Professor George Steiner, Extraordinary Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge
Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, Birkbeck College, University of London
May 17, 2012
In this lecture, entitled "Homelands," Professor Steiner argues that the history of the Jews and of Jewish identity has been characterized by radical inner tensions. These tensions, Professor Steiner suggests, oscillate between priest and prophet, the desert and the city, Zionism and the hopes and ideals of the Diaspora. The Shoah and its legacy have accentuated such divisions. Yet, Steiner argues, the opposing ideals are inextricably interwoven. Is it possible, he asks, to make any responsible conjectures to the future?
George Steiner is a Fellow of Churchill College, University of Cambridge. He has held professorships at Yale, Geneva, New York and Oxford and was elected Fellow of the British Academy in 1998. He is a renowned literary critic, essayist, novelist, scholar and teacher, having published more than 25 books. In his writing he explores comparative literature and the nature and power of language. A further biding concern has been the implication of the Shoah for our understanding of civilization and culture.
Listen to the Lecture Podcast
As he approaches emergency open heart surgery, Elie Wiesel reflects back on his life in a new book entitled, Open Heart. Below is an excerpt:
June 16, 2011
"It's your heart," says the gastroenterologist after performing an endoscopy on me.
I am surprised: "Not my stomach?"
For some time now, acid reflux has been one of my nightmares. My longtime general practitioner also feels it has contributed to the various health problems that have afflicted me for the past several years.
My wife, Marion, and I have just returned from Jerusalem, where, every year, we spend the holiday of Shavuot with close friends. In keeping with the tradition to which I have remained faithful, friends and I spent the night in a yeshiva in the Old City studying biblical and Talmudic laws and commentaries dating from the Middle Ages.
This time, in Jerusalem, it had all gone well. No terrorist attacks. No border incidents. Even my cursed migraines seemed to respect the sanctity of this night, of this city unlike any other. But now, back in New York, suddenly my body revolts. The new piercing pain in my shoulders rises all the way to my jaw. I swallow a double dose of Nexium, the medicine I take for acid reflux. This time without success.
"No, neither the stomach nor the esophagus," replies the doctor after a moment of silence. "It's certainly the heart." Ominous words, inducing fear and the promise of more pain. Or worse.
As soon as he receives his colleague's message, my primary care doctor, a cardiologist, reaches me at home. On the phone, he appears to be out of breath; he speaks in a tense, emphatic voice, louder than usual. I have the feeling that he is trying to contain or even hide his nervousness, his concern. Clearly, he is unhappy to have to give me this bad news that will change so many things for me . . .
"I expected a different result," he explains. "But now the situation requires some further tests immediately."
"Please come to Lenox Hill Hospital right away. I am already there."
I protest: "Why? Because it's the heart? Is it really that urgent? I have never had a problem with my heart. With my head, yes; my stomach too. And sometimes with my eyes. But the heart has left me in peace."
At that, he explodes: "This conversation makes no sense. I am your cardiologist, for heaven’s sake! Please don't argue with me! You must take a number of tests that can only be administered at the hospital. Come as quickly as you can! And take the emergency entrance!"
On occasion, I can be incredibly stupid and stubborn. And so I nevertheless steal two hours to go to my office. I have things to attend to. Appointments to cancel. Letters to sign. People to see—among others, a delegation of Iranian dissidents.
Strange, all this time I am not really worried, though by nature I am rather anxious and pessimistic. My heart does not beat faster. My breathing is normal. No pain. No premonitions. No warning. After all, hadn't I just three days ago gone through a complete checkup with all kinds of tests, including a cardiogram, administered by my physician, the same one who is now ordering me to the hospital? There had been no indication of a coronary problem: no chest pain or feeling of oppression. What has changed so abruptly in my body to destabilize it to this extent?
All right, I'll go to the hospital, since both doctors insist. I don't take anything along. No books, no spare shirt, no toothbrush. Marion says she wants to accompany me. I try to discourage her. In vain.
A team of specialists is waiting for me in the emergency room. The very first blood test instantly reveals the gravity of my condition. There is a definite risk of heart attack. The doctors exchange incomprehensible comments in their own jargon. Their conclusion is quick, unambiguous and unanimous: An immediate procedure is required. There can be no delay.
Marion whispers in my ear that we are fortunate; she has just learned that the surgeon who will perform the angiogram is the one who operated on her two years earlier. I remember him, a handsome, strikingly intelligent man. I had been struck by his kindness as much as by his competence.
"I hope," he tells me, "that we will be able to do for you what we succeeded in doing for your wife: to restore a normal flow of blood in the arteries by inserting a stent." But then he adds, looking grave, "I must warn you that we may have to intervene in a more radical way. We will know very soon."
I am drowsy and fight against sleep by trying to follow the brief professional exchanges in the operating room. Actually, I don't understand a word. About an hour later, I hear the surgeon saying, "I am so sorry, I don't have good news for you: Your condition is such that the insertion of a stent won’t suffice. You have five blocked arteries. You require open-heart surgery."
I am shaken. Sure, I know that these days open-heart surgery is regularly performed the world over. Dr. Christiaan Barnard's face appears before me; I had met the famous surgeon at a conference in Haifa and we had engaged in a long dialogue on medical ethics, comparing Judaic and Christian points of view. I had looked at his hands, wondering how many human beings owed them their survival.
But now the words "open-heart surgery" are meant for me. And they fill me with dread.
"You're lucky. A colleague of mine, an expert in this type of surgery, is at the hospital right now. I have spoken to him. He is ready to operate on you."
"Doctor," I ask, "have you told my wife?"
"No, but I will do it right now."
In a moment he is back: "I've seen Marion. As well as your son, Elisha."
The fact that my beloved son is already at the hospital does not surprise me. Since his earliest childhood, he has always made me proud, always been there for me.
"What do they think?"
"They agree; we have no choice. But the decision is yours alone."
"May I see them?"
Marion and Elisha are not good at hiding their anxiety. Their smiles seem forced. And how am I to hug them without falling apart? Marion, holding back her tears, tries to reassure me: "The doctors are optimistic. The surgeon they propose is world-renowned."
"It will go well," says Elisha. "I know it, Dad. I am convinced of it."
I remain silent.
"Shall we go?" urges the attending physician.
The nurses are ready to push the gurney toward the OR. I steal another glance at the woman with whom I have shared my life for more than forty-two years. So many events, so many discoveries and projects, unite us. All we have done in life we have accomplished together. And now, one more experience.
As the door opens, I look one last time at our son, the fine young man who has justified—and continues to justify—my life and who endows it with meaning and a hereafter.
Through the tears that darken the future, a thought awakens a deeper concern, a deeper sorrow: Shall I see them again?
Excerpted from Open Heart by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2012 by Elie Wiesel.
Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death, by Otto Dov Kulka, translated by Ralph Mandel, Allen Lane, 144 pages, Published in the US in March by Belknap Press.
