Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

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  Full title “Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots”.  This is the memoir on which the much-discussed Netflix series is based.  I haven’t got Netflix, so I haven’t seen it, but the book was available as a 99p Kindle download, so I thought I’d see what all the fuss was about.

I can’t honestly see quite what all the fuss is about – although the TV series may well be much better.  The book’s interesting; but it’s written in rather a rambling way, and there’s way too much detail about things which really aren’t that interesting, like what they had for their tea, and how people were pushing and shoving to get to the front to see people dancing at a religious festival.  Some of the small details really are interesting, though, like just how much the furry hats cost, and how girls are supposed to wear particular types of tights/stockings.  I also liked the fact that the author said she’d been inspired by the fictional heroines of books she’d managed to obtain secretly.  Elizabeth Bennet.  Jo March.  Anne Shirley.  People often talk about how these fictional heroines can form a bond between women, or at least Anglophone women, from completely different backgrounds.  How very true that’s shown to be here.

Having said all that, it does raise some important issues about the lack of choices for people raised in closed religious communities.  It’s not even just closed religious communities: there’s a growing movement, in the US if not so much elsewhere, for religious parents, especially those from evangelical churches, to home school their children, which means that the children only learn what the parents want them to learn, rather than the mainstream curriculum.  The lifestyle of strict religious communities does work for many people, and obviously that’s great for them, but it’s very difficult for those who are brought up in those communities but want something different from life.

What I’d like to have heard more about – in addition than the story of the author’s mother, who was born in Manchester, and left the New York Hasidic community she married into because she was gay – was the history of it all.  I’ve spent quite a while reading up on this, since reading the book.  I – spot the Eastern European history specialist 🙂 – knew the basics, about the Khmelnytsky Massacres, and Sabbatai Zvi, and the Haskalah, and the split between the Hasidim and the “Lithuanians” – but I didn’t really understand that they were so many different groups, and that they all centred on individual dynasties.  It’s more interesting that what people had for their tea. OK, it is to me, anyway!

Honestly, it is fascinating.   Most of the groups originated in South Central/Eastern Europe, where the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire (as it became), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire and the Danubian Principalities met and collided and took and swapped territory.  The Satmar group, the one which this book is about, originated in Transylvania, in a city called Satmar in Yiddish, Satu Mare in Romania and Szatmarnemeti in Hungarian.  Without going into the rights and wrongs of the Treaty of Trianon, it’s now part of Romania, but was under Hungarian administration during the war.  A lot of Hungarian Jews were deported to a ghetto there, and many of those who survived the Holocaust later moved to Williamsburg, New York, where the leader of the Satmar dynasty had established a new community.  The book doesn’t go into this in much detail.  It’s a shame.  As I’ve said, it’s a lot more interesting that what people had for their tea.

And these communities are closed.   A lot of people in Manchester will be familiar with the name “Chabad-Lubavitch”: that’s the more open Hasidic group, and they do engage with the wider community, with things like putting menorahs up in different parts of town during Chanukah.  They’re mentioned in passing here, as living in the Crown Heights area of New York, and having little to do with the Satmars, who live in the Williamsburg area.  But, until I looked on Google, I didn’t even know that there was a big Satmar synagogue in Salford.  I know the street it’s on, and I know that there’s a big synagogue there, and I see men wearing furry hats when I drive through that area, but I’d never heard the word “Satmar” mentioned in connection with it before.  This is not in New York.  This is a few miles down the road.

And there are loads and loads of other groups, as well as the Satmars and the Chabad-Lubavitch, especially in New York.  There are even splits within the Satmar group: Deborah is shocked when she thinks that her husband-to-be is a member of one faction, when her family are members of another. I honestly didn’t realise it was all such a complex situation.

The book does explain briefly that children are taught that the Holocaust was a punishment for assimilation.  This does partially explain why the community shuts itself off.  I don’t know how much that’s specific to the Satmars, because of the particular history of Hungarian Jews.  There’s not much historical background, though.  To be fair, it’s not intended as a textbook.  It’s the story of one woman’s experiences.

