Daniel Daronda and the Truth Commission


Let thy chief terror be of thine own soul:
There, ‘mid the throng of hurrying desires
That trample on the dead to seize their spoil,
Lurks vengeance, footless, irresistible
As exhalations laden with slow death,
And o’er the fairest troop of captured joys
Breathes pallid pestilence.

GEORGE ELIOT’S final novel, Daniel Deronda, was also her most controversial. Few had a problem, upon its publication in 1876, but the Jewish element satisfied nobody, wrote Paul Owen in the Guardian.

Deronda says Owen, “was the first of Eliot’s novels to be set in her own period, the late 19th century, and in it she took on what was a highly unusual contemporary theme: the position of Jews in British and European society and their likely prospects. The eponymous hero is an idealistic young aristocrat who comes to the rescue of a young Jewish woman and in his attempts to help her find her family is drawn steadily deeper into the Jewish community and the ferment of early Zionist politics.”

“Their appearance in the book was as unwelcome to some of her readers as it is to some of the characters. While the novel’s Lady Mallinger bemoans Daniel’s “going mad in this way about the Jews”, Eliot’s friend John Blackwood noted upon publication: “The Jews should be the most interesting people in the world, but even her magic pen cannot at once make them a popular element in a Novel.” Many years later, FR Leavis called for the Jewish sections of the novel to be cut out completely, leaving a country-house romance to be called Gwendolen Harleth, after the fatally self-absorbed gentile who falls for Deronda.”

Owen goes on to raise the problem of the BBC version of Danial Daronda, broadcast in 2002 which “apart from a brief shot of the Jewish singer Mirah by the Thames” is exclusively about the “supposed romance between Daniel and Gwendolen – a romance that barely takes place in the sense hinted at here.” It would seem that when it comes to George Eliot, her last novel was indeed Gwendolen Harleth and not Daniel Daronda.

South Africa’s faith hearings into apartheid atrocities held under the auspice of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) demonstrate even less romantic attention to details, for instance submissions from both the Christian and Islamic faith include minutia such as names and surnames. However in the section of the report in volume 4 detailing the experience of Jews including Jewish opposition to apartheid, no such respect to detail is accorded. Jews are relegated to trivia, their organisations and personal names, including facts like the over-abundance of Jewish activists held during the Treason Trial, bizarrely sequestered away. While the report undoubtedly relies on the testimony of one Rabbi Cyril Harris, and exclusively so, his name only appears in the footnotes along with references to submissions by the Gesher movement and Jews for Justice, whose views are excluded from the report, perhaps because of the problem of the Islamic faith’s non-recognition of Israel.

Not only is the history of English literature and the South African struggle continually being revised in order to edit out those parts which reference Jews, (at least those bits which show them as human beings, or as real characters other than one-dimensional stereotypes like Shakespeare’s Shylock) but the historical record is steadily being changed to accommodate the latest round of replacement theology by the Church.

If it were not bad enough that Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu believes the new testament supersedes the old testament and thus “Anglicans are the Chosen People” in an Anglican Covenant — what we have is an all-out battle to control the meaning and character of Jewish identity and Jewishness. In effect the project to make Jews responsible for the creation of apartheid in 1948, in a massive intellectual fraud in which the salient facts surrounding the rise to power of D F Malan’s brownshirts and the introduction of a series of laws known as apartheid legislation are instead transposed onto the Jewish State of Israel which came into being in the exact same year.

In the aftermath of the most recent incident of anti-Semitism involving the use of the Nazi Sieg Heil salute at South African universities, one has got to question the historical record, including the missing narrative of German Jewish immigrants to South Africa, many of whom were turned back by the authorities because of opposition from D F Malan and H F Verwoerd. The sad story of the SS Stuttgart which almost suffered the fate of the MS St Louis whose doomed voyage around the globe was depicted in a popular novel and Hollywood picture called Voyage of the Dammned, is not wished away by those who would want a Jew-free society in which only the history of the gentiles and the gentlemen are ever recorded.

Again the history of the Jews of District 6, a mixed race neighbourhood in Cape Town which suffered under apartheid legislation requiring race segregation and anti-miscegenation according to the Immorality and Group Areas Acts, is not something that one can simply air-brush away in the search for an instant solution to the problems in the Middle East.

Speaking at the launch of the book “Cutting Through the Mountain – Interviews with South African Jewish Activists” in May 1997, Professor Asmal Kadar, Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry, saluted the Jewish heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle. “The Jewish community of South Africa has produced proportionately more heroes in the struggle against apartheid than any other so-called white group.” Asmal also said the leading Jewish activists had suffered considerably by going against the tide of white opinion during the apartheid era. “Some were imprisoned for long periods; some went into exile; some were martyred such as Ruth First, and some were almost martyred such as Albie Sachs. Many lost their livelihoods and the special branch gave them undivided, almost extra, attention. It is in recognising people such as Ray Simons, Nadine Gordimer, Barney Simon, Anton Harber, the Colemans, Laurie Nathan, the Slovos, Gill Marcus, Ronnie Kasrils, Issie Maisels, Arthur Chaskelson, Albie Sachs, Helen Suzman, Dennis Goldberg, Raymond suttner and others equally worthy that a public good has been done.”

Despite this illustrious anti-apartheid history, the world has simply turned a blind eye, focusing on the exclusive problem of Israel while scapegoating Jews. Whether one is Zionist or non-Zionist makes no difference in the manner in which one is treated. The role played by Jews in the struggle and the ongoing human rights activism by Jews has turned out to be no guarantee that we will not become targets of anti-Semitism in the future. Targeting of Jews by local politicians has thus seen a disturbing increase over the past years. “We are not so far from a time when Jews were treated as undesirables, when right-thinking people preferred to ignore what was happening to them. We must not ignore the plight of those – the illegitimate, the rootless, the “illegal” – who fall on the wrong” writes Daniel Trilling in New Statesmen.

South Africa, like the United Kingdom, will continue to produce its Daniel Daronda’s and Joe Slovos. For every communist Jew, there is a liberal and conservative Jew, — expecting us all to act and behave the same way is like expecting each and every Jew to conform to a particular obnoxious stereotype, one which would be as unappetizing in a novel as it would be in real life. We therefore need to be vigilant like any minority group, to avoid the problem of having to take our Jewishness underground, or to write, like Mary Anne Evans  as George Eliot under an assumed name, merely so that our history and the history of a people, are remembered by those who think the world is comprised solely of white, Christian, men.

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