While looking for another of his books in a London bookshop, I came across Jews and Words by Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Salzberger – he a novelist and she a historian. It is intriguing, funny and enlightening, with some pertinent comments and observations that speak into contemporary discussions of Israel, Judaism and Jewishness. I would be interested to hear a response to the book from someone who intuits (because inhabits) the Jewish cultural worldview being explored. The key line is that the authors, both atheists, see the vitality of a “textline” over a “bloodline”.

So, it might seem odd to link that to a very different book: Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims. Written by George Manginis, it is a detailed account of what most people know as Mount Sinai. In fact, he describes it early on as a “biography” of Moses' Mountain, deriving this from archaeological interpretation, historical analysis, art historical appreciation and textual criticism.

He might have added “fashion history” to the list. The fascinating and vivid account of life in this place includes almost passing reference to the transience of some resident communities. Referring to some time around 300AD he quotes:

And they [the savage nation of Vlemmyes], hoping to find riches, came to plunder the monks; since they found nothing but woven mats and the saints themselves wearing animal hair garments, they were outraged and slaughtered them, even though they did no harm.

When you stand back and survey the great sweep of the entire history of the known universe (for starters), how do you count the significance of some men who (a) chose to live as monks in a desert, (b) had a basic line in clothing, and (c) met a grisly death for no apparent reason other than that they disappointed their killers?

This is a pertinent question in a world in which we have become used to hearing stories of whole communities being summarily wiped out by people who fundamentally dislike them. It focuses Primo Levi's post-Auschwitz question about what is a human being? Is a life valuable when lived in obscurity (as most are) and ended in cheap violence? The Christian answer is clear, but this is a contested matter in a world in which ethics too often are discussed in purely utilitarian terms.

Anyway, that's a digression. The biography of Mount Sinai allows stories to be told by people who have been there. These are people who have travelled, lived, sojourned, invaded, worshipped, hidden and traded in a place thought of by many as holy. They bring their diverse motives and conflicted contributions to a place that, if the stones could speak, would tell much about what human beings are really like. Holiness does not dwell in splendid isolation from the real world, but somehow flickers a fragile flame amid the usual stuff, business and horrors of the world we all know.

I have not been to Sinai, and I know little of the development of the area. Its history is not one with which I am very familiar (where is Tom Holland when you need him?). But, this book, bringing together the several disciplines that tell its story, is rich in detail, agile in narrative, and evocative in mood. It makes me want to go there. As the book concludes:

What makes Jabal Musa interesting for the scholar, fascinating for the visitor, and hallowed for the believer is the layering of worship; the stratigraphy of devotion. The place continues to inspire awe, to be seen as a refuge and to attract pilgrims. The immutability of its rituals is the measure of its importance… Modernity denies or ignores tradition. For some, Jabal Musa is just a mountaintop. For most, it remains a holy place.

 

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A couple of days ago Katie Hopkins wrote a piece in the Sun newspaper in which she called migrants on the Mediterranean “cockroaches”. The Sun saw fit to publish this. She would prefer to send gunships to desperate migrants rather than rescue ships.

Today it is reported that up to 700 migrants might have drowned in the latest tragedy on the sea many of us think of as somewhere to swim on holiday.

Twitter was alive with criticism of Hopkins, in some cases inviting readers to go back to the 1940s and replace “migrants” with “Jews”. You don't have to go back that far: Rwanda's more recent genocide grew out of a demonisation of the rival tribe that dehumanised them as “cockroaches”.

Which editor at the Sun thought this would be acceptable in a newspaper? Is there no editorial control over language and sentiments that dehumanise – even during an election campaign when questions of immigration demand an intelligent debate and not this sort of inhumane diatribe?

What is going on in the mind and soul of Katie Hopkins to generate this sort of stuff?

And what responsibility does the Sun take? Or does it endorse such writing?

It has been remarked that my choice of reading material for a holiday is not 'happy'. The American Civil War, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and now a book about the systematic extermination of Jews in Poland in 1941-2. OK, I see the point.

However, that is just for starters. And the reason I am sitting with my books and iPad in a cafe (with wifi) by a lake while my wife and friends do something else is because I have a seriously dodgy shoulder awaiting treatment when I get back to Bradford.

Right, that's the explanations and excuses dealt with.

Anyway, we had a conversation over breakfast this morning about how individuals, communities or entire nations manage to collude in inhuman behaviour while then proving totally incapable of coming to terms with that behaviour later. Austria has never seriously addressed its complicity with Nazism and the Final Solution; Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War allowed it the freedom to cover both heroism and quiet cruelty; Rwanda sought to blame the Belgians and the French for sowing the seeds of genocide only twenty years ago.

We were discussing how the ground for dreadful collective behaviour and individual complicity in it is laid by years of cultural and linguistic corruption. Turn Jews and Bolsheviks into categories of 'enemies' and it becomes easier to justify getting rid of them. Spend years referring to 'the other tribe' as “cockroaches” and stamping them out becomes reasonable as well as achievable.