I wasn’t very comfortable with the fact that she included so much personal, very intimate detail about her marriage.  Her ex-husband doesn’t sound like the world’s greatest guy, but he wasn’t personally to blame for the ways of their community, and it must have been very embarrassing for him to have had all this private stuff made so public.  I also wondered what her son, who must now be a teenager, thinks about it.  Having said which, I gather that the ex-husband has now also left the community, and is happily remarried and leading a secular lifestyle which suits him much better, so hopefully things have worked out for him too.

This book is now eight years old and, since it was written, it’s become a little more common for people to move away from closed religious communities.  Obviously, those lifestyles do work for some people, as I’ve said, but it’s clearly extremely hard for those who do want to get away, especially women who are usually married off in their teens, expected to start having children immediately, and are then in a position where it’s even harder to leave.  Having said which, there was a lot of talk in the UK a few years ago about non-registered schools, and several points were made about how difficult it is for boys who’ve attended Hasidic schools, because they’ve been taught little other than religious studies.

The theme of the book is the author’s own struggles with the restrictions of the closed community in which she’s been brought up.  Her own position’s unusual, the child of a mother who left the community and a father who seems to’ve had severe learning disabilities.  She’s brought up by her grandparents. We hear about her school, and all the emphasis that’s put on “modesty” in dress and behaviour, and then about her arranged marriage at the age of 17.

They have a lot of problems in the bedroom, and there’s really way too much detail about that, but they do eventually have a child.  She’s always been a bit of a rebel, but, after her son is born, she rebels much more, enrols on a college course, starts dressing differently, not wearing a wig, eating out at non-kosher restaurants with her new friends … and, eventually, she takes her son and leaves.

Perhaps inevitably, the book is very critical of the community, even of some her own relatives.  It also goes into detail about the customs of this community which keeps itself to itself – it’s as much an expose as a memoir.  Some of that’s fairly uncontroversial, such as how rabbis are seen as celebs to the extent that children have “rabbi cards” in the way that other children have football cards, and details about keeping a kosher kitchen.  A lot of it will be interesting to people who are not familiar with Hasidic Judaism, such as married women not being allowed to show their own hair, and how marriages are arranged.

Some of it is much more controversial.  I think everyone’s aware that cases of child abuse within a lot of religious communities have been covered up, and that’s something that’s mentioned here.  The book also alleges that a father murdered his own child when he caught him masturbating, and that the community covered it up.  The author’s said that she would not have made something like that up.

It ends with her leaving the community, and we get the impression, although it’s not made clear, that she’s now cut off from it completely.  It’s all shown very positively.  If she feels any regrets about being cut off from her grandparents, her father, her aunts, uncles, cousins and old friends, and about cutting her son off from them too, she doesn’t express them.  Having said which, she had nothing positive to say about any of them, other than her grandparents.  If she’s got no regrets, that’s great for her.  It’s probably a lot more difficult for most people to make that break.

She also had friends from college who were able to help her, notably by introducing her to publishing contacts so that she was able to get a contract to publish her book and make some money.  A lot of people, especially women, in her position, wouldn’t have had that help.  It is very, very difficult for people to escape that lifestyle, if they want to.  And I suppose the reason for the popularity of the book is that people admire someone who was able to do that.

This isn’t a literary masterpiece.  It rambles.  People who are unfamiliar with Judaism and with Yiddish words will probably find some of it hard to follow.  Two different forms of transliteration from Hebrew are used, rather randomly.  It’s also all me-me-me -OK, it’s the author’s memoir, but she never seems to stop to consider how her husband might feel about things, or how her grandparents might feel about things, or how anyone else at all might feel about things.  But there’s clearly something about it, because the book was a best seller, and the TV series was a big ratings winner.  I think the 99p Kindle offer’s finished now, but, if it comes up again, this is worth a go.

