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Chorus Of The Hebrew Slaves In Gaza

I was wandering up the Tip Track in Owhiro Bay today listening to a playlist of favourites. On came “Va, Pensiero” by Giuseppe Verdi - The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves – from Nabucco. It stopped me in my tracks. I have heard the piece innumerable times - including live at the Michael Fowler Centre sung by the Orpheus Choir. But this time was different.

Verdi wrote it in 1842, not that long after Maori chiefs and the Crown signed The Treaty of Waitangi. At that time, Maori “owned”, to use the Pakeha concept, virtually 100% of the land; today, by hook and by crooks, they hold less than 5%. Similar fates have, as we know, befallen indigenous peoples the world over, including the Palestinians.

If you don’t know Va, Pensiero, treat yourself and listen to it now. It became an unofficial anthem of the Italian people as they struggled, ultimately successfully, to throw off their colonial oppressors and unite all of Italy - the Papal States being the last to throw in the towel in 1871. Rinascimento - Italy was free from the mountains to the sea.

When the maestro died in 1901, hundreds of thousands of Milanese flooded the streets to honour him, bowing heads and raising their voices as Verdi’s funeral cortege passed through the streets of Milan. As it passed, in street after street, the crowds instinctively knew what to sing:

Va', pensiero, sull'ali dorate;Hasten thoughts on golden wings.
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,Hasten and rest on the densely wooded hills,
ove olezzano tepide e molliwhere warm and fragrant and soft
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!are the gentle breezes of our native land!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,The banks of the Jordan we greet
di Sionne le torri atterrate…and the fallen towers of Zion.
Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta!O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!
O membranza sì cara e fatal!O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!
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Loss of land, loss of rights, captivity under pitiless masters are all tremendously suffocating things for any people to endure - be they Irish, Italian, South African, Vietnamese, Aborigine, American Indian, Maori or Palestinian. The cultural memory of the Jewish people is also testament to that.

Verdi’s Nabucco is the emperor Nebuchadnezzar II who I recall well from the bible and my long Catholic indoctrination. It was he who in 587 BC destroyed Jerusalem and led the Hebrews into the Babylonian Captivity. Who doesn’t remember Bony M singing: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and yeah, we wept, when we remembered Zion!”

Today the Hebrew Slaves are the Palestinian people, held in a cruel captivity by the Israelis – who seem to have forgotten the most important moral lessons from their ancestors’ long suffering as a people.

Verdi’s magnificent choral piece could be little more than a piece of high-culture candy to amuse and stir the ardours of the bourgeoisie. But it is also more, much more, than that: I hear and experience it as a cultural memory of suffering and solidarity. A chance to let my own thoughts – pensieri – turn in solidarity with the people who are suffering in the furnace of Gaza, who like you and me, deserve freedom and dignity, safety for their children, and a place to call home.

This week marks two significant events. One, the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The other was the emergency gathering of the United Nations General Assembly hastily called following the blocking by the USA at the Security Council last week of the resolution for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. In a world where silence is violence, New Zealand raised its voice and joined the vast majority of nations – 153 - who represent the vast bulk of humanity, and voted for an immediate ceasefire.

America and Israel mustered just 10 votes, a shameful crew of deplorables and hostage nations, including Nauru, Micronesia, Guatemala and Liberia. Britain and Germany took the cowards’ route and abstained.

According to the Guardian, Munir Akram, the UN ambassador for Pakistan, decried the war as “one-sided slaughter” and said Israel was more to blame for the conflagration than Hamas. “When you deny people freedom and dignity, when you humiliate and trap them in an open-air prison, where you kill them as if they were beasts, they become very angry and they do to others what was done to them,” he said.

The resolution also demanded the immediate release of all hostages, the approximately 138 still held by Hamas and the thousands held by Israel, including hundreds of Palestinian children and others held without trial.

This is not the end of America and Israel’s violence. But they both stand isolated and deplored by the people of this planet. This struggle must go on until the Captivity of the slaves, the occupied people of the Gaza concentration camp and their brothers and sisters throughout Palestine are granted human rights and freedom.

Each of our voices is small but one thing you can do is email our leaders, attend rallies, and support people who have the courage to oppose. Together we can form a choir for justice that will not be drowned out by the bombs and shells of the oppressors.

Best wishes to people of all faiths and perspectives.

Eugene Doyle is a community organiser who lives on Wellington’s South Coast. He received an Absolutely Positively Wellingtonian award in 2023 for community service to coastal communities, environmental action, water quality, emergency resilience and other causes.

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