The role we must not for­get

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - He­len Grant

Just about ev­ery­body, I hope, must be aware that this year is the cen­te­nary of the begin­ning of the First World War. The next four years will see count­less events, large and small, mark­ing it in a mul­ti­tude of dif­fer­ent ways. And it will be truly world­wide. The First World War was just that: the first time a mil­i­tary con­flict had touched ev­ery cor­ner of the world. There will be ex­hi­bi­tions, ra­dio and TV pro­grammes aplenty and — just as im­por­tantly — many moments where every­one will get the chance to re­flect on that time.

In Lon­don, the historic Be­vis Marks Sy­n­a­gogue, for ex­am­ple, to­gether with the Board of Deputies, are mark­ing the oc­ca­sion with an evening cer­e­mony on Mon­day Au­gust 4, the start of the na­tional com­mem­o­ra­tions.

All of us, I hope, will pause and think about what it meant then, what came out of it in the years that fol­lowed, and what it means for us to­day – 100 years on – as we try to piece to­gether an an­swer to the big­gest of all the ques­tions: was it worth it?

As min­is­ter re­spon­si­ble for the govern­ment’s pro­gramme to mark the cen­te­nary, I’m clear that our role is not to cre­ate or pro­mote an “au­tho­rised” ver­sion of what hap­pened, and why. That’s for his­to­ri­ans.

But what we can do is help oth­ers – in­di­vid­u­als, com­mu­nity groups or in­sti­tu­tions – as they try to make sense of it in their own way.

When the Prime Min­is­ter launched the govern­ment’s na­tional pro­gramme, he made it clear that re­mem­brance would be at its heart. Along­side this, ed­u­ca­tion and reach­ing out to young peo­ple to help them make the con­nec­tion be­tween their for­bears’ sac­ri­fice and them­selves, would also be a pri­or­ity.

As we tell the sto­ries of that time, both at home and on the bat­tle­fronts, we hope to make this eas­ier.

The Jewish com­mu­nity, to no one’s sur­prise, pro­vides a rich source of such ma­te­rial.

You may well have al­ready read about, or have gone to see the ex­hi­bi­tion in the Jewish Mu­seum in Lon­don’s Camden Town, For King and Coun­try? which tries to cap­ture the role and ex­pe­ri­ence of Bri­tish Jews in the­First World War. Another ex­hi­bi­tion — En­dur­ing War: Grief, Grit and Hu­mour — which has just opened at the Bri­tish Li­brary, also has fas­ci­nat­ing ma­te­rial on the day-to-day life of those fight­ing.

The role of the Jewish com­mu­nity in the First World War is not widely enough recog­nised, in my opinion.

Both here, and over­seas, they of­ten found them­selves con­flicted when it came to tak­ing part. Around 40,000 Bri­tish Jews fought in the war (an ex­tremely high pro­por­tion of the to­tal com­mu­nity,) but 100,000 fought for Ger­many and 300,000 for Aus­tria Hun­gary.

The war also saw five Bri­tish Jews hon­oured with the VC, and this too is a re­ally high num­ber per capita tak­ing part.

Bri­tish Jews can be proud of their con­tri­bu­tion

Re­li­gious con­vic­tions, and faith more gen­er­ally, are an in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the 1914-18 con­flict..

It sur­prises some peo­ple just how im­por­tant faith was to those sent to the hor­ror of the trenches. Some as­sume the bat­tle­field must have been a god­less place, with moral­ity sus­pended for the du­ra­tion of the hos­til­i­ties.

But that’s not the case. All Bri­tish ser­vice­men were is­sued with a Bi­ble when they joined up as part of their es­sen­tial sup­plies, for ex­am­ple.

There are pho­to­graphs show­ing Sikhs sing­ing re­li­gious chants out­side their bil­lets and pi­quant pic­tures of Chris­tian church ser­vices in the field.

One of the Bri­tish Li­brary’s most touch­ing ex­hibits is a let­ter from Sher Muham­mad Khan, re­cu­per­at­ing at the Brighton Pav­il­ion Hos­pi­tal, in which he de­scribes the prob­lems of keep­ing a copy of the Ko­ran clean dur­ing war­fare, an im­por­tant el­e­ment of re­li­gious faith in Is­lam.

The Jewish Mu­seum ex­hi­bi­tion in­cludes the story of a man called Mar­cus Se­gal whose let­ters home de­scribe a life dur­ing war­fare, which in­cluded, rather im­prob­a­bly, build­ing a suc­cah in the trenches and help­ing Rev­erend Michael Adler, the first Jewish chap­lain em­ployed by the Bri­tish Army on ac­tive ser­vice.

The next four years give us all in this coun­try, and from all our com­mu­ni­ties, a chance to re­flect on that far-off time.

For Bri­tish Jews it should be a mo­ment of se­ri­ous re­mem­brance, but also of pride in the sac­ri­fice your fam­i­lies made at the time.

We, to­day, should never for­get them. He­len Grant, MP for Maid­stone and The Weald, is min­is­ter at the De­part­ment of Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport

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