Disobedience

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I’m catching up on my film backlog, anyway.  My front room is multi-tasking as an office and a cinema, as well as being a living room and a dining room 🙂 .  This film, starring Rachel Weisz, was about a woman who returned to the London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community where she grew up, and resumed her previous relationship with her female lover and best friend, who was married to a man.  Coronation Street and EastEnders have had storylines covering some of the issues faced by LGBT people within Christianity, Islam and, most recently, Sikhism, but there aren’t a lot of ultra-Orthodox Jewish characters on screen.  I’m not sure that it really got across the second woman’s reasons for her choices, but it was generally very well-written and very well-acted.  The introduction of diversity teaching into schools has highlighted some of the difficulties that LGBT people within strict religious communities experience, and it was interesting to see a full-length film addressing those, and also looking at how, in general, living in a fairly self-contained community works really well for some people but not for others.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was living a secular lifestyle in New York, but had returned to the community where she’d grown up following the sudden death of her father, a well-known rabbi.  They’d fallen out several years earlier, but it wasn’t initially clear whether that was just because she’d chosen to leave or for another reason.   Two of her childhood friends, Dovid, a young rabbi expected to take over her father’s job, and Esti, were now married, and she seemed surprised by how Orthodox Esti had become.

It eventually transpired that Ronit and Esti had become romantically involved, and that Ronit’s dad had walked in on them, and that was why she’d left.  Esti had suffered some sort of nervous breakdown, and then married Dovid.  What didn’t really come across was the reason for Esti’s choices.  There was no suggestion that she’d been pushed into marriage with a man by her family or friends, nor that she felt unable to break away because she didn’t want to leave her family and friends.  Her family were barely mentioned, and she didn’t seem to have any friends!   She said that it was all for religious reasons, but we only saw her praying once, and we never saw her reading a religious book, or heard her talking about religion, or just generally seeming very concerned with religion at all.

So I think that that could have been done better.  Ronit had chosen to leave.  Dovid was completely happy with the lifestyle in which he’d been brought up.  Esti was the one who’d chosen a path that didn’t work for her … but I think her reasons could have been explained better.  I just didn’t get any sense of her fighting a difficult battle between her sexuality and the religious teachings which had been instilled into her, and maybe that was a missed opportunity because it’s something that affects a lot of people.

A nosy parker saw Ronit and Esti kissing, and made a complaint to the headmistress of the school where Esti taught, and things got difficult.   Esti eventually ran off, and Dovid and Ronit tracked her down.  She revealed that she was pregnant – after several years of trying for a baby – but said that she wanted Dovid to set her free, because she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, and she wanted her baby to have the choices that she felt she hadn’t been given. Not particularly realistically, he agreed to end their marriage, and gave both her and Ronit a big hug.  It’d be nice to think that Esti and Ronit ended up living happily ever after, but I felt rather sorry for Dovid, who ended up losing his wife and the chance to be a full-time dad to the baby he’d been wanting for ages.

I think what this lacked was something like the scenes in Coronation Street in which Rana met with hostility from her mother, and tried to explain her feelings to an imam.  That would have got Esti’s situation across a lot better.  And there was a lot of talk about choices, rather than emphasising the fact Esti had not made a choice to be a lesbian: she just was one.  A bit of explanation of some of the religious practices might have been helpful, as well – some viewers wouldn’t be familiar with Orthodox Jewish practices and would probably have found bits of this quite confusing.  But, generally, it was a pretty good film, with really excellent performances in all three of the main parts.

A Very British History – BBC 4

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This was a four-part series looking into the experiences in 20th century Britain of four different groups of people – “Romany gypsies” in the Home Counties, “Black Brummies”, “the Jews of Leeds”, and “Ugandan Asians” in the East Midlands.    Each programme in the series was presented by a member of the community in question, rather than the BBC pushing its own agendas, and, although there was sometimes a bit too much focus on personal family history rather than broader community history, it generally worked very well.

A BBC-led series would probably have focused largely on prejudice, in a way that attacked the wider community.   This didn’t, although obviously the issue of prejudice and how it was faced did come up.  There were old BBC films (with subtitles where people were speaking in Cockney accents!) of people making negative comments about gypsies.  I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word “gypsies”, because we’re usually told now that it’s offensive, but the presenter said that he was OK with it.  People who’d moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s spoke about struggling to get mortgages, and of the abuse suffered by couples in mixed-race relationship.  Jewish people who’d lived in Leeds during the inter-war years talked about being called “Christ killers” at school (the old religious prejudice that’s now largely been replaced by other manifestations of anti-Semitism) and of Oswald Mosley trying to whip up trouble in areas with large Jewish communities.  And we were shown photographs of notices issued by Leicester council, saying that Ugandan Asians shouldn’t move to their city.

