Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

The breath of life

Posted on: June 2, 2020

News breaks first on social media and I heard of the murder of George Floyd on one of the Corbynist forums. There was a picture: a diptych showing two scenes of men constrained by a uniformed figure. One of them was George Floyd in Minneapolis and the other was a Palestinian, unnamed, being held down by an Israeli soldier, also unnamed.

Soon after, I learned that George Floyd was unarmed and that he pleaded with the aggressor for his life as his breathing was disrupted and stopped.

As we know, protests ensued in the United States and here too in the UK. President Trump has gone on the offensive and is threatening to call on the army. The police officer has been charged with homicide and there may be charges against three other officers present at George Floyd’s death.

I felt inclined to post a message of solidarity on social media, but held back. I was troubled to find that the picture of an Israeli soldier holding down a Palestinian was being posted on Twitter and Facebook as an accompaniment to the photo from Minneapolis. Whether the Palestinian man was armed, whether he suffered any injury during the arrest, is not known. To juxtapose the picture with that of George Floyd is to suggest that the Palestinian was unarmed, wrongfully arrested and possibly killed. It will be assumed that this is the case. I then imagined some of the responses which might come my way if I tweeted about George Floyd: ‘What would you say if it was Israel?’ I wondered if this would be a reasonable question or not.

And what would I say? In the case of Gaza’s ‘March of Return,’ it was asserted in some of the press and some social media that Israel fired on unarmed demonstrators. I didn’t altogether trust the reportage. Afterwards, Hamas claimed the victims as their own activists. It was evident from all the news footage that some of the demonstrators were using burning tires, incendiary kites and Molotov cocktails and that some of them aimed to storm across Israel’s border. A Palestinian activist was filmed saying that he looked forward to murdering Israelis once he had broken through.

Regarding what I would say about a hypothetical homicide perpetrated by an Israeli officer on a Palestinian: the answer is that I would say nothing if I read it in Middle East Monitor, MintPress, Skwawkbox, The Canary or Electronic intifada. Such stories appear daily in the Corbynist groups I follow on Facebook and the source is usually one of the above. Sometimes it is Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper which is increasingly referenced on anti-Israel sites, due to its opposition to the settlements and to Mr Netanyahu’s government. Perceived affinities between these bêtes noires can cause an overlap in subject matter. Thus, expressions of solidarity with black Americans may segue into threads about Trump’s alliance with Netanyahu or his regard for Boris Johnson.

Like many of my friends active against antisemitism, I have become accustomed to being called an apologist for apartheid, complicit in murder and other terms of abuse which mercifully I can’t recall. Now that I want to voice a protest about the death of George Floyd, I am put off somewhat by the prospect of myself being accused; that my solidarity would be rejected by spokespeople of the left, who participate in the fight against most racisms but not necessarily racism towards Jews or, for that matter, Hindus. But that is not really a good reason for saying nothing (Three hours later, I did post a tweet in solidarity and, so far, nobody has objected).

All these months, while coronavirus has raged, health services across the world have provided assisted breathing for patients in intensive care. Then we hear that a police officer causes the death of a man who has time to plead ‘I can’t breathe’ while the policeman fails to relent or relinquish his hold. And this kind of event is doubtless a menace familiar to black people, especially men, all over the USA and very likely to some extent in the UK.

The words ‘I can’t breathe’ now reverberate around the world with a resonance beyond any statistic because the one thing we all have a right to, it seems, is breath.

Words for soul in Hebrew, Latin and Greek (nefesh/neshama, spiritus/animus and pneuma/psyche) all have to do with breathing. In the book of Genesis, in the second account of the creation, this is how God makes the human being, Adam.

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

In the valley of bones, God tells Ezekiel:

Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.  Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.

We feel the tragedy, the rage and the fear gripping America and know that African Americans are more endangered, more enraged and perhaps mourning more deeply than anyone else. It touches us here in the UK. The more removed you are from a situation, the less you can do, but you can always mourn, whoever and wherever you are and, as the Archbishop of York John Sentamu suggested in his Thought for the Day broadcast this morning, I placed a candle in the window.

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