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Sunday, 13 April 2014

Freedom Is, As Freedom Does

"An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation”.

(Deut. 26:5).

When members of the Karmiel Women’s Writers’ Group met for the last time before Passover,  we spent five minutes jotting our random thoughts about freedom.

Solomon.NorthupThe most vivid words came from someone who had just seen the movie Twelve Years a Slave and was very, very angry. “It made me ashamed to be an American” she said.

Although British, I know how she felt. I, too, had experienced a terrific wave of involuntary fury surge through me as I’d watched Steve McQueen’s take on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from Saratoga, New York State, who was kidnapped and then sold into slavery during which time he both endured and witnessed the most vile and degrading abuse imaginable. No wonder there continues to be so much black violence. All the bad energy in the collective memory has to be channelled somewhere!

That aside, I found the storyline occasionally incomprehensible as well as emotionally draining, but viewed the movie finally as reminiscent of both Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple and Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes where dirt-poor, uneducated women of all backgrounds were – and sadly will be  forever - at the bottom of a very brutal, de-humanised heap.

The film also made me feel ashamed as a Jew living in modern Israel, knowing that Jews had even a proportionately small share in the international black slave trade in Europe, the deep south of the USA and also the Caribbean.

Some people will point out that there are many texts in Jewish tradition governing the ownership and decent treatment of slaves. But these were formulated in ancient times when Jewish thought and practice was almost always very much in advance of other contemporary  societies.I

So it is sobering to consider that 10,000 US Jews fought on both sides of their country’s Civil War and that it ended only 74 years before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, when and where millions of their co-religionists were hurtled into slave labour or just murdered wholesale by the Nazis.

Still, long after the Egyptian Empire and centuries before the Americas were colonised by the Europeans came the Romans by whom the Jews were also enslaved. But never mind us!

I close with a passage from V S Naipaul’s A Writer’s People about a runaway slave belonging to the Roman tragic actor Aesopus. The man was recaptured and  the orator and philosopher, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who knew of the affair, is recorded as wondering whether the slave  was jailed or sent to a private mill where the conditions would not have surprised Northup.

Licinius, the slave in the company of Patro, an Epicurean, had posed as a freedman in Athens and then had gone to Asia. He seems to have been making his way as a free man, but then he became over-confident. He went back to Athens and fell into the company of Plato, another Epicurean, who a little later had a letter from Aesopus about his runaway slave. Plato put two and two together, and had poor Licinius arrested …. Aesop was ‘grieved at his slave’s criminal audacity’ and wanted the  man back … (he was considered of) no great value. He is a mere nobody’”, wrote Cicero about the incident.


** Wishing all readers a happy Passover and Easter

© Natalie Wood (13 April 2014)

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