But there was overall a fairly positive feeling, with the Jews of Leeds and the Ugandan Asians in particular speaking about their pride in being British. One of the Black Brummies said that he felt that a lot of prejudice was due to ignorance and fear of the unknown; and that’s why programmes like this are important.  I know I’m always harping on about soap operas, but I think it makes such a difference when they include characters from minority groups!  TV can do a lot.  Only the Black Brummies programme said much about the influence of the culture of different groups on British culture in general – music, food, language etc – though, although the Jews of Leeds programme did mention Michael Marks and Montague Burton and their influence on the British fashion industry and British retail in general.  I’d like to have heard more of that, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour.

There was a lot of talk about socio-economic issues, and how all four groups had to some extent struggled with poverty. The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had generally lived affluent lifestyles in Uganda, and then came here and initially had to take what jobs and houses they could get, before improving their situation through hard work.  British Jews have a very diverse cultural heritage, something that’s very rarely discussed on TV; but the family of the man presenting this programme had moved to Leeds from Eastern Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is perhaps typical of the majority of British Jews, coming from very little to very little, and worked their way up the socio-economic ladder from there.  I’d take issue with the historian who said that their main reason for coming here would have been economic opportunity, rather than discrimination and persecution, though.  People from the Caribbean did move to Birmingham in the hope of better economic opportunities, though – and it was interesting to see film of smiling, very smartly-dressed people disembarking from a plane … but, having come here with high hopes, many of them initially found themselves in low-paid jobs and poor accommodation, as the Jews of Leeds had before them.

The Romany gypsies were in a different position, having done the same jobs for years but then being forced to change their way of life as technological change took away many of their traditional jobs on the land, and – an issue that’s also being faced by Bedouins in the Middle East – the authorities increasingly tried to discourage nomadic/travelling lifestyles. Barbara Cartland, who was a councillor in Hertfordshire, spoke out in support of Romany people in the Home Counties, which I never knew!  This was at a time when there were major problems over agreeing on sites where Romany people living in caravans could base themselves.

Government involvement played a big role in the experiences of both Romany gypsies and Ugandan Asians. Quite a lot of the Ugandan Asian programme was about the initial arguments about whether or not Ugandan Asians, expelled from Uganda in 1972, should be allowed to settle in the UK, and the belated organisation of an airlift, followed by the organisation of camps for people to live in until they found homes and jobs.  We saw pictures of noticeboards giving the names of areas in which jobs were available, and were told that the presenter’s family had ended up in Scunthorpe because that was where her dad found a job, and that other relatives had ended up in Leicester.

It was very different from the experiences of the Jews of Leeds and Black Brummies, who’d gravitated to areas where there was work but also, except for the very first to arrive, where there were already established communities. The Windrush Generation were encouraged to come here, “pull factor”, whereas Jews in Leeds had been looking for somewhere to go, “push factor”, but in neither case had the government really got involved in where people went when they got here – which was very different from the experience of the Ugandan Asians.

This issue came up quite recently, over the question of refugees from the civil war in Syria coming to Britain. The idea was that each local council should agree to take a small number of people.  I can see the reasons for that, because large numbers of people, regardless of ethnicity or language or religion or anything else, settling in one area at once is going to put a strain on housing and public services; but it’s not the way that immigration has traditionally worked, in Britain or anywhere else.  It didn’t really work with the Ugandan Asian refugee programme, either, with the vast majority of those concerned eventually ending up in either London or Leicester.