Review by Simon Schama, Financial Times
It is commonplace that in the matter of the Holocaust, words fail us. Language, especially the wrought language of literature, struggles to register atrocities unrecognisable as the acts of sentient humans. Yet however unequal to the task, writers persist in their efforts to give form to smoke; to match words to madness. Sometimes, pardonably, fiction writers fall into the error of encompassing enormity by acts of literary violence. Monsters of prosody result which, with every shriek amid the bloody mire, only draw attention to how far they miss the mark.
But, silence being the handmaid of oblivion, nothing is not enough. The memory-vacuum will quickly be filled by the lies of deniers, whose numbers are increasing not diminishing. So chroniclers of what Otto Dov Kulka calls “the Great Death” continue to be torn between redundancy and futility. The dilemma is particularly acute among the dwindling band of survivors whose personal testimony is unreproducible by second-hand accounts, yet who are traumatically burdened with the indecency of adjectives; the sense that writing may never be more than an artificial simulacrum of what remains buried in their nightmares like deep-lodged shrapnel.
Was that book, one wonders, the work of Primo Levi, who may himself have been a fatal casualty of the struggle between word and memory? Like Levi and HG Adler, Kulka has long wrestled with what he should do with his burden of recall, some of it, like the sense of being perpetually returned to the gates of Auschwitz, mercilessly involuntary. Like Adler (in his sober non-fiction) Kulka has elected to steer clear of anything resembling autobiography and to address the horror instead with the analytical tools of the historian. But that turns out not to have given him peace. So over the years he confided to a tape recorder his dreams, nightmares and memories, which so far from being shrouded in the wraithlike indeterminacy of phantoms, have, for better or worse, remained visions of unsparing precision and concreteness.
Fortunately for us all, he has been persuaded by friends and the promptings of his own formidable decency to turn those spoken recollections and meditations into the astonishing book that is Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death. In its essence this is not so much a book about Auschwitz as one about coming to terms with the shock of survival. Like the 11-year-old Kulka, who came within a few hundred metres of the crematoria, assuming that he would perish there, the writing hovers around the incineration, as he puts it, “like a moth circles a flame”.
The origins of the book in Kulka’s patient but exacting self-interrogations; his postwar circumlocutions and confrontations; the visit to the camp, once with his father who also survived; the attempts to liberate himself from the nightmare of obligatory return by doing just that – all mean that Kulka’s style is bony and austere, with scarcely a note of literary striving in the hundred-odd pages. His prose is halting and broken as befits its subject; interspersed with black-and-white photographs which in their amateurishness make no attempt to frame the magnitude of what they ostensibly record: the stoved-in remains of the crematoria; the “forest of concrete pillars” once supporting the barbed wire electrified fences that held the population captive.
WG Sebald, acknowledged as one of those encouraging Kulka to write and publish, is an obvious and appropriate model for wrestling quietly with the infernal. Kafka, too, supplies sympathetic correlates for Kulka’s perplexities. Yet amid the fragmentary, digressive impressions are images of terrible poetic concreteness: the black stains of the Death March which resolve into corpses shot by the Germans and dumped at intervals by the snowy roadside; the “speck” of his mother in “a thin skirt that rippled in the breeze” as she walked off to a labour camp without ever turning her head to look back one last time at her son; a prisoner attempting to dodge the rain of blows beating down on him from the SS through a kind of “grotesque, bizarre dance”.
What, ultimately, makes Kulka’s book unlike any other first-hand account written about the camps is the authenticity of its vision of an 11-year-old boy. By some freak of fate (the logic of which is explained at the end of the book), Otto and his mother, who had volunteered to go from the notoriously fake “resettlement” village of Theresienstadt to Auschwitz, were exempt from the usual merciless division between those swiftly destined for the crematoria where “the living, who enter in their masses in long columns and are ... transformed into flames, into light and smoke, then disappear and fade into those darkening skies”, and those fit enough to slave until they too, after six months, shrink into the skeletons covered by yellow skin he sees carted away each day from the barracks dump. Instead, Kulka and his mother are mysteriously lodged, with thousands of others, in a familienlager, a family barracks where they are spared the shaven heads and camp uniform; where the boy even gets to sleep beside his mother. The barracks turns into a true school, where the future historian learns for the first time of Thermopylae and Salamis; where the children perform an opera and, in an act of stupendous defiance of their fate, sing Schiller’s words and Beethoven’s melody of “Ode to Joy”.
But this miraculous capsule of cultural survival within Auschwitz is, of course, a calculated contrivance of Nazi propaganda, designed to persuade Theresienstadt prisoners that these were the conditions that awaited them upon resettlement to the east, and to convince inspectors from the International Red Cross that reports of torture and immolation were baseless slanders. Once the IRC had fallen for the propaganda stunt at Theresienstadt, there was no further need for its Auschwitz counterpart. Five thousand mothers and children sharing Kulka’s barracks were taken at one fell swoop to the gas chambers, leaving room for another group who in six months would be similarly disposed of. By one of the strokes of luck that Kulka recognises as determining the fate of the doomed, he and his mother were in the camp hospital with diphtheria when the rest of the familienlager were murdered.
There are other moments of fortune that left Kulka possessed by a sense of reckoning suspended rather than obviated. Handing his father a bowl of soup through the electrified fence, his hands (curious to see if the touch was fatal) stick to the wire. The boy assumes he is already dead and is amazed to discover that the landscape of Birkenau remains in his sight in the afterlife. Then he has to ensure that the burns, which turn lacerating and pus-swollen, are not discovered since his unfitness for labour would send him summarily to the crematoria.
All this is unimaginably horrifying, yet through the eyes of little Otto we can, again, apprehend it. In a particularly moving passage, he considers himself spared the “acute, murderous, destructive discord and torment felt by every adult inmate who was uprooted and wrenched from his cultural world ... and which was almost always one of the elements of the shock that often felled them within a short time”. For him, he writes, that shock “did not exist because this was the first world and the first order I had ever known: the order of the selections, death as the sole certain perspective ruling the world”.
Whether or not setting all this down has done anything to relieve the unrelenting grip the “metropolis of death” holds on his mind, or whether it has tightened that hold, Kulka does not say. But since he has done the rest of us – and the world – so great a kindness by writing his book, one hopes for his sake the former. Ending in Jerusalem with his going “to usher in Shabbat with the children of the sons and daughters of Job the Just”, he offers the barest glint of sunlight amid a thunderous darkness.
Simon Schama is an Financial Times contributing editor. His BBC television series ‘The History of the Jews’ is due to be aired later this year.
By Walter Reich
New York Times, June 12, 2004
After my uncles, aunts, cousins and, probably, grandmother were gassed in 1942 in Belzec, a German death camp in Poland, their remains were dumped into mass graves there, together with those of at least 500,000 other Jews.
That small site, about 15 acres, is one of the most concentrated zones of death in the world.
