WHY SCHAMA’S SERIES IS A WAKE-UP CALL TO BRITISH JEWRY

October 06, 2000

The phone rang at 3am, and my wife said, ‘‘That’s Margrette’’. I replied: ‘‘She told you she would call? In the middle of the night?’’

‘‘No, but I know it is Margrette.’’ Of course the call had to be from America. Only in America do other people’s time zones mean nothing. And there was only one person I could not ignore at 3am.

Anyone else would wait. Whatever it was they had to tell me, if it was important, it would still be important after sunrise.

But it might not be safe to leave Margrette till sunrise.

I answered the phone. Margrette lives in Denver with her third husband. She was first married in the seventies to a close friend of mine, and they had three children, but the relationship collapsed when Margrette suffered severe depression after the third baby.

She had two more children with another man, who lived in the same town, did the same job, had even shared an office with her first husband. The man was almost a carbon copy, and their relationship went the same way — after the second child, they divorced.

Her youngest is 15 now. She brought all of them up on her own — there were boyfriends, and both her husbands were conscientious about maintenance, but the real work of being a parent was all done by Margrette.

And she is a great mother. All her children say so. But she is also a victim. A victim of two husbands who could not cope with her depressions, a victim of her father — who married her mother bigamously and died when Margrette was seven or eight — and a victim of her genes, which made her vulnerable to splenetic miseries which no quantity of chemical rescue packages can fend off forever.

This is how Margrette sees herself: as a victim. She cannot defend herself, because she defines her personality by soaking up suffering.

If she turned around and said, ‘‘Enough! I’m 50 and I’m not going to stand for all this any longer’’ where would Margrette be then? If she became a non-victim, would she become a non-person altogether?

I knew, as I lifted the 3am receiver, that she would not ask for my help. Margrette does not want me to intervene or find a way to make things better. She wants my sympathy, she wants me to help her accept that she is destined to be a victim.

And I hate to help her with that.

Margrette is Jewish, though for the first time she has married outside her religion. Her troubles are different to last time, but there are so many similarities that, as she lists the injustices against her, I feel I have been listening to this dead-of-night complaint for 20 years.

When she put down the phone — reassured, I hope, that her friends would not judge her by the things that went wrong in her life — I had lost the desire to go back to bed.

I made a strong coffee and walked through the village to knock on the back door of the newsagent’s.

The calm of village streets on a Sunday dawn, the patter of my dogs’ paws on the pavement beside me, and the slatey promise of rain, made me sure that synchronicities were sliding around in the morning air.

Synchronicity is the way life knocks two unrelated things together to make sparks. I can feel when they are about to happen, as if the air pressure changes.

I was sure that when I opened the paper, the first story I saw would feature a woman named Margrette, or focus on Denver, or involve one of her ex-husbands.

But I was wrong. The first piece I saw was a long discussion of Simon Schama’s BBC series History of Britain. I was immediately hooked, for the writer was focusing on the mass slaughter of Jews in England, hundreds of years ago.

It was not until I finished the piece that I began to reflect how it shone a light on the pain of my friend, Margrette the victim.

Schama describes the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 by Edward I, and the hanging of 300 Jewish elders in the Tower of London.

England, he says, was the ‘‘first country to perform a little act of ethnic cleansing’’.

More than 700 years later, Jews are being encouraged to regard ourselves as eternal victims, and history like this is being shovelled over us like dirt onto a grave.

A holocaust seven centuries ago — even documents of the time used the word. Then endless holocausts all the way to the Nazi slaughters. And beyond. Without holocausts, runs the logic of victimhood, what would the Jews be?

We are not driven by the past, any more than a boat is propelled by its wake. What happened in 1290 makes fascinating Sunday-morning reading, but it must not be allowed to dictate the future of a people. George Santayana said, ‘‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’’ but he was totally wrong.

By tying ourselves to the past, we relive it again and again. We define ourselves by suffering today and tomorrow what we suffered yesterday.

This is the truth of it: Those who cannot break from the past are condemned to repeat it.

By the time I saw this clearly, it was 3am in Denver. I rang Margrette to tell her.

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