Some of what was said did wander off the point a bit. The programme on the Jews of Leeds got as far as the Second World War and then turned into Who Do You Think You Are, with the presenter visiting Vilnius, where his great-grandmother had come from, and learning that some of her cousins had been amongst the Jews massacred in 1942 in a village, now part of modern Belarus, about 80 miles away.  It was very interesting – I’ve been to the Vilnius Jewish Museum myself, and he was able to speak to an elderly lady who’d been living in the village at the time and remembered what had happened – and of course it was an important story to tell; but the programme was supposed to be about Leeds.   And the programme on Ugandan Asians tackled the issue of whether or not Asians in Uganda might have to some extent brought their expulsion on themselves.  It was brave of the presenter to tackle her own relatives and family friends about their attitudes towards black people, but, again, the programme was supposed to be about people’s experiences in Britain.   The other two programmes did stick more to being what the series title said, with the Romany gypsy programme showing coverage of the Appleby Horse Fair, and the Black Brummies programme discussing all sorts of things from hairstyles to dominoes to language.

Quibbles aside – hey, there are always going to be some quibbles! – , all four programmes were well worth watching, and I’m hoping there’ll be a second series at some point, covering the experiences of other communities.  British Chinese people seem to be very under-represented on TV.  There’s been a lot of immigration from Poland to the UK in recent years, but it’d be interesting to see a programme about Polish immigration to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War.   There’s a long and varied history of Somali immigration to the UK.   There’ve long been communities with Armenian, Greek or Italian heritage in Manchester and elsewhere.   I’ve just been reading about Hungarian refugees who fled the suppression of the 1956 Uprising.  And, of course, Irish immigration to Britain has had a huge influence on British society.   And that’s to mention just a few groups.

It’s not helpful when organisations omit the word “Easter” from Easter egg hunts, and it’s not helpful when people start shrieking about “cultural appropriation” because a chef has served a dish or a singer has sung a song from a culture to which they don’t have a personal genetic link. However, it is helpful when programmes like these, explaining and celebrating the culture and heritage of the different groups within the British population, are shown.  And it’s also very interesting.  Good series.

Versailles and Knightfall and the persecution of religious minorities

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By a strange coincidence, both of these (thoroughly inaccurate!) historical dramas have chosen to include major sub-plots involving the persecution of religious minorities in France – in Versailles, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to hundreds of thousands of Huguenots leaving the country and is said to be when the term “refugees” originated, and, in Knightfall, the Great Exile of the Jews in 1306.  Versailles even cheekily but not inappropriately chose to show a character coming out with the famous line by Heinrich Heine – who, on the subject of religious discrimination, converted from Judaism to Protestantism because Jews were excluded from academic posts in Prussia – about how burning books leads to burning people, 136 years before it was written.

The “burning books” line always sounds as if it was about the Nazis: obviously, having been written in 1821, it wasn’t. It was actually about the Spanish Inquisition – which was closely associated with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, expelling Jews from Aragon and Castile and their subject territories, and the Expulsion of the Moriscos by their great-great-grandson Philip III in 1609-14.

It was hardly just France and Spain. Religious discrimination was practised across Europe. It’s often associated with the Middle Ages – burnings at the stake et al – and with the Reformation era, but it went on long after that.  Even countries generally considered fairly liberal practised legal and practical discrimination: Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom (then, of course, including the whole of Ireland) didn’t come about until 1829, Catholics in the Netherlands suffered discrimination until the twentieth century, and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants includes an interesting portrayal of the persecution of non-Lutheran Protestants in nineteenth century Sweden.  In most places, things were improving by the mid nineteenth century, helped by Napoleon’s secularisation policies, but the 1882 May Laws in the Russian Empire led to a wave of pogroms and the emigration of over two million Jews.

It’s not a problem that ever seems to go away. We don’t really get new religions developing any more, and religious minorities have tended to evolve into ethno-religious minorities, so it can be difficult to say whether the issues are about ethnicity or about religion, but the point is that minorities are still being discriminated against and even persecuted.  China’s clamping down on the Uighur Muslims.  The Rohingya Muslims are suffering horrific persecution in Burma/Myanmar: that and the barbaric treatment of the Yazidi people by so-called Islamic State – who have now turned on the Druze as well –  are probably the worst examples in recent years.  Christians have come under attack in Egypt and Nigeria.  Concerns have been expressed about the attitude of the right-wing Hindu government in India towards Sikhs and Muslims, and about the effect of the new Israeli constitution on the status of the Druze.  Just a few examples.  Even in the UK, you can’t turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or glance at the internet without reading/hearing about someone accusing Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism or Boris Johnson of Islamophobia.