In the past 15 years I've gone to Belzec five times to visit those remains and say Kaddish for the dead. Now a trench, about 30 feet deep and open at both ends, has been dug into the ground between the mass graves. Stretching through the heart of the camp, it's the central element of a memorial that was unveiled last week.
The trench lets people not only visit the remains of the dead but go deep into the earth and walk among them. Some have argued that after years of increasing exposure to Holocaust museums and movies, the public has developed ''Holocaust fatigue''; the trench would intensify the experience, making visitors feel, as the victims felt, trapped and doomed.
This is, for me, a stupefying idea. One visits a grave site; one doesn't invade it. But that is what the memorial has done. In the digging of the trench, the surface soil, much of it ash and bone, was disturbed. Workers discarded some of the human remains.
And the greatest invasion is yet to come. Tourists will pass through the trench. Some will be moved. Others, like schoolchildren on class trips, will be noisy. And they'll be walking between mass graves containing the incinerated remains of tens of thousands of people.
In their last moments, those dead were tortured beyond anything we can imagine. Transported from ghettos in cattle cars, they were forced, once at Belzec, to undress. They were then chased through a narrow passage between barbed wire, past a gantlet of screaming guards with whips, who herded them into the gas chambers.
And after the carbon monoxide? One SS officer described a gassing of 3,000 Jews in 1942. The dead, he recalled, stood ''erect like basalt columns, for there is no room to fall or to collapse,'' adding: ''Even in death, one can recognize the families, holding hands. It is only with difficulty that they can be separated to make room in the chambers for the next transport.''
Neither those 3,000 nor the other hundreds of thousands of Holocaust dead in Belzec needed this trench. A strong fence should have been built around the site to keep everyone out. A memorial structure, bearing a sign explaining what happened in Belzec, should have been erected nearby. And the dead should have been left undisturbed, forever. But the deed is done. The trench is open. Tourists will surge through it. And I'll continue to visit, standing outside, saying Kaddish for those tortured dead.
Walter Reich, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University, was the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum from 1995 to 1998.
By Dalya Alberge
The guilty tale of the German civil servant who married her godmother is revealed in a new book by historian Mary Fulbrook
A British professor of German history has published an extraordinary exposé of the secret Nazi past of the man who married her godmother.
A Small Town Near Auschwitz, written by Mary Fulbrook, who teaches at University College London, and to be published this week, tells the story of Udo Klausa, a man Fulbrook's family believed was involved only in mundane local government during the war years.
However, she has unearthed unpublished material that reveals his role as a Nazi backroom administrator of the Holocaust, operating close to Auschwitz concentration camp, where more than a million Jews died. On discovering the true nature of his activities, Fulbrook said: "I felt literally like I'd been punched in the stomach. I was angry and shocked. I partly wrote the book almost to rub his face posthumously in the murderous consequence of his actions."
Delving into Klausa's past was especially painful for her because her own mother – a close friend of Klausa's wife, Alexandra – was a German-Jewish refugee who lost friends and relatives to the Holocaust. It was through her mother's childhood friendship with Alexandra that Fulbrook obtained access for the first time to Klausa's unpublished memoir, written long after the war, and to dozens of wartime letters written by Alexandra.
They reveal a man who "produced the preconditions" for selections and deportations. Klausa was the landrat – or civilian administrator – of a sizeable county in eastern Upper Silesia, north of Auschwitz in Poland, where thousands of people lost their liberty or their lives to his civilian policies. Yet the writings suggest that he never witnessed the results of his actions and had seemingly convinced himself of his own innocence.
Fulbrook was shocked to discover how few references there were to atrocities against Jews around Bendsburg, the small town where Klausa and his family lived – even though people had been burned alive, shot, hanged or deported.
One depraved act in a neighbouring county involved forcing Jews to lie for hours forming a path of human paving-stones over which Nazis walked in heavy boots. An eyewitness recorded a German standing on a Jew's face until it was "squashed to pieces". "These omissions from his memoirs are extraordinary," Fulbrook said. "He has no memory of atrocities. This is really important in understanding how the Holocaust was possible. It shows the way in which you could live with that kind of past, cover it up and present yourself as a perfectly decent, ordinary civil servant who had nothing to do with the atrocities.
"If he'd conveyed anything like fear, regret, guilt, shame, I would have felt much more comfortable. But it's just a whitewashed past."
Letters sent in 1942 by Alexandra to her own mother suggest that Klausa was disturbed by the unfolding events – they refer to her husband's "even worse" mood. But mass killings are mentioned coldly. Alexandra wrote: "There is constant shooting, everywhere dead Jews are lying around … One simply can't avoid seeing all this, and the constant shooting drives one quite mad."
Fulbrook said the material offered a new perspective on perpetrator mentality. Other studies have focused on prominent Nazis and frontline killers or their victims, she said. But the victims only ever saw the people in the frontline of physical violence, the SS and Gestapo, the designated "perpetrators". The backroom civilian administrators were unknown to them.
She came across Klausa's story while "idly" sifting through her mother's old letters. Among them was a typed memento created by Klausa's son in memory of Alexandra. It drew on his mother's own letters. One referred to 15,000 Jews being deported. Fulbrook said: "I thought, 'Where on earth was she to witness this in one day?' "
Alexandra was writing from Bendsburg, Fulbrook said. "I'd never heard of it. I Googled it." It was the Germanised name for the occupied Polish town of Bedzin.
There was also passing mention of Klausa as a landrat. Fulbrook said that, even though she is a German historian, she does not understand a landrat's functions. There was no literature on it – "let alone a landrat close to Auschwitz".
It was after investigating further that she discovered landrats were charged with implementation of Nazi directives. Klausa went along with Nazi policies, ensuring Jews wore the yellow star, did not break the curfew, and did not use public transport or enter areas forbidden to them.
After the war, West German law for prosecuting war criminals allowed the defence of "following orders" to escape a murder charge. "Thereby, Klausa fell out of the picture completely," Fulbrook said. He was never tried and later became director of a Rhineland regional council. In the book, she writes: "One part of me wants to yell back at Klausa … to scream that, without him and countless other functionaries … Hitler could never have wrought such mass destruction."
This antisemitic poster was found in Winnipeg at Broadway and Edmonton on September 14, 2012 (we are not sure at this time how many posters were put up downtown). Below is the text of the poster and a comment by CISA's Director.
Since Mayor Sam Katz was elected to office in 2004, hundreds of millions of dollars have been funneled from City Hall into the pockets of the following people, primarily through untendered contracts and shady land deals.
Richard M. Leipsic
The gross misconduct of the Mayor’s office & City Hall has gone on for too long. Firegate is the final straw that will break their backs.
Once the harsh lights of scrutiny of the Auditor General and the RCMP are turned towards City Hall, Sam Katz will be facing hard time at Stony Mountain and his cabal of cockroaches will be clutching their dirty money and running for cover.
