It is just over a month before the UK General Election, and over a year since the British Jewish community said “Enough is Enough” at a rally outside parliament house directed at the UK Labour party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Yesterday, Corbyn – perhaps in a tokenistic move to end his party’s never-ending antisemitism crisis – decided to use the words of a famous British Jewish soldier-poet at the Islington Memorial Service in honour of Remembrance Day in the UK.
Isaac Rosenberg is rightfully celebrated as one of the Great War’s greatest poets and ‘In the Trenches’ is indeed a fitting poem to read in memory of the millions slaughtered on the Western Front. It is a poignant reminder of the horrors of warfare and the bravery and sacrifice of his fellow soldiers in their fight against tyranny:
I snatched two poppies
From the parapet’s ledge,
Two bright red poppies
That winked on the ledge.
Behind my ear
I stuck one through,
One blood red poppy
I gave to you
The sandbags narrowed
And screwed out our jest,
And tore the poppy
You had on your breast …
Down – a shell – O! Christ,
I am choked … safe … dust blind, I
See trench floor poppies
Strewn. Smashed you lie.
– Isaac Rosenberg, ‘In the Trenches’
Yet one would have to question whether Rosenberg would approve of the use to which his words are being put today.
Rosenberg, born 1890, was the son of Barnett and Anna Rosenberg, poor Lithuanian Orthodox Jews who had fled to Britain from Tsarist-controlled Lithuania a few years before their son was born.
Isaac left school at a young age to support his impoverished family. In 1915, unable to find work, he enlisted in the British army, despite having moral objections against warfare and the idea of killing his fellow man, and asked for half his earnings to be sent to his mother.
In June 1916 Rosenberg was deployed to the trenches of France on the Western Front, where, like a huge portion of his whole generation, he would meet his end on the Somme in early 1918.
Yet throughout his life and service, Rosenberg never forgot his Jewish identity – or the brutal antisemitism faced by his family and people. Rosenberg wrote many poems with distinctly Jewish themes and subjects, including ‘The Burning of the Temple,’ ‘The Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian Hordes,’ and ‘Moses: A Play’.
In his famous collection Poems from Camp and Trench, which includes ‘In The Trenches’, there is also a lesser known poem entitled simply ‘The Jew’. The Jew is a moving piece about the anti-Jewish sentiment and hostility Rosenberg experienced fighting alongside his comrades:
Moses, from whose loins I sprung,
Lit by a lamp in his blood
Ten immutable rules, a moon
For mutable lampless men.
The blonde, the bronze, the ruddy,
With the same heaving blood,
Keep tide to the moon of Moses.
Then why do they sneer at me?
– Isaac Rosenberg, ‘The Jew’
This work could perhaps be seen as the great poet’s posthumous response to the use of his work by Corbyn and his party – where supporters of Corbyn’s Momentum faction sneer at Jewish Labour members and MPs, create a hostile environment for Jews and fail to take timely and appropriate action against open antisemites within party ranks, which so frightens the British Jewish community that 47% of British Jews say they will consider leaving the country if Corbyn becomes Prime Minister.
Isaac Rosenberg was killed early on the morning of 1st April 1918 during the German spring offensive. Lest We Forget.