Neither programme comes even remotely close to being historically accurate!   Versailles has a group of Huguenots (who for some reason all have North of England accents) plotting to assassinate Louis XIV … who has just found out that he and the Duc d’Orleans are not really the sons of Louis XIII but are in fact the products of an affair between Maria Teresa of Austria and Spain, Queen of France, and the Man in the Iron Mask. Knightfall, quite apart from featuring a pope who’d died several years before it’s set, has a major plot involving Princess Isabella (the She Wolf of France, she who would eventually marry Edward II, have an affair with Roger Mortimer and overthrow her husband) having an affair with a Prince Lluis of Catalunya, son of King and Queen of Catalunya … despite the fact that the Crown of Catalunya had been part of the Crown of Aragon for nearly 150 years by this time!  Not to mention the Queen of France having an affair with one of the Knights Templar.

But the fact that they are such utter twaddle – although quite entertaining, and I’ll rather miss Versailles now that it’s finished – actually makes it even more interesting that they’ve chosen to focus so much on something as serious as this.  Really, the two situations aren’t comparable, and, in terms of both numbers and impact elsewhere, the Edict of Fontainebleau/Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Alhambra Decree would be a better comparison, but there’s nothing on about Spanish history at the moment.  And the Revocation wasn’t an instrument of expulsion: the Huguenots weren’t told to get out of France.  But their lives were made so miserable that most of them did.

Just going back to the impact of the Revocation, it had a big effect elsewhere, and nowhere more so than here. As well as the impact of the refugees who flooded into the British Isles – and had a very positive effect on the economy – the fear of what a Catholic monarch might do, and the way in which interested parties (to use a Jane Austen expression) used that fear, played a big part in bringing about the Glorious Revolution and everything associated with it.  The Great Exile didn’t really affect anywhere other than France – but it’s worth noting that the persecution of religious minorities in Spain and, later, the Russian Empire, had a big impact on international impressions of those countries, and that the flood of emigration had a big effect – as with the Huguenots, often a positive one – on the countries to which those emigrants went.

Are the events of 1306 and 1685 comparable in terms of motive?   Was any of it actually about actual religion/piety, for a kick off?  Not really.  There has always been an idea that Louis XIV was influenced by Madame de Maintenon, who was very Catholic and disliked Protestants for religious reasons.  That idea certainly came across in Versailles.  Why do people always want to blame women for what men do??  No-one’s ever suggested that Philip IV of France was henpecked into exiling the Jews, but I’ve certainly read articles suggesting that the Edict of Expulsion of Jews from England, in 1295, was influenced by Edward I’s mother, Eleanor of Provence.  I’m not buying any of that – and I don’t think any of it was actually about religion.

Philip, like Edward I, was probably largely motivated by money: he didn’t want to pay his debts to Jewish moneylenders, and he also grabbed the money and other assets which the exiled Jews were forced to leave behind. Louis wasn’t, though, to be fair.  France actually suffered economically as a result of the expulsion of the Huguenots, who included many skilled craftspeople.

Attempt to gain popularity, maybe, in the case of either or both? We’ve all seen how “populist” politicians seek to appeal to a certain section of public opinion by railing against religious minorities, and that’s very definitely nothing new.  Toleration of Huguenots, granted by Henri “Paris is worth a Mass” IV, once a Huguenot himself, was not popular amongst French Catholics.  The expulsion of Jews from Edward I’s England has been seen as a sop to the upper classes ahead of the imposition of a new tax, and the Great Exile (one of several expulsions of Jews from medieval France, but probably the one which had the most effect) probably went down pretty well with the Christian majority.  Again, though, I don’t think it was really that.  Religious minorities are an easy target, blamed for everything from heavy taxation in Polish-ruled Ukraine (i.e. at the time of the Khmelnytsky Massacres) to the Great Fire of London, but there was nothing particular of that sort going on in either 1306 or 1685.