* * * * * *
CISA's Director has made the following public comment on the posters:
The posters found in Winnipeg's downtown area on September 14, 2012 are extremely disturbing and reflect a mindset that is deeply antisemitic. The posters target and therefore threaten specific individuals by name by placing them on a kind of "Jewish hit list." They make explicit reference to Adolf Hitler and employ classic antisemitic phrases and imagery as cues to the reader, such as "shady deals," "dirty money," "cabal of cockroaches." Antisemitism is a deeply embedded cultural code in Western society. One can clearly communicate a hateful, conspiratorial, antisemitic message without using the word "Jew" directly and that is precisely what these posters are designed to accomplish. They are also used to publicly demonize and humiliate these individuals as Jews (whether or not they are actually Jewish) and that is an outrageous and despicable act. The poster and its hateful message should be condemned in public by all principled people.
By Robert S. Wistrich, JTA
August 21, 2012
After the 1967 Six-Day War, much of the radical left in the West predicated its militant anti-Zionism on the illusory notion that the Palestinians represented a revolutionary and “progressive” vanguard that could one day mobilize the Arab masses in the cause of social revolution.
But in 2011, when revolution really spread to the Middle East, Palestine was scarcely on the agenda. Not only that, but the Palestinian national movement, far from representing social revolution, has been increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalist terrorism, whose values are completely antithetical in all respects to those of Western liberalism.
Yet, the Palestinian “myth” of liberation still lives on as if nothing has changed.
Significantly, Israeli society continues to move forward as an increasingly successful, economically liberalized and modern “start-up” nation. Yet, its very tangible achievements are simply shrugged off by those left-liberals who either ignore the moral and political bankruptcy of Palestinian nationalism or blame its abject failure on Israel and the United States.
In my recent book “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” I addressed this Manichean stance at some length, examining the refusal of the left to engage in any substantive critique of radical Islam, even as it indulges in the most hyperbolic clichés about Israel.
Moreover, whenever the subject of contemporary anti-Semitism also is thrown into this boiling pot, an infantile counter-accusation is usually evoked — that one is cynically “stifling criticism” of Israel or dishonestly playing the “Zionist card.” In other words, any critic who detects even a hint of anti-Jewish bias in the venomous demonization of Israel as “Nazi,” “fascist” or a “racist apartheid state” par excellence is assumed to be protesting in bad faith or acting as a venal apologist for Israel.
If anything can stifle genuine debate, it is surely such unjust accusations. They invariably shut down any serious discussion of the very real anti-Semitic legacies, the stigmatizing vocabulary and paranoid conspiracy theories so widely prevalent today among many Islamists, Marxists and supposedly “liberal” adversaries of modern Zionism.
There is something profoundly dishonest about reducing anti-Semitism to a discourse about “immunizing” Israel from legitimate criticism. Among other things, it assumes that Jews actually have the power to silence critics of Israel. Yet, it should be obvious that such “criticism,” far from being silenced, is in fact rampant in the Western media. The appalling fact is that obvious falsehoods such as branding Israel as an “apartheid state” or trying to demonize it through the “Nazi” analogy have become rather fashionable in much contemporary Western discourse.
Equally, when self-proclaimed “progressives” work overtime to turn Israel into a pariah state or to dismantle it, they are hardly being “progressive,” let alone original. Worse still, they echo in a sometimes ominous manner the brutal language of the Nazi campaign in the 1930s to make Europe judenrein (Jew-free).
As for the Islamists (whether in Iran or those currently riding high in the Arab world), they have never disguised their relentless pursuit of the “eliminationist” option — to “cleanse” the Middle East definitively of the “Jewish cancer” — which is exactly how Israel is currently described by the ayatollahs in Tehran.
Yet, incredibly, there are leftists — including so-called Jewish “progressives” — who either remain silent about the enormity of this genocidal language or malevolently suggest that Israel is deliberately exaggerating the Iranian threat to justify future aggressions of its own.
As I showed in my recent book, the prevailing defamation of Zionism has its roots in the campaign of the Soviet Union and its Third World allies that cynically manipulated “anti-racist” catchwords to stigmatize and morally discredit Zionism in the international arena.
It was the totalitarian Soviet propaganda apparatus that first invented the myth of an essential ideological unity between Zionism and racism — a canard eagerly embraced in the 1970s by Yasser Arafat, many Arab states, nonaligned Third World countries, black radicals and much of the Western New Left. Already at that time, Zionist Jews came to be seen by communists, leftists and Islamists as embodying an immensely powerful, intangible, occult form of global power threatening to dominate the whole world. This pseudo-Marxist and anti-American variation on the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” produced a particularly vicious mutation of fascist conspiracy theories, which during the past decade have experienced a spectacular revival on the anti-Zionist left.
Such mythologizing of Jewish power lies at the heart of the so-called “new anti-Semitism,” which is ultimately not so different from the old. Already in the mid-19th century, socialists as diverse as Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin had postulated the existence of a universal, anti-social Jewish mercantile “essence” that had supposedly seized control of the capitalist world and would therefore have to be destroyed. Their heirs today have embraced the phantasmagoric view that humanity can be redeemed (and peace finally achieved in the Middle East) only if the world is physically liberated from the new “Jewish” yoke — that of a demonic American-Zionist-Israeli conspiracy.
If the contemporary left seriously wishes to reclaim its own moral credibility and political relevance, it will have to engage in some serious soul-searching and definitively free itself from the incubus of such perverse fantasies. Only in this way can it hope to reconnect to an authentic emancipatory vision of human liberation.
Robert S. Wistrich is the director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and author of the newly published “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, The Jews and Israel,” University of Nebraska Press, 2012. He is a member of CISA's Academic Council.
This conversation took place on Monday, June 29th, 2009 but was not published until September 2012.
The Public Eye: Interview with David Hirsh
Chip Berlet is a US-based investigative journalist and expert on the far right and conspiracy theories.
David Hirsh is a Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith’s College, University of London. He is the author of Anti-Zionism and Antisemitism: Cosmopolitan Reflections, The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, (YIISA) Working Paper Series #1, New Haven CT, 2007; and “Law Against Genocide” in Freeman, M, (ed) Law and Sociology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Hirsh did an MA in Philosophy and Social Theory at Warwick University and he wrote his PhD there on Crimes against Humanity and International Law. He was interviewed in June 2009. He is a member of CISA's Academic Council.
= = =
BERLET: It seems that people who think of themselves as anti-racist and of some sort of progressive political bent have a hard time recognizing antisemitism, even if they recognize antisemitic statements they have a hard time seeing it in the same context of a broader global anti-racist struggle. Why do you think that is?
HIRSH: I think people are very good at recognizing some kinds of antisemitism. If it wears a Nazi uniform they understand it, if it’s right-wing they understand it, if it’s some sort of very simple worldview of racism and anti-racism. If it comes from the left and it comes from people who are anti-racist, then there’s often much more difficulty in recognizing and understanding what’s going on. There [are] many reasons for that.
