­verne

AN OPEN let­ter to Cas­san­dra Wil­son Dear Cas­san­dra, At the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val, there was a fas­ci­nat­ing ex­hibit which con­sisted of tele­vi­sion screens, on each of which an African-amer­i­can man an­swered ques­tions about the black ex­pe­ri­ence. It was quite pow­er­ful, but I’d like to have had you there, be­cause I still don’t un­der­stand what it means to be black. How many black peo­ple are there in the world? It may be im­pos­si­ble to mea­sure — but there are many mil­lions. Can such a vast swathe of peo­ple, from so many dis­tinct ge­o­graph­i­cal, re­li­gious and cul­tural back­grounds, be lumped to­gether as one?

There are about 13 mil­lion Jews in the world to­day — a frac­tion of the num­ber of black peo­ple — and, as the say­ing goes, 13 mil­lion dif­fer­ent opin­ions. Peo­ple be­ing peo­ple, I’m sure the same holds for ev­ery race.

One thing, though, that has al­ways (more or less) bound the Jewish peo­ple to­gether is — trag­i­cally — our con­stant strug­gle against per­se­cu­tion. The re­cent, dread­ful events in Toulouse have served only to re­mind us how ever-present are an­tisemitism’s grotes­queries. This has also seemed to be the case with the black pop­u­la­tion. Like us, you have been hounded and en­slaved through­out your his­tory. It’s not all that de­fines us, but it’s a pow­er­ful cul­tural ad­he­sive.

Our peo­ples have of­ten found in this a shared cause. On my door­mat the other day popped a won­der­ful record­ing that ex­plores trea­sures of Jewish mu­sic in Amer­i­can song. The com­pi­la­tion is called: Black Sab­bath: The Se­cret Mu­si­cal His­tory of Black Jewish Re­la­tions. It re­calls a time when black Amer­i­can mu­si­cians iden­ti­fied strongly with the Jewish strug­gle for a home­land, see­ing in it echoes of their own fight to be recog­nised as a free peo­ple.

You should lis­ten to it. Mu­si­cally, it’s an ab­so­lute joy. Has any­one sung My Yid­dishe Momme quite like Bil­lie Hol­i­day? Or Ex­o­dus like Jimmy Scott? I never thought If I Were A Rich Man was funky un­til I heard The Temp­ta­tions’ take on it. And you should hear the fer­vour of Lena Horne, turn­ing Hava Nag­ila into a de­mand for black eman­ci­pa­tion in Now.

But lis­ten to it, too, for a truth. When you re­cently pulled out of the women’s fes­ti­val in Holon, cit­ing em­pa­thy for those who boy­cott Is­rael, how do you think the artists on the al­bum would have felt?

At a time when there was no black US pres­i­dent, when your peo­ple were still fight­ing tooth and nail — po­lit­i­cally, cul­tur­ally and yes, some­times vi­o­lently, would they have been so damn­ing of a coun­try sur­rounded by en­e­mies who have promised its destruc­tion? En­e­mies who are send­ing in rock­ets daily, ex­port­ing ter­ror­ists to hit tar­gets abroad and, in Iran’s case, build­ing weapons ca­pa­ble of far more wide­spread dam­age.

Lis­ten, Cas­san­dra, re­ally lis­ten, to Scott’s ethe­real voice as he sings “I see a land where chil­dren can run free”. He’s not just singing about Jewish chil­dren, he’s think­ing about his own neigh­bour­hood, too. But the Jews in Is­rael are still un­der threat. This is not about six mil­lion Jews ne­go­ti­at­ing with four-and-a-half mil­lion Pales­tini­ans. It is about fac­ing the hos­til­ity of hun­dreds of mil­lions of Mid­dle East Arabs.

I could talk about the many ges­tures and con­ces­sions Is­rael has made and the ter­ror it has re­ceived in re­turn. But let me just fi­nally say this. Mu­sic can give hope and un­der­stand­ing. Just as your fel­low African Amer­i­can mu­si­cians found through song a com­mon bond with Jews in Is­rael, why not go there and to the West Bank and to the Arab states, too — sing about how we can all iden­tify with each other. That, not stub­born si­lence, can per­haps get us all singing the same songs. Songs of peace.

Yours sin­cerely, James

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