Cultures that should not clash

By James Inverne, April 6, 2012
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An open letter to Cassandra Wilson

Dear Cassandra,

At the Sundance Film Festival, there was a fascinating exhibit which consisted of television screens, on each of which an African-American man answered questions about the black experience.

It was quite powerful, but I'd like to have had you there, because I still don't understand what it means to be black. How many black people are there in the world? It may be impossible to measure - but there are many millions. Can such a vast swathe of people, from so many distinct geographical, religious and cultural backgrounds, be lumped together as one?

Like us, you have been hounded throughout your history

There are about 13 million Jews in the world today - a fraction of the number of black people - and, as the saying goes, 13 million different opinions. People being people, I'm sure the same holds for every race.

One thing, though, that has always (more or less) bound the Jewish people together is - tragically - our constant struggle against persecution. The recent, dreadful events in Toulouse have served only to remind us how ever-present are antisemitism's grotesqueries. This has also seemed to be the case with the black population. Like us, you have been hounded and enslaved throughout your history. It's not all that defines us, but it's a powerful cultural adhesive.

Our peoples have often found in this a shared cause. On my doormat the other day popped a wonderful recording that explores treasures of Jewish music in American song. The compilation is called: Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black Jewish Relations. It recalls a time when black American musicians identified strongly with the Jewish struggle for a homeland, seeing in it echoes of their own fight to be recognised as a free people.

You should listen to it. Musically, it's an absolute joy. Has anyone sung My Yiddishe Momme quite like Billie Holiday? Or Exodus like Jimmy Scott? I never thought If I Were A Rich Man was funky until I heard The Temptations' take on it. And you should hear the fervour of Lena Horne, turning Hava Nagila into a demand for black emancipation in Now.

But listen to it, too, for a truth. When you recently pulled out of the women's festival in Holon, citing empathy for those who boycott Israel, how do you think the artists on the album would have felt?

At a time when there was no black US president, when your people were still fighting tooth and nail - politically, culturally and yes, sometimes violently, would they have been so damning of a country surrounded by enemies who have promised its destruction? Enemies who are sending in rockets daily, exporting terrorists to hit targets abroad and, in Iran's case, building weapons capable of far more widespread damage.

Listen, Cassandra, really listen, to Scott's ethereal voice as he sings "I see a land where children can run free". He's not just singing about Jewish children, he's thinking about his own neighbourhood, too. But the Jews in Israel are still under threat. This is not about six million Jews negotiating with four-and-a-half million Palestinians. It is about facing the hostility of hundreds of millions of Middle East Arabs.

I could talk about the many gestures and concessions Israel has made and the terror it has received in return. But let me just finally say this. Music can give hope and understanding. Just as your fellow African American musicians found through song a common bond with Jews in Israel, why not go there and to the West Bank and to the Arab states, too - sing about how we can all identify with each other. That, not stubborn silence, can perhaps get us all singing the same songs. Songs of peace.

Yours sincerely, James

    Last updated: 10:11am, April 6 2012