One is that we think of antisemitism as being Nazism. Nazism was actually an unusual form of antisemitism; it was very clear, it allowed no exceptions; it allowed no escape for Jews. Most forms of antisemitism haven’t been like that., Christian antisemitism allowed people to convert to Christianity and therefore make themselves clean; also political antisemitism allowed Jews to put themselves on the right side of history. One of things we shouldn’t get too hung up on is the idea that antisemites are all like Adolph Hitler, because they’re not.
BERLET: In recent years, it’s been clear that a lot of folks on the left have been part of a global anti-Zionist struggle and they don’t seem to recognize the boundaries. There’s another question which is embedded within that [in], which there seems to be a misunderstanding of Zionism as a monolithic project that has remained unchanged since the late 1800s, and that creates all sorts of problems. Can you explain what you’ve written about that, in terms of the basic misunderstanding of [Zionism] being a monolithic project?
HIRSH: It’s actually very interesting, because although these anti-Zionists think of themselves as being very macho, Marxists [and] historical materialists, yet their narrative and how they explain Zionism is almost solely in terms of ideas. So it’ll be explained that Theodore Herzl had an idea in the late nineteenth century which it will be explained [as] a racist idea that Jews and other people couldn’t live together. And every subsequent manifestation of Zionism (or at least of what we don’t like about Zionism) is explained in terms of the idea that Herzl had. Now of course, one of the flaws of that kind of reasoning is that material things happened in Europe and in the Middle East and in Russia in the 20th century which transformed Zionism from a whole set of rather utopian movements into a really existing state. So, I think sure, we should look at the ideas and the fight over ideas that have been going on ever since the beginning of Zionism, but we also need to understand the social and material realties of Jewish life.
BERLET:Clearly one of the most significant things that happened was the Nazi genocide of Jews and others in WWII., The formula that has emerged in anti-Zionist circles recently is that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, especially. in Gaza, is tantamount to what the German Nazis did to the Jews during WWII., That seems to be historically inaccurate but it also changes the understanding that Zionism changed dramatically after WWII because of the Holocaust.
HIRSH: Well, one can do all sorts of strange things with analogies. The important thing about Nazism, the reason that Nazism is Nazism in the popular and political imagination, is because it set out to exterminate the Jews. And extermination is a project that’s even rather different from mass murder. So Nazism is known for extermination. Now the idea that what is happening in the Israeli-Palestine conflict is anything similar to that is just wrong. There’s no extermination, there never was a plan of extermination, and there is no mass murder and there is no genocide. So why do people keep raising that as an analogy?
It seems to me that one of the reasons people raise that as an analogy is because they think it has a particular effect on Jews when it is said that the Jews or Israelis have become similar to those who persecuted them. And of course it does have a particular effect on Jews. It has an effect of upsetting Jews. I think that that’s really the point of it, the point of it isn’t to come out with a serious [analysis]. There are all sorts of serious historical analogies for the rise of Jewish and Palestinian nationalism in the Middle East. One can look at Europe in the 19th century, one can look at the breakdown of the 0ttoman Empire, one can look at the Balkans, one can look at many, many things. It’s not similar to Nazism. Why do people say it’s similar to Nazism? They say it’s similar to Nazism in order to wind up the Jews, so actually the charge that the Israelis are the new Nazis is a kind of Jew-baiting. It’s literally that. It is a charge whose function is to upset and to annoy and to wind up.
I also find that it’s one of those things people think of, and they actually think they’re very clever when they think of it. They say ‘the Jews have become the Nazis.’ There’s a kind of kernel behind it [that] one can understand, the idea that if one has been subject to persecution then one should be able to recognize it and one should be less willing to become a part of something like that it in the future. But it seems to me a fundamentally flawed kind of logic, partly because one only has to ask the question what were the Jews supposed to learn at Auschwitz?
The question itself is fundamentally flawed. Auschwitz wasn’t any kind of positive learning experience, and the overwhelmingly majority of the Jews who had anything to do with the Holocaust learned nothing from it because they were killed by it. It wasn’t a learning experience and it wasn’t an experience which made people better, or more left-wing, or more anti-racist. There was no silver lining to the Holocaust.
What did people learn? People learned next time, don’t rely on western civilization to prevent antisemitism and genocide, next time have bigger friends, next time have a state with which you can defend yourself and next time have more tanks. Now that’s not my lesson it’s not my politics
The idea that the Jews should have learned something from the Holocaust is a kind of category error in thinking about the Jews as one people, as a unity. Because in truth different Jews learned different things from the Holocaust, and different Jews have different kinds of politics and different kinds of worldviews and different kinds of attitudes to what goes on. And the idea that the Jews collectively should think one thing or learn one thing is problematic. It’s an idea which comes up again and again, and I think it doesn’t make much sense.
I’m afraid to articulate the thought, what should the Blacks have learned from slavery? You just have to articulate the thought to realize what a vile kind of way of thinking it is, yet people say this about the Jews routinely – and some serious people. Jacqueline Rose, the well-known literary theorist and psychoanalyst, has asked these questions in the press in quite a kind of angry way, and has put forward the analogy between Jews and Nazis. In my own institution, I went down the corridor six months ago and was handed a leaflet saying that what was happening in Gaza was the same as what happened in the Warsaw Ghetto. The leaflet advertise[d] a meeting for students at which a women who was presented as a Holocaust survivor was going to make this argument. And this meeting was very well-attended
Because there was a Jewish woman making the argument, and because she called herself a Holocaust survivor, people really thought that that came with a significant authority. If one raised the question about the appropriateness of that kind of discussion on campus, the answer would be very straightforwardly, well [she’s] a Holocaust survivor making this argument not us. How can you raise the question in that context?
BERLET: In terms of the consistency issue. If critics of the idea of the state of Israel – let’s define that [as a state resulting from] Zionism [which itself is] a project that has a lot of different historical moments and a lot of different aspects—but people will argue that the idea of the state of Israel is itself a form of colonialism and settlerism. And what I find dramatically obvious is that the same people who raise that argument do not raise it in the same way with countries like Australia, New Zealand or even the United States. And it seems that very often in these discussions people exceptionalize Israel. They run away from logical and sequential arguments that would be much more powerful if you wanted to be a critic, and yet they get away with it.
HIRSH: Well, I think the way you phrase it is very interesting…There’s an old Jewish joke which was around I believe in the 1920s that asks, what’s the definition of a Zionist? And the answer is a Zionist is one Jew who gives money to a second Jew so a third Jew can live in Palestine. Point being, Zionism was a utopian movement, it was a movement which didn’t have much mass purchase in Europe in the 1920s. Why? Because nobody wanted to go live in a swamp on the coastal plain of Palestine.
So Zionism was an idea, it was a political movement which one could be for or one could be against. One could be a Bundist, one could be a socialist – actually all of these movements were movements of the left, were radical movements, were anti-racist movements. And of course the [political] Right didn’t want to have anything to do with any of them.
Zionism was a minority and a rather utopian movement at that time – it was an idea with which one could agree or disagree and enter into discussions.