No: it mainly seems to have been about power and control. Maybe not so quite much so in 1306, but definitely in 1685.  And you can say the same about the “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” idea in Alexander III and Nicholas II’s Russian Empire, the drive to eradicate Protestantism in the Habsburg Empire, and a million and one other examples.  Religion and control are very closely intertwined, and it’s a lot easier to control people when you’ve got religious uniformity – when you’ve got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, in fact, and, as part of that, when you can make everyone feel that they’re all part of a whole.  Attacks on religious minorities by random groups of people are usually motivated by hatred, or just by wanting someone to blame for social and economic problems,  but, when it’s coming from the state, from the centre of power, it does tend to be about power and control.  And Louis XIV was very keen on power and control.

Of course, sometimes, power and control involve political leaders clashing with the power of the majority religion –Henry VIII and Napoleon – but that’s another story. And we get enough programmes about the Tudors and about the nineteenth century: it’s nice to see something different!   And, whilst this again is another story, the hunted, if they gain power, often become the hunted.  All those stories about the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire – and then, once the Roman Empire became Christian, the Christians set about persecuting minority Christian sects and everyone else!

The Great Exile and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes are far from being the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of Europe, or the history of the world. They aren’t even the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of France – the Albigensian Crusade was probably that, and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also springs to mind.  There were no massacres, no mass rapes and no autos da fe.  And there weren’t any gas chambers … the Nazi genocide isn’t really to be compared with the general history of religious persecution, but I want to say something (in case anyone’s actually reading this!) about the current trend for the use of very incendiary language and inappropriate comparisons with events from history, and referencing the actions of the Nazis is one of the main forms of it.

We are currently seeing a very worrying rise in far right attitudes, in many countries, but the use by the media and by individuals of inappropriate comparisons with the atrocities of the past is, in addition to being inappropriate, extremely unhelpful.  It increases tensions which really don’t need increasing – and it’s also rather insulting to the victims of those atrocities.

If you’re talking about the persecution of the Rohingya, by all means compare it to the worst incidences of persecution in the past. But yelling and screaming about how Donald Trump’s immigration policies are reminiscent of Nazi Germany isn’t helpful.  The separation of children from their parents is beyond disgusting, and deserves to be condemned in very strong terms – but not in terms which reference the murder of seventeen million people.  The blockade of the Gaza Strip has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, and is completely unacceptable, but, again, referencing the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany is completely inappropriate.

The other week, racist graffiti was daubed on the home of a black family in Rochdale. That’s utterly appalling, and I hope that the victims are getting whatever support they need and that the perpetrators are caught and locked up, but I was rather taken aback to hear someone telling a local TV news crew that we seemed to be going back to the days of slavery.  Graffiti is not comparable with the evils of slavery.

There is undoubtedly a problem with anti-Semitism within elements of the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t really have made a worse mess of handling it if he’d tried. But is it really appropriate to talk about him being an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK?  He’s hardly planning to re-issue the 1295 Edict of Expulsion, is he?  And Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas were extremely offensive, and have caused a completely unwarranted row – I appreciate that he was talking about the bans on burkas imposed in several Continental countries, but it isn’t an issue here, so why make it one? – but he was actually opposing the imposition of bans on burkas, unacceptable as his language was.

I wish people would just tone down the language with all of this.   Especially when it comes to comparisons with events of the past.  Possibly don’t watch Versailles and Knightfall, if you’re after an accurate idea of what went on in the past.  But do think about some of the horrors which they’re addressing, and the many other lessons of history which we need to learn and ensure are never, ever repeated.  Think about all those people who were driven from their homes, and their home countries, in 1306 and 1685.  Think about the current series of Who Do You Think You Are, which has shown both Marvin Humes and Shirley Ballas finding out that some of their ancestors were enslaved, and Robert Rinder learning about his grandfather’s experiences and the loss of many of his relatives in the Holocaust.  Please don’t reference those events, when talking about today’s events, unless it really is appropriate to do so.  But please also remember just how bad it can get.  There’s a lot of unpleasant stuff going on at the moment.  It needs to be stopped.  Far too often, it hasn’t been.