“then each took the hand of the other and then they were seen no more”
“then each took the hand of the other and then they were seen no more”
A powerful and moving song by Leon Rosselson, Britain’s foremost protest
folk singer. Leon Rosselson is a
socialist who has devoted his musical talents to supporting the oppressed. He has signed many letters to the newspapers
attacking Israel’s murderous policies and he is both an anti-Zionist and a
member of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods.
The song below will be ‘controversial’ only to those whose eyes are blind
to the parallels between Nazism 80 years ago and its bastard offspring, Zionism.
It is precisely because Zionism wishes to exonerate the Nazis that Netanyahu
(& he wasn’t alone) put forward the thesis at the last World Zionist Organisation
Congress that the responsibility for the holocaust of European Jews was not
that of Hitler but the Palestinian Mufti of Jerusalem.
For Zionism today, any opposition to racism, even of the Nazi kind is
embarrassing and does not fit with its war against the Palestinians. Hence the desire to draw an equals sign
between the Palestinians and the Nazis whereas the correct designation is that
of Leon Rosselson, between Zionism and the Nazis.
have creative licence but has Leon Rosselson gone too far?
Nazi soldier smashes the head of Rivka, a seven year old girl wearing her new
red dress in the Vilna ghetto in 1942. An Israeli soldier fires a shell onto a
Gaza beach and kills Mohammed, an eleven year old boy playing football with his
cousins in 2014. In the songwriter’s dream, Mohammed and Rivka take each
other’s hand and “leave this world of war” – together.
Polish ghetto has been twinned with the Gaza Strip.
are on a parallel with Israelis.
in life and in death, Rivka and Mohammed are together and equal.
Rosselson has given us a new song that will outrage some but bring many more to
is the comparison of Rivka and Mohammed fair? Isn’t such a coupling of victims
a dishonest slur against the state of Israel, a gross exaggeration, and an
offence to the memory of the six million?
those questions in your head while I introduce you to Leon Rosselson, England’s
finest radical songwriter.
Radical songwriter/Compassionate heart
the age of 81 Rosselson has just announced that his new album ‘Where are
the barricades?’, will be his last.
marks the end of more than fifty years of recordings that have charted the
struggles between the left and the right, the rich and the poor, the strong and
the weak. And, in more recent years, the struggle between Israelis and
Palestinians, Zionists and anti-Zionists, and between Jews and Jews.
Rosselson gained national recognition in the early 1960s through appearances on
David Frost’s BBC satire show That Was The Week That Was (TW3). Over the years
he’s sung with many of the greats of the 1960s and 70s English folk music scene
including Martin Carthy, Roy Bailey and Sandra Kerr.
Leon Rosselson delivers his songs with wit, humanity and a great deal of
compassion. His best songwriting tells stories or describes emotionally charged
encounters. He chooses his words with great care and sings them as a concerned,
committed, chronicler of our times rather than an angry revolutionary. In fact,
it’s hard to imagine this Jewish son born into a communist household in North
London ever climbing barricades or storming the citadels of power. That would have
been a waste of his talents anyway.
Not a nation, not a religion
you want to understand how Rosselson’s Jewish and communist roots have informed
his songwriting you can find it beautifully set out in a song called ‘My
Father’s Jewish World‘. Rosselson’s take on the Judaism he
inherited from his parents is summed up in the chorus:
not a nation
Jewish Spirit is still unbroken
like the candle that mocks the darkness
like the song that shatters the silence
like the fool that laughs at the dragon
like the spark that signals rebellion
like the dance that circles unending
of this needs to be understood as we return to ‘The Ballad of Rivka &
Rivka & Mohammed
wrote the song while Israel’s 2014 Gaza assault was still underway. Mohammed
was one of the more than 500 Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces
during that summer. Before the new album version was recorded, Rosselson put
this front room performance on YouTube:
first hearing ‘Rivka & Mohammed’ it struck me how many
political taboos Rosselson was breaking.
his story-telling/song-writing we see the two characters not as representatives
of Jews or Palestinians but as children killed because of hatred, cruelty and the
ability of human beings to dehumanise each other.
universalises their situation refusing to allow politics and nationalism to
create a divide of righteous and unrighteous dead. The point is that Jews
cannot forever been seen as only and always the ‘victims’. We have shown our
ability to be bringers of pain, suffering and death. In such circumstances,
where should a Jew, still filled with the Jewish Spirit of our ancestors,
choose to stand?
song succeeds in ‘shattering the silence’ and it would be good to think that
Rivka and Mohammed could ‘signal a rebellion’ against the collective denial
about Israel that still grips most Jews.
wrong to equate Israel with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust in my view.