Things changed. After the experience of antisemitism in Europe, after the Holocaust when Europe attempted to wipe itself clean of Jews, after the pushing out of the Jews from the cosmopolitan cities of the Middle East, after the experience of antisemitism in Russia, after 1948 and the setting up of the state of Israel, after the wars of ‘48 and ‘56 and ‘67 and ‘73, Israel is no longer an idea, actually.
I think it’s very important because Israel is often talked about as though it is an idea or Zionism is an idea or Israel is some kind of a political movement. One will often hear people talking about “the Zionists”: The Zionists do this, the Zionists should be driven out, the Zionists think that.… I don’t use the term “the Zionists” in that way because I don’t think Israel is a political movement. Israel is a nation-state, rather like other nation-states. To talk about Israel as though it were a political movement is to ask whether it’s a good political movement or a bad political movement. And one doesn’t do that with Croatia or with France or with the United States – is the United States a good idea or a bad idea? Well, who cares— the United States exists. We oppose destructive kind of nationalism, we have a political program against racism, blah blah blah. But nation-states are not political movements and Israel isn’t a political movement.
BERLET: There are a bunch of settler nations in the world.….
HIRSH: Well, I suspect that the overwhelming majority of nations are settler-nations in some sense.; Nations classically and pretty well always have been carved out by national movements which aim to create an idea of nationhood which defines itself against people who didn’t fit into that idea of nationhood. It’s a classic and ordinary history for nation-states, and its not pleasant anywhere actually, and of course Israel has particular unique features to its history. It’s more recent than many states, but not than many others—because after the fall of the Soviet Union. for example, there was another huge wave of nationalism and the creation of nation-states and national self-determination. That came often with the defining of people who didn’t fit. So Israel isn’t anymore all that new, and isn’t in any sense unique.
I think there’s quite a lot at stake in the idea that Israel is unique. Antisemitism, I think, has always tried to understand and to construct the Jews as being centrally important to everything that happens in the world. The Jews are not centrally important to everything that happens in the world. Jews are a rather small and rather insignificant group of people, actually.
So antisemitism always created out of them a kind of huge threat, usually through conspiracy theory; or a huge threat because the Jews didn’t accept Jesus; or a huge threat because the Jews were heralds of modernity and therefore [behind] the breakdown of traditional values. So Jews [were always constructed] as centrally important to what happened in the world, and they’re not. And I think that when one sees the construction of Israel as though it were centrally important to everything that happens in the world, then one is in danger of seeing a similar pattern emerging.
One often sees people who claim that the Israel-Palestine conflict is the key to world peace, or even the key to peace in the Middle East. There was an interesting version of that in the … Observer. The morning after the election in Iran, there was an editorial which was very fresh, nobody really knew what had happened in the election [yet], and the editorial said, ‘the election may have been stolen by Ahmadinejad – it may have been stolen, there’s people in the streets, we don’t know what’s happened yet, time will tell. Whatever happens, the most important event is Bibi Netanyahu’s speech at Bar-Ilan University next week about the peace process.’
Now, I don’t think that’s true – I don’t think a rather tedious speech by a rather tedious Israeli politician is more important than the stealing of an election in Iran and the fact that there’s a huge mass popular movement against that stealing of that election. Iran is hugely important in its own right, for Iranians. It’s an old state with a huge culture of its own, with a democratic tradition of its own, with a revolutionary tradition of its own. It’s a state where there’s been fighting over democracy for decades, where the busworkers from Tehran were brutally suppressed about a year ago when they went on strike, where’s there a tradition of the Left.
So why would the Observer newspaper just kind of say ‘well, we don’t know yet what’s going to happen in Iran, but the most important thing is Netanyahu’? The reason it does that, I think, is because that there’s such a temptation to understand Israelis and Palestinians as being symbolic of much, much bigger, much, much more important things. So the importance of Israelis and Palestinians is blown up out of all proportion.
What comes with that then is an idea that Palestinians become the symbolic oppressed of the whole world, and Israelis and the Jews who argue [on the side of Israel] become symbolic of the oppressors throughout the world. One can see very straightforwardly how that can lead easily to conspiracy theory and to a reconstruction of the Jews as being central to everything that goes wrong in the world. So a lot of these debates about uniqueness are very important because Israel and Palestine are treated as though they were unique by many people, by many anti-Zionists.
Anti-Zionists claim to be universalists and cosmopolitans and anti-nationalists, but in truth, the way they relate to Israel is not the way they relate to anywhere else on the planet. For example, the boycott [sanctions and divestiture movement]. If you look at the debate which happened over the boycott in my trade union recently it was interesting because there was a lot of rhetoric [about] the Israeli incursion into Gaza in December/January  that was very, very unpleasant. The Israelis went in chasing after Hamas fighters and they killed a lot of people who were in and around the targets – [and] of course the targets base themselves in civilian areas.
So the war in Gaza was very, very unpleasant, and in my view the Israelis shouldn’t have been doing it. However, a month later in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan state did to the Tamil Tigers what the Israelis didn’t to Hamas – that is, they went in, they separated the fighters from the civilians, they put the civilians in camps, they killed many thousands of people, they shelled the camps, they finished off the fighters, they took their territory and then they went through the civilians one by one and found the Tamil Tigers and dealt with them.
Now I think that’s appalling, and I’m very pleased that the Israelis don’t behave like that in Gaza. So why is it that at my union conference there’s an emergency motion about Sri Lanka, and people talk reasonable sense about Sri Lanka: people get up and say there’s a history of colonialism and a peace movement which fell apart, there’s important things we have to understand about the conflict, what we have to do as a trade union is to forge links with Sinhalese and Tamil [the two major ethnic groups] trade unionists, and we need to fight for politics of peace and reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. [These are ideas reflecting] perfectly normal [and] reasonable trade union values.
The debate then moves straight on to Israel, and the debate hinges only around the idea of boycotting Israeli academics — the idea that Israeli academics need to be punished and Israelis needs to be shown that their academics are not part of a global academic community. What about the University of Colombo in Sri Lanka? Nothing. So [we have] a much more serious situation in Sri Lanka, but much more serious anger against Israelis than against the Sri Lankan state. And an anger which spreads not only to the Israeli state but to Israeli civil society, because one of the tropes of anti-Zionism is to portray Israel as though there’s no distinction between the people and the state. So who do we punish? We punish the people, the academics. Why? Because they are the state.
[That’s a] very threatening and menacing view, to say that working-class people or civil society or ordinary people in a city are the state. We don’t normally do that. Anti-Zionists do that with Israel and they shouldn’t do it.
BERLET: It would seem, conceptually, that attacking two large office buildings in downtown New York would be the same categorical error, that by punishing people in an office building which is viewed as the center of power is equally wrong. Once any group looks at a nation-state and says that they are a loci of power and therefore it is legitimate [to argue that] every civilian is a target. That’s a collapse of understanding how complicated nations, governments, [and] societies are.
