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February 03, 2005

The Left as Chelmite Villager

The reaction of some on the left to the Iraq election reminds Alan Johnson of the Yiddish parable, ‘The Right Spot’, one of many wonderful ‘Tales of Chelm’.

You need to know this about the village of Chelm. When they made the world the angels sprinkled souls in equal proportions. A handful of wise, another of the foolish, so that no community would be given too many souls of one kind. But over Chelm the angels made a mistake. An angel’s sack was caught on the top of a mountain and out spilled all the foolish souls over Chelm.

Here is the parable of ‘The Right Spot’

A Chelmite once went about on the outskirts of the town, searching for something on the ground.

“What are you looking for?” a passer-by asked him.

“I lost a ruble in the synagogue courtyard, so I’m hunting for it.”

“You poor Chelmite,” the stranger mocked him, “why are you hunting for it here, when you lost it in the synagogue courtyard?”

“You’re smart, you are!” the Chelmite retorted. “The synagogue courtyard is muddy, whereas here the ground is dry. Now where is it better to search?” (from A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg)

The left is searching for answers to Iraq on its own preferred ‘dry ground’. Listen to this poor Chelmite, Sami Ramadani, writing within hours of the Iraq poll, when the tears of joy were barely dry on Iraqi faces:

“On September 4 1967 the New York Times published an upbeat story on presidential elections held by the South Vietnamese puppet regime at the height of the Vietnam war. Under the heading "US encouraged by Vietnam vote: Officials cite 83% turnout despite Vietcong terror", the paper reported that the Americans had been "surprised and heartened" by the size of the turnout "despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting". A successful election, it went on, "has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson's policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam". The echoes of this weekend's propaganda about Iraq's elections are so close as to be uncanny”. (Sami Ramadani, writing in the Guardian, February 1 2005)

Ramadani is typical of the Chelmite left. His ‘anti-imperialist’ arguments are dry ground. But he has as much chance of finding there a democratic future for Iraq as the Chelmite does of reclaiming his lost ruble.

The left are reluctant to search in the mud. After all, it’s muddy down there!

And this is true. We slip and slide while making solidarity with the democrats in an Iraq under occupation. We reach for the opportunities of the UN-backed political process and sometimes we fall. And we look a bit of a mess, don’t we? The Chelmites notice our clothes and call us names (‘Look at them, they are filthy! What a scandal!).

But when we find the ruble it will be here, in the mud of the synagogue courtyard. Now, will you please leave the dry ground, join us down here in the mud, and help us find that ruble?

Alan Johnson

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