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“By the Rivers of Babylon”: Denying Jewish History

This is a cross-post from Mark Gardner at the CST Blog.

Now, from the very deepest depths of ‘whatever will they think of next’ comes news that iconic 1970s pop group, Boney M, were requested by the organisers of the Palestine International Festival in Ramallah to not sing their hit number, “By the Rivers of Babylon”.

Regrettably – for the many of us who have shamelessly danced to cheesy renditions of their hits at Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and the like – Boney M complied.

Having done so, they reportedly showed as much awareness of modern politics as “Ma Baker” does of Gangsta Rap.

Williams said she did not know if it was a political thing or what, but they asked us not to do it and we were a bit disappointed. Organizers said they asked for the song to be skipped, deeming it inappropriate.

I don’t blame Maizie Williams and the rest of Boney M for going along with their hosts’ requests. Her reported words show no hint of political bias either way; and her compliance is invisible compared to what alarmingly large sections of the British liberal-left have gone along with in recent years.

Still, lets try and answer Wiliams’ question, was it “a political thing”? Lets compare some Boney M songs to find out:

Its not a sex thing or a sexism thing because “Bang Bang Lulu”, “Baby do You Wanna Bump”, “Gloria, Can you Waddle” and “Love for Sale” were ok.

Its not a colour thing or a nationalist thing, because “Brown Girl in the Ring”, “White Christmas” and “Ra Ra Rasputin” were ok.

Its not a Christian or even a Voodoo thing, because “Mary’s Boy Child”, “Hark the Herald Angel” and “Voodoonight” were ok.

It’s not an artistic merit thing, nor a flares thing, nor a…I could go on…but lets cut to the serious bit. It was a Jewish thing. Not a political thing, nor even an anti-Zionist thing, but a Jewish thing: or rather, an anti-Jewish thing.

It is one thing to demand a boycott of Israel, but it is quite another to demand a boycott of popular cultural references to the historical Jewish longing for Israel, or Zion.

The instinct is to say that if this is the direction that the boycott movement takes, then arguments over Israel-Palestine will be entering into new anti-Jewish territory. That, however, would be to forget the prominence that arguments over history, archaeology and mythologised pasts have always played in the superheated attempts to disprove Jewish links to the land of Israel.

Those who sat and wept by the rivers of Babylon were expressing the Jewish link with Zion: the fundamental link that the Palestinian festival organisers want to suppress because of their competing claims to it. Each and every debate about Israel and Zionism risks exactly this kind of denial of Jewish history.

Discussing Jewish history in these contexts is an inescapable and fundamental reason why the division between anti-Zionism and antisemitism is such a porous one.

Furthermore, the age old association of Jews with Zion exposes, yet again, the hysterical invitations to antisemitism provided by the regular bastardisation of the word Zionism in today’s media and politics. (For example, Zionists are definitionally racists, ethnic cleansers, inheritors of Nazism, dominators of Washington, manipulators of media, harbingers of war etc etc.)

Indeed, the fundamental Jewish link to Zion was shown only last week by a survey showing that 90% of British Jews believe that “Israel is the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.” It is not, however, what we might call a ‘fundamentalist’ link: 76% of respondents disagreed that “Jews who live outside Israel are living in exile” and a narrow minority of 48% agreed that “the Land of Israel was given to the Jewish people by G-d”.

We are used to seeing the really big Jewish issues swept under the anti-Zionist / anti-Israel carpet. You know the ones.

Things like the singular denial of Jewish historical perspectives. Things like how many Jews would have been saved from the Holocaust had Israel existed pre-1948; or the role of mainstream Zionists and Israel in the revival of the Jewish people after the Holocaust.

Things like never asking what the impact would be upon Israeli and Diaspora Jews if Zionism and Israel were to be smashed by the revolutionary armies of Arab nationalism or Islamic revival; or why is it that Jews are the only people on earth who shouldn’t have a state, because if they do, well…that would just be so…you know, uniquely racist wouldn’t it?

Sometimes it takes the strangest little thing to make you sit up and take notice of what is going on. Who would ever have thought that Boney M would provide that thing?