With the issue of Israel it’s collapsed even further so that not only is it the state of Israel and the government of Israel and the Israeli people, but Jews worldwide [who] are all complicit in this “conspiracy.”
HIRSH: During the conflict in Gaza, one of the official spokesmen of Hamas actually said publicly that since the Israelis are killing Palestinian children, then the Hamas movement is calling for the killing of Jewish children across the world. One would think that that was a kind of big, important statement from an antisemitic movement which was promising to kill Jewish children across the world. It wasn’t taken seriously by anybody, by anti-racists, —nobody expressed surprise or shock, it was just said, ‘well, what do the Israelis expect’?
One of the things about 9/11 is that people are able to look symbolically again. The Twin Towers are raised to symbolize something in people’s imagination in a similar way that Israelis are raised to symbolized something in people’s imagination. But really who was in the office boxes of the twin towers? They were cleaners and technicians and all sorts of people; they weren’t all bankers, they weren’t all the architects of global capital. And of course similarly —even more clearly— when buses are blown up in Tel Aviv. Rich people in Tel Aviv don’t go around in buses [partly] because they get blown up. So there’s a symbolism to the blowing up of buses which has nothing to do with the reality of it. There’s a kind of likemindedness to it – ‘wasn’t it interesting to see the symbolism of capitalism in New York collapse; isn’t it interesting to see the Palestinians gaining some revenge’? It’s a kind of simple, likeminded symbolic thinking which has no relation to politics, to a serious political tradition of the left of anti-hegemonic politics which says … ‘we have to build a politics that doesn’t replicate what we’re fighting against.’
It’s often said ‘well what can one expect from Palestinians who endure occupation, one can only expect that they will be angry with Jews.’ And I have some sympathy with that, actually, although in truth many, many Palestinians don’t adopt that kind of racist politics. In Palestine there are…political discussions and many, many people find ways of expressing their politics and their resistance [other] than killing Jews.
Then there’s another level [of] that discussion, which is one might say that if you were brought up in a Palestinian refugee camp policed by Jewish Israelis, you might dislike Jews. But what about us, in universities outside of Palestine? What’s our responsibility in those discussions? And it seems to me that we have a particular responsibility to stand up against the kind of politics of hatred which is in some sense is understandable within Palestine.
BERLET: A point you’ve made is that in other forms of racism and oppression—institutionalized or systematic [forms]—it is very unusual to analyze the situation in terms of what the victims are doing to make people hate them. And yet that seems to be part of the equation of discussing not just the state of Israel and the politics of the government of Israel, but the whole Middle East conflict. [This is then] extended out to what is uncarefully described as the Jewish Lobby or the Zionist Lobby.
HIRSH: I think that’s a very important point. The argument goes that Israel behaves badly, and I don’t disagree with that. I think Israel often behaves badly, it often behaves stupidly, it often behaves in a way which is reckless of Palestinian life. I think in order to organize the kind of occupation that the Israelis find themselves organizing, a sort of daily regime of violence and humiliation and racism just goes along with that territory. That’s why it’s very important the occupation should come to an end and there should be a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But having said that, I think the idea that because Israel behaves badly in Palestine then its reasonable for people to hate Jews, takes a whole other step. [This] is a logic which people buy into in different kinds of ways, sometimes explicitly and sometimes not. One doesn’t do that in other places. If one said ‘well, its reasonable to be misogynistic because women do nag a lot and they do get annoying, and if they stop nagging people would stop being misogynistic,’ there’s nobody who wouldn’t be able to see through that kind of logic. But the logic which says ‘well Jews behave badly in the Middle East and all over the world; they kind of act as a sort of lobby in order to defend that bad behavior… and therefore its not all too surprising that people hate them’, then that would be considered as some kind of legitimate argument amongst anti-racist circles. Why? There’s no reason for that I think. I think that one has to take seriously the transformation of hostility against human rights abuses into racist forms. One has to take that seriously.
I was in a debate with Seumas Milne who is a Guardian columnist …..I think we can go together some distance and I think we can agree that when the Palestinians are involved in fighting Jewish soldiers […] the hostility which they may feel [can be] manifested in a language of antisemitism or in a trope of antisemitism.
How do we deal with that, how do we understand that? Now it seems to me that Seamus Milne’s argument was what we have to do is translate it back into the language in which it was meant. He invents a rather Stalinist and a rather mystical notion of the real spirit of Palestinian resistance. And the real spirit of Palestinian resistance [Milne says] has been democratic and liberational. If it happens at one time or another to be expressed or manifested in the language of antisemitism, then what we need to do is translate it back into the real language of Palestine of resistance and liberation.
Now, I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that. I think that antisemitism may ….You know racism starts with something real in the world. It starts with some real grievance or some real hatred or some real thing and it becomes entrenched into a racial way of thinking. And it’s that transformation of real grievance into a racial way of thinking that we have to take apart and we have to oppose. One of the reasons we have to oppose that is because then it becomes a thing in itself. So white people who are worried about poverty or poor housing—if they then translate that into a racist narrative and say ‘well the blacks are taking our houses, the blacks are taking our jobs’ then one loses any possibility of fighting over good housing and good jobs.
Racism always has some kind of legitimate grievance somewhere in its history. But one has to take seriously the forms that it takes. And if hostility to the occupation in Palestine is articulated through the language of Jew-hatred then we have to take that seriously.
There was something else I wanted to say, to go back to your question. [It] is the idea of…institutionalized antisemitism, because I think that’s rather important. I don’t think people who do antisemitic things or who say antisemitic things in Britain today are Jew-haters, [I don’t think] they hate Jews. I think what they do is stumble into antisemitic ways of thinking of which they’re not really aware. So I think the question shouldn’t be ‘does somebody intend to harm Jews or does someone intend to feel a hatred of Jews?’ The question should be ‘what is the nature of the arguments people are making?’ If they are making a unique argument that Israeli Jews should be excluded from campuses; or if they’re saying Israel is the uniquely bloodthirsty state, or a uniquely child-killing state—then one should relate that back to where those kinds of ideas come from.
If one is saying that the Jews or the Israel lobby are responsible for the Iraq War, then one has to relate that back. The Jews have been held responsible for every war – there’s nothing new about this. In the Hamas charter it says explicitly the Jews were responsible for the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution and [for] global imperialism, for the First World War and for the Second World War….
In Britain there was a peace movement against the Boer War, and many people in that movement argued that the British Empire was being manipulated by Jewish diamond interests in Southern Africa.
Now I don’t think the people in the Stop The War coalition today have any clue that their talk about the Israel lobby is similar to [the rhetoric of] the people who were in the Stop The War coalition at the time of the Boer War….who said that behind this imperialist action is Jewish diamond interests. There’s no conception of the history in which people find themselves. So my point is that one shouldn’t ask ‘do people hate Jews?’ and one shouldn’t ask ‘do people know what they’re doing?’ – one should ask why are these tropes and these images being replayed and refound [today] when one talks about Israel and Palestine?