This reminded me of something I heard years ago at Greenbelt. I think it was the great and late-lamented Mike Yaconelli who claimed that the most common cause of death of cattle on the great plains of the American mid-west was “being hit by a train”. Trains and railway tracks were hard to find in the vast expanses of empty land. And the cows didn't set out to find them in order to get flattened by the iron horse. They simply put their head down, nibbled the nearest bit of grass… then moved on to the next piece of grass… and then the next bit… until they had moved a very long way and found themselves nibbling grass in front of tons of moving metal.

They nibbled their way to destruction.

People don't set out to collude in genocide. They just keep their head down and their eyes narrowly focused. They attend to the immediate business to hand and don't look up to see the bigger picture. But, one day they find themselves in front of a train.

Which is how and why Ordinary Men end up doing extraordinarily terrible things to other people.

 

It is impossible to visit the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem and not be moved, horrified, ashamed. It is one of those places where you feel it is an intrusion to talk, breaking the silence which can be the only real response to genocide.

I have visited concentration camps and studied the literature. I have spoken to all sorts of Germans who responded in diverse ways to Nazi totalitarianism. I have read deeply and thought long about the Holocaust. But, when you walk into Yad Vashem a good deal of the rationalising has to be left behind in order to be impacted afresh by the almost inconceivable inhumanity of systematic cruelty.

The most moving memorial (to my mind, at least) is that dedicated to the Warsaw uprising. On the left is a bronze relief of the 19 year old and others who led the armed uprising within the ghetto – resisting the crimes of the Nazis with all the power and arms they could muster. On the right there is another bronze relief of Jews being led to slaughter, accompanied by German guards who have been given no faces. These two reliefs display two different responses to the Nazi evil: resistance or acceptance of their fate.

After the War, many survivors struggled with this. Which was the right response? And was one wrong for choosing the other option? Should the Jews have simply succumbed to the power of military abuse; or should they have fought against it? The answer offered here is that there is no answer: there is simply the fact that people responded differently.

The more worrying aspect is the refusal of the artist to give the German sentries faces. Apparently, he felt that we couldn’t humanise such monsters. The last time I visited Yad Vashem I asked our academic guide if this was wise – that if we simply dismiss such people as ‘monsters’, we don’t have to deal with the human capacity (in all of us?) to collude in such monstrosities. It is only when we give the ‘monster’ a face that we can begin to understand and respond to what they have done. Only then can we begin to face the common human problems of cruelty and violence.

However, as indicated by the above, the brain does have to be engaged at Yad Vashem. Sir Jonathan Sacks has spoken of the dangers of ‘memory becoming history’ – when the ‘story’ becomes a commodity useful for justifying other ends, easily disconnected from reality and turned into an ideological weapon. Miroslav Volf has written eloquently about the ways in which ‘memory’ is turned into a justification for violence and the exercise of power.

And this is the struggle that goes on at a place like Yad Vashem: how does the story of the Holocaust relate to how states behave now?

As you enter there is a quotation by Kurt Tucholsky:

A country is not just what it does – it is also what it tolerates.

I saw this a couple of days ago – painted onto the wall that imprisons Bethlehem. To whom does it apply? Just Nazi Germany – or Israel and other states that oppress other people? Or does the incalculable suffering of the Jews in Europe excuse all subsequent abuses by Israel? This is a tough question that inflames passions, but goes to the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Alongside all this, Yad Vashem celebrates the people who resisted the dehumanising violence of the Nazis. It points out that two-thirds of those who planned the Final Solution had university degrees and of them half had doctorates in philosophy, law, politics and economics. Yet it also quotes the German pastor who said:

We don’t know any Jews; we know only human beings.

We see recorded the humanity of a priest in Mlyny who – and it must have seemed like a futile and miniscule gesture at the time – “instructed the village undertaker to write on a note the numbers that were tattooed on the arms of the murdered inmates he buried”. It is this that brings us back to the greatness of Yad Vashem: this place records the names of all those who suffered and died in the Holocaust, remembering their names and ensuring that although their lives ended in anonymity they will never be forgotten. The fact that they lived will be recalled and honoured.

Primo Levi wrote:

Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man… we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this… Nothing belongs to us anymore: they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair… They will even take away our name.

Even where, as in Mlyny, the name is now a number, Levi was to be proved wrong. Yad Vashem insists that the memory of these people will be honoured – whether they resisted or succumbed. The question is now: how does the power of this act in Yad Vashem affect not just our view of the past, but our behaviour in the present and our potential for the future? Or are we simply condemned to repeat history because although we remember, we do not learn – and we see the cruelty in the faceless others and fail to look in the mirror?

There is a cattle truck standing on the end of rails that hang over the precipice outside the museum. On the wall in front of it is inscribed a poem found written in pencil inside the sealed railway car. It reads:

Here in this carload / I am Eve / with Abel my son. / If you see my other son / Cain son of man / tell him

What are we to tell him?