Old Town residents Brian and Bob are the volunteers who regularly remove the drug paraphernalia and broken vodka bottles left by teenagers in Swan Gardens at the bottom of the High Street.
The Gardens are currently suffering from a plague of brown tail moth caterpillers and are therefore out-of-bounds but that doesn’t stop the drug users and others from ignoring the notices and climbing over the fence.
Swan Gardens is, of course, the site of the old Swan Inn and last month we held an outdoor service on the anniversary of the direct hit on the inn that resulted in 16 deaths on May 23rd 1943. Some 50 or so people attended the commemoration, including relatives of the victims and someone whose father had helped to dig out the rubble. Several stories about the fateful day have since come to light and the tragedy remains very much alive in the Old Town’s collective memory.
Those who misuse Swan Gardens cannot be unaware of the significance of the ground on which they take drugs and drink vodka. Yes, it shows a lack of respect but I think that something deeper is at play. As a society we are losing what might loosely be termed a sense of the sacred, that sense that certain places are sufficiently special (‘holy’ if you want to be religious) that they merit reverential behaviour. God’s instruction to Moses in their encounter at the burning bush – ‘take off your shoes for this is holy ground’ – is a command from a lost time.
For Jews, Christians and Muslims, Israel and the Palestinian Territories remain holy ground, not least the city of Jerusalem. Each community has a long collective memory associated with this land, although those who fight over it are reluctant to recognise this, privileging their own memories, experiences and needs at the expense of the ‘other’.
In the 1990s I was a fundraiser for a wonderful hospital in Beit Jala, not far from Bethlehem in the West Bank. It specialised in treating and rehabilitating victims, especially children, injured during protests against the Israeli Government. Yet the Director, a Palestinian Christian, insisted that the hospital was also open to Jewish patients from the nearby settlement and it even took in children from what was then war-torn Bosnia. “Palestinians suffer,” he said, “but we are not the only people.”
I cannot be alone in regarding that as antisemitic…
More recently, in 2016 I spent time in West Bank villages with the St John’s Eye Hospital mobile clinic and experienced the disruptive tactics of Israeli soldiers. I remain highly critical of many Israeli Government policies.
Last month I wrote about Islamophobia and the way in which the Pakistani family of Baroness Warsi had always felt welcome in Hastings. I was sorry, therefore, to learn that some members of the Hastings Palestine Solidarity Campaign felt able to chant, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine shall be free” at its recent demonstration in the town centre. I cannot be alone in regarding that as antisemitic in what can only be construed as a call for an end to the Jewish State.
It’s a long way, intellectually and geographically, from Swan Gardens to the Holy Land but the importance of a sense of place and the collective memories that underpin it are common factors. From the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea is a land of immensely complex collective memories and associations, of ancient and modern history. It is a special space for Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Muslims and Palestinian Christians. It will only be truly free when that is acknowledged by everyone.
The Reverend Paul Hunt is the part-time priest-in-charge of St. Clement’s and All Saints in Hastings Old Town. All Saints is open for public worship at 8am and 10am on Sundays.