Such attempts at direct historical comparisons are poor history and invariably
lead to a row about anti-Semitism rather than current oppression and suffering.
But if the question is: Can the hatred, intolerance and violence seen
perpetrated by Nazis against Jews been seen in the behaviour of Jews towards
Palestinians (with the Jewish state itself as a protagonist) then the answer is
‘yes it can’.
essential truth is that any people in any place can become afflicted with Nazi
behaviour if the circumstances are right. That ought to be the real lesson of
the Holocaust. The tragedy for both Jews and Palestinians is that Zionism has
created those circumstances in Israel/Palestine.
what does Rosselson himself have to say about the song? I’m grateful to Leon
for agreeing to answer my questions.
An interview with Leon Rosselson
Cohen: Your song about Rivka & Mohammed draws an
equivalence between Gaza today and the Vilna ghetto in 1942. Is it the
individual suffering or the political circumstances that you’re
comparing, or both?
Rosselson: I am not the only one to see parallels between
Jews in the ghettos of Warsaw and Vilna and Palestinians in the ghetto of
Gaza. There’s a youtube video of photos of the destruction in the Warsaw
Ghetto alongside photos of the destruction in Gaza with Paul Robeson singing
the Vilna Ghetto song & a quote from a Nazi chief-of-staff to the effect
that ‘Jewish terrorists’ are to blame for the death & destruction in the
Warsaw ghetto alongside a quote from an Israeli functionary that ‘Hamas
terrorists’ are to blame for the destruction in Gaza.
racism of the Nazis, dehumanising Jews (and so making them disposable), is
matched by the racism of prominent Israelis and government spokesman
dehumanising Palestinians, calling them ‘little snakes’, ‘two-legged beasts’,
‘drugged cockroaches’ and suggesting – as in an article in The Times of Israel
– that there are times when genocide is permissible.
the background. But the song is a story about two children who share a common
humanity and a common fate. The key line, for me, is ‘Then each took the hand
of the other’. Given the contempt in which Zionism and Israelis hold the
Jews of Eastern Europe for going passively into the gas chambers (as the myth
has it), it’s not a stretch to show that this Jewish child sees – not an
Israeli child – but this Palestinian child as her friend, her brother.
the song is both personal and political.
Cohen: You must have known the song would be provocative
and controversial, even outrageous, for some listeners. Was that your intention
from the start or just where the creative process took you?
Rosselson: I don’t write songs to be controversial or provocative.
Any song that implies criticism of Israel is going to be seen by Israeli
supporters as provocative so that really doesn’t enter my consciousness.
wanted to express my anger and dismay at what Israel was doing in this attack
on Gaza, what those who called themselves Jewish were doing to another people.
I don’t think that saying directly what I think, what I feel makes for a very
good song so I looked for a story that would carry what I wanted to say.
When I’d calmed down a bit, I changed the ending, omitting the curse.
Cohen: Does the ‘monster’ only represent Israel?
Rosselson: It seemed to me that it was an appropriate word for
a state that uses its immense military power to crush a defenceless people.
Doubtless there are other monsters in the world.
What reactions have you had to the song as a recording and in performance?
Rosselson: I haven’t so far had any hostile response,
probably because Jewish supporters of Israel don’t usually come to my concerts.
Sometimes they do, particularly in America. Mostly audiences are moved by the
song. My daughter can’t listen to it without crying and it took me time
to be able to sing it without openly showing emotion. It is, after all,
What for you would be a good outcome for Israel/Palestine?
Rosselson: I think now there is no 2-state solution however
desirable some, like Uri Avnery and, of course, mainstream politicians think it
would be. It’s not going to happen. It wouldn’t anyway solve the problem (the
‘demographic’ problem, as Israelis see it) of what rights Palestinians – 1 in 5
of the population – would have in a Jewish state.
against a Jewish state as I’m against an Islamic state or any state that
excludes, by definition, a minority of its population. So one state with equal
rights for all its citizens would be the best solution. So no Palestinian state
either. Until that happens,far off into the future, the conflict will continue.
Ballad of Rivka & Mohammed’ can be found on Rosselson’s final album ‘Where
are the Barricades’. You can buy from his website or on iTunes. For more of
his songs with an Israel/Palestine theme ‘The Last Chance’ is the album to buy.