As always, Queen Elizabeth gave her traditional Christmas message, which was televised and broadcast all over the world. Although I don’t usually pay it much attention, this year I happened to catch it live on TV, and watched with greater interest than usual, due in part to my having watched the first two series of ’The Crown’ on Netflix. The dramatized serialization of events concerning England’s royal family interlaced with contemporary British history and politics has been fascinating me in recent weeks (with admirable self-restraint I’ve managed to limit myself to one episode a day, after having first been introduced to it in more intensive dosage while in the USA recently).
The characters and events are presented in an appealing and aesthetic way, with handsome actors, convincing scripts, crystal-clear diction, beautiful interiors and clothes and altogether admirable attention to detail. To watch the way a royal personage holds a tea-cup, spreads jam and cream on a scone, engages in horsey pursuits and even romps in bed (with no explicit sex scenes, though, as no-one wants to be apprehended for lese-majesté) is to get a glimpse of a world that is almost as remote from our mundane lives as is life on Mars.
My special interest in the series derives from my own experience of growing up in England at the time of the events described. I still remember the Coronation and the excitement of going to my parents’ friends to watch it on their TV, the chronicle of Princess Margaret’s unhappy love-affair with Captain Peter Townsend and also, of course, the salacious ramifications of the Profumo Affair.
But all that is a mere aside to my main theme, because in her speech the Queen referred to the importance of home, describing it as a place associated with warmth, family, and shared stories, evoking a ‘timeless simplicity.’ It’s true that at Christmas people tend to return to their homes and families in order to celebrate the festival together. It is somewhat akin to the tendency of Jewish families to assemble for the major festivals of Pesach (Passover) and Rosh Hashana (New Year), which, like Christmas, are marked by sumptuous meals at which special foods are consumed.
Of course, when it comes to homes, the Queen has a goodly supply. She has several of them, and very grand they are, too. We mere mortals, on the other hand, should be happy if we have even one that provides us with a roof over our head and a warm hearth in these bleak winter months.
And that brings me to sad thoughts about people who find themselves without a home. First of all, there are the refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen, to name but a few, who are huddled in the makeshift huts and tents of the refugee camps. As winter comes to the Middle East, it brings further hardship to lives that are already difficult, not to mention the terrible plight of the many thousands of Rohingyha refugees who have fled Myanmar and found shelter of sorts in Bangladesh. There does not seem to be any solution in sight to alleviating those suffering from the various local and regional conflicts, and I’m not referring to the Palestinian ‘refugees’ whose forebears left their homes two, three or even four generations ago and are now being deliberately kept homeless.
When the State of Israel was established, in 1948, the Arab countries where Jews had lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, ordered those inhabitants to leave immediately, forcing them to abandon their homes without taking anything of value with them. An immense effort was made by the nascent Jewish State to take in those refugees and provide them first with temporary accommodation, and then with more permanent homes, however basic. Most of the descendants of those refugees have been absorbed into Israeli society and are represented in every profession and occupation. No Jewish refugee from an Arab country is still housed in a so-called refugee camp, and it is a lasting disgrace that this is the case with the Palestinian refugees in Arab lands. It is no secret that this situation is perpetuated for political purposes, with no regard for the dignity or comfort of the individuals concerned.
Like many other Jews living in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, my own parents were refugees and were forced to leave their homes in order to survive. I can’t say that they became prosperous, but they worked hard, raised a family, and built a home, as did most of the Jewish refugees who survived the war somehow, somewhere in the civilized world or in what eventually became the State of Israel.
Today, in affluent Europe, no visitor to any of the major cities can avoid seeing the homeless people who occupy the pavements (sidewalks) or huddle in doorways. Churches, municipalities and charitable organizations try to help these individuals, but in many cases they insist on remaining exposed to the elements for reasons of their own. In London this year the municipality gave two hundred homeless people a meal and a bed for the night at St. Pancras Station. But as the winter weather tightens its grip on Europe there are ever-increasing instances in which homeless people are found lying dead in the open.
The concept of home is one that is timeless and universal. My wish for the New Year is that no-one should be left without a home to go to.