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A Lesson from History


I have been reading about The Hundred Years’ War between France and England by Jonathan Sumption the well-known and controversial barrister, former member of the Supreme Court of Great Britain. It is a  boring book about petty rivalries and seemingly endless battles and intrigues. It reflects the command of detail, rather than broad brush strokes one expects from lawyers and academics. Having insulted both professions, I apologize in advance.

The Hundred Years’ War was a series of conflicts in Western Europe from 1337 to 1453, waged between the English House of Plantagenet and its rival House of York, and the French Valois and its rivals, Anjou, Brittany, Bourbon, Burgundy, Flanders, Gascony, Normandy, Poitou and Picardy ( I might have missed out others but who really cares), over the right to rule France. 

It was one of the most notable conflicts of the Middle Ages. Five generations of kings fought for pride and power. And at the same time, they often had to battle with their own Lords and Barons. They were all feudal societies in which people were supposed to know their places in the hierarchy. Those lower down had to serve and were at the mercy of those above them socially.

Throughout the long drawn out see saw of the war, barons, counts and lords (and not a few ladies) kept on changing sides and loyalties, winning , losing and coming back for more like punch drunk boxers.  The wealthy elite and their henchmen, administrators  and merchants  (the Princes of the Church who were a law unto themselves) lived lives of luxury and  privilege, while the vast majority of  the ordinary population, suffered in poverty, barely above the level of animals. They were subject to almost constant invasion, expulsion, slavery and brutal death, not to mention famine, plagues and other natural disasters. Men would be forced to go to fight for whichever Baron called on them to  serve, leaving families without the manpower to cultivate the land. Since most did not return, their families were left destitute to starve to death. Fields, livestock and property were confiscated or destroyed by each invading force. The old, the women and children were driven from their homes and the safety of besieged towns so that the defenders would not need to feed them. Marauding armies looking for food and loot terrorized their way across  the continent. It was a brutish life.

The only respite might have come from adventures abroad such as the Crusades where one would kill and loot one’s way either to a fortune or a few gold coins that could set ones family up for life. Or in a world of dog eat dog, attacking ones neighbors or the vulnerable for whatever one could gain. It made drug gang warfare seem innocuous.

Caught in the middle of this were the Jews. At the mercy of which ever King or Duke they found refuge under. And because their communities relied on self help and support, they survived better than most of the ordinary  people they lived amongst and were inevitably envied and used as scapegoats, especially by the church.

As a I read Sumption’s detailed description of the constant horrors the populace suffered,  I could feel for those benighted populations then. It has taken us hundreds of years to slowly improve the condition of  our world for the vast majority. In my own lifetime we have progressed enormously lifting millions out of poverty and disease throughout most of the world.  Most of us are healthier, richer and freer beyond the imagination of the medieval mind. 

There are of course still areas of human suffering. States and Ghettoes of violence, thousands of refugees driven from their homes and countries by war, poverty and hate. Yet at the same time the world responds with aid, loans, charity and good will. 

What worries me is the seemingly increasing sense of alienation, anger and dissatisfaction in the so called developed western world. Adults behaving like spoilt children. It is largely the fault of this new emphasis on Identity Politics. I am right and virtuous. You are entitled and bad. I don’t agree with you, I will bring you down. My anger is legitimate but yours is not. My suffering is greater yours. 

No one’s suffering should be  gauged in relation to someone else’s.  To wallow in a sense of injustice, to blame  and demean everyone else, only prevents progress.  It breeds resentment, not good will. I am not alone in my concern. Two highly  regarded philosophers Robert Putnam and Michael Sandel have just published books on this very subject. I believe in getting ahead, not getting even.

As Jews we should appreciate how fortunate we are now. Of course, we must  continue to fight our enemies. But not let that battle make us forget our humanity. We too suffer from this sense that our pain is greater than others. We have been so concerned with the Holocaust and our battles for survival in Israel, and the Diaspora that we are in danger of not appreciating how fortunate we  really are now. 

Yes, there is still hatred and envy directed at us, and yes, there are billions batting for the other side and our priority must be for ours because we are so few. But it is the mind set of victimhood that I object to and I feel we are still encouraging. The Ultra-Orthodox resent any interference even in the interests of general health and seemingly with no regard for anyone else. And on the secular side, resentment of religion and encouraging violence against those they disagree with.  As well as the  almost universal hypocrisy and incompetence of authorities. Yet, despite it all , it looks as though some humans have worked together to find a vaccine in record time.

Another example of tunnel vision is the controversial Holocaust memorial in Victoria Gardens near Whitehall, London. Do we really need it? And will it be good for the Jews? I doubt it. So too do the redoubtable and admirable Baroness Ruth Deech and the iconic Norman Lebrecht. To name two that I know and admire.

We can all claim victimhood. We must remember the past of course. We are freer, safer and richer than we ever were as a people. We should stop gazing at our own navels and wasting money on memorials and other outward symbols that most people ignore. Especially those who most ought to be learning from history.

I once heard an old Russian proverb that said “he who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing both eyes.” It is true that those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it. But those who only focus on the past cannot heal or go forward. We are told  in our tradition to remember the past, but to strive for a better future.

PS. I am grateful to His Honour Judge Michael Horowitz QC for correcting me. The quote I used last week “To the Jew as a citizen everything, to the Jew as a nation nothing” was not said by Napoleon but by Clermont-Tonnerre in the National Assembly back in 1789.