The school corridor was eerily quiet. There was some subdued shrieking from the playground outside and a little buzz of conversation inside but it was unusually quiet. Then it dawned on me. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish calendar. It was the holiest of days, the day when sins are forgiven.
My first teaching post took me to north-east London, to a suburb with a large Jewish population and my school probably had 25-30% Jewish children, many very gifted. The families were of varying levels of religious observance but all Jewish children took these two days off for this most important of festivals. The Jewish children gave the school a lot of vitality – on this day the absence of their noise was unnerving.
In my two years at that school I formed some impressions of the Jewish community. I met many of them at parents’ evenings and other school events. Those impressions were overwhelmingly positive – robust but polite people interested in building community including the school’s Gentiles.
I place those impressions alongside what I am reading and seeing of the current Israeli bombardments of the Palestinian communities in Gaza. There seems to be no meeting place between these two pictures.
I think to myself: ‘Jewish’ must not be confused with ‘Israeli’. They are not the same. I believe I can oppose Israeli policies on the settlements without being anti-Semitic, though I realise that it is a highly contentious claim. Those radically orthodox Israelis are often belligerent in setting up home in places formerly - still -owned by Palestinians. But then there are those many secular Israelis who live and let live by the Mediterranean, wearied by the intransigence of these orthodox.
Our little acquaintance with the Palestinians is second hand. Our son worked for a year with a Palestinian educational organisation on the coast. We have friends who regularly volunteered to accompany Palestinians on their way to work through military check-points. From them we have heard painful stories of harassment and violence, of disinheritance, of losing land to Jewish settlers, of being cut off from their families and from their olive groves by the Wall. We have also regularly heard Palestinians speak at the Greenbelt Festival. While these Palestinians have been committed to peaceful engagement with their Jewish neighbours they do understand, they say, why in Gaza and the West Bank some fellow Palestinians resort to violence.
All of this leaves me bewildered and nervous of taking any side.
My rational self may assemble some flimsy evidence but this is a deeply visceral matter. It is about an identity imbued from birth. It is about folk history. It is about personal stories of loss. And the Holocaust casts its dark shadow over everything.
And eventually the stories which today come from Gaza meet my own stories from Ilford. And out of that meeting comes my own confused response, my own prejudices.
And all the while the rockets rain down mostly on the innocents. And there are many sins to be forgiven. And some are cynical political decisions from a century ago. And some of them are British.