Far from the daily tensions and confrontations of Israel, Palestine and occupation, I am spending the Christmas holiday with my niece’s family in rural Leicestershire, England, staying at a bed and breakfast in the hamlet of Teigh. On a morning stroll we did hear some shooting – but this is hunting and farming country. The owner of the bed and breakfast gave us a large, iron key so we could let ourselves into the local church, after telling us a little about the history of the Old Rectory where we are sleeping, as well as of the church and the pattern of landownership and farm tenancy of the estate on which Teigh is built. Patterns of land use and ownership go back centuries, Teigh being mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1085 following the Norman conquest, the Rectorship in the hamlet being continuous since 1238. Holding the heavy key in my hand, I thought of the similar ones held by Palestinian refugees as material symbols of their lost homes, and of their claims to ownership and usage of land that are denied by the Israeli laws since 1948.
The small church was unused this Sunday, cold and yet intimate. At the end of the south wall is a brass plaque that says:
THIS TABLET IS ERECTED
TO THE GLORY OF GOD
AND IN THE HUMBLE ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF
HIS MERCIES IN PRESERVING THE LIVES
OF THE ELEVEN MEN AND TWO WOMEN
RESIDENTS OF TEIGH WHO SERVED IN
THE GREAT WAR OF 1914-19I8
Let everything that have breath praise the Lord
Teigh is thus known as a ‘Thankful Village’, for having escaped casualties in that horrendous, murderous war.
Memorializing those who died in wars is a way to legitimize and sanctify wars, to turn them into acts of collective sacrifice that bind a nation together in conflict with Others. With the passage of time and under conditions of peace, the antagonistic force of such commemoration can be blunted as old enmities give way to new alliances, as between Britain and Germany. But in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, memorialization of the victims of violence for the most part reinvests the emotions and practices of mourning in confrontation between the two peoples. A notable exception is the ‘Alternative Memorial Day’ held by the bi-national group Combatants for Peace in which casualties on both sides are remembered.
But what if instead of investing our energies in commemorating the dead of war and violence, we focused on the living, as in thankful Teigh? What if we chose life rather than death? What if we spent less time sanctifying the fallen, and more time caring for those with whom we share life in the present? If we became less reconciled to the repetition of hostility and more hopeful that routine life will go on, would it become easier to imagine peace rather than expect war? The serenity of the winter countryside is seductive, the warmth of a family holiday immunizing against thoughts of national hostility. It’s easy to overlook the history of conquest in this landscape, never quite forgotten in the inequalities of lands seized and ancient rights erased. Yet, being thankful for the living must, I believe, be a more peaceful practice than memorializing the fallen.