In a sense it shouldn’t surprise us – people have a hostility to Israel, some of it legitimate and some of it justified and some of it not. But putting that aside for one moment – if you want to express hostility to Israel and if you want to express hostility to the Jews who you think defend Israel’s human rights abuses, then available to you is a huge cultural reservoir of ways in which you can express hostility to Jews.
There’s conspiracy theory, there’s blood libel, there’s a whole set of ways of thinking. Now I can demonstrate that very often in rhetoric which is anti-Israeli, these tropes and these images from previous antisemitisms are replicated. Now if you’re replicating these tropes and these ideas and these images you may well not know that you’re doing it – you’re not doing it because you hate Jews or because you’re a convinced racist, you’re doing it because there is a reservoir of resources available to you if you want to make propaganda against Jews.
Let me give you one example. There was a poster which…had a picture of a Jaffa orange and it had blood coming out of the orange and it said ‘Don’t buy a Jaffa, squeeze the occupation’ – something like that. Now, anybody who knows anything about the history of antisemitism will know immediately that a combination of blood and food and Jews is already problematic. And the message of that poster is very clear – the message of that poster says that Jews are trying to give you food which is contaminated by the blood of the children that they’ve killed. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, it should disgust you, it should encourage you and remind you to boycott Jaffa oranges.
There is a long history of this idea that Jews mix the blood of the people they kill and eat it—mix it with their food. Now, I don’t think that the person who designed this rather striking poster knows anything about that. I don’t think that the person who designed that poster is an antisemite. It’s quite conceivable that [the designer] has never heard of the blood libel. Yet they produce a classic blood libel image. So this should be a lesson to us that we need to be careful. Yet, just asking people to be careful very often elicits a kind of hostile and angry response. The response is absolutely standard – the response to anyone who raises the issue of antisemitism in relation to hostility to Israel, to Zionism— the response is that ‘you’re accusing me of antisemitism not because you believe there is antisemitism but in order to play the antisemitism card, in order to make it impossible to delegitimize criticism of Israeli human rights abuses.’
Anyone who’s ever called on this or that antisemitic comment…produces the same response. The response is to accuse the Jews who raise the issue of antisemitism of doing so in a despicably and dishonest way in order to close down free speech. [It is a] very serious allegation. It’s an allegation that in my work I’ve come across explicitly and implicitly. It’s an allegation that says that I’m not an academic…not a sociologist. I’m just some kind of scribbler for Israel.
This same [experience] happened to Harold Jacobson, the novelist. Howard made a very serious critique of Caryl Churchill’s play “Seven Jewish Children.” The play made an argument that the conflict in Gaza was a result of the neurotic ways in which Jews bring up their children to be unconcerned about the killing of the “Other”—about the killing of Palestinian children. Howard Jacobson made this [serious critique of the play and] he said the play was antisemitic. Caryl Churchill replies ‘Well he would say that wouldn’t he, it’s the usual tactic.’ Meaning Howard Jacobson [is] not an intellectual, he’s not a novelist, he’s not interested really in talking about antisemitism. He’s really interested in doing is using antisemitism as a kind of despicable tactic to defend Israeli human rights abuses in Gaza.
BERLET: This is a question I struggle with. How do you approach a criticism of Israel or Zionism in a constructive way when you think some form of demonization or scapegoating is involved? Or a conspiracy theory that ties back to these historic tropes about Jews having power and control and plotting subversive [activities]. [Especially when we live in] a society that doesn’t teach people about the history of allegation against the “Other.” A lot of these criticisms that talk about global Jewish power track back to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
[In the] United States prior to [the Protocols] the same narratives were used against faceless plutocrats during the Populist movement and later deformed into open antisemitism. But all the way back to the late 1700s when in both France and Scotland there were books written that made the exact same allegations against the “Other.” In this case being the Freemasons [and the] Illuminati.
We as a society have replicated…these analogues to the Protocols. We know there are techniques people use to demonize an “Other,” and yet we don’t seem to be teaching schoolchildren that this is in fact one of the techniques that they should be aware of and not copy.
HIRSH: I think it’s very interesting because I think one of the things about the society in which we live, about modernity, is that it looks a bit like a conspiracy. We live in a world where the power is in the hands of a small number of people, and it looks as though the media does their bidding and does what’s in their interests. It looks like the whole of society is set up for the benefit of the powerful. So it’s not idiotic to believe in a conspiracy. But there’s a history to this, and the history is very interesting.
People like Max Weber and Emil Durkheim and Karl Marx invented structural accounts of how the world works to explain how a minority of people take all the power to themselves which didn’t rely on conspiracy theory. I think there’s an argument which says sociology itself was invented in order to undercut conspiracy [theory]; and possibly quite explicitly to undercut antisemitic conspiracy theory. Marx—whether you like Marx or you don’t like Marx—he offers a structural account of capitalism which doesn’t rely on a conspiracy of the few interests. I teach Marx to our first-years, and it’s quite difficult to teach because a lot of them they come away with the idea that that’s precisely what [Marx] does. They write in their essays, ‘well there are a small number of rich people who exploit everybody else’ and they come out with conspiracy theory. But of course Capital is much more interesting than that.
More recently… there’s something interesting that’s happened to Marx and Durkheim and Weber and social theory; which is that the critiques of social theory and structure have…come to the fore.
It’s actually very easy to critique anything about the world that exists.
You and me, we’re clever guys; we can sit down and critique democracy. And we can critique law, and we can critique social theory. We can show that the powerful are in charge even if law says that everybody is equal. We can take very thing apart. We can even take the idea of truth apart. We can show how truth is related to power, and how knowledge is related. We can do all that.
The problem is that if one critiques everything simply negatively then one ends up with nothing. I think it’s a kind of rather frightening view that people like George Orwell, for example, were very aware of. George Orwell was very aware that the people who critiqued everything in bourgeois society the most successfully were the totalitarians.
It was the totalitarians who said ‘we don’t believe in bourgeois law, it’s just a trick. We don’t believe in bourgeois democracy, it’s just a trick, we don’t believe in truth, it’s just a trick. We know who really runs the world.’
Those kinds of ideas, and the collapse of structural ways of trying to understand the world, [have made it] illegitimate to try to understand the world. And this is true on a popular level, but also in a serious professorial level.
So it doesn’t surprise me that when everything is critiqued then we move back to conspiracy theory, because all we are left with is power. If all notions of authority or democracy or law or anything become dissolved into power, than the question becomes ‘well, who are the powerful?’ And then take your pick: the Jews, the gays, the Muslims, whatever.
But I think there is a kind of bigger underlying problem, which leads towards this way of thinking, and I think it’s a cynicism about the values of democracy, but [also about the] values of the Left. The Left I was brought up in was a place where we tried to understand how the world worked, and we tried to change the world. Changing human beings was part of changing the world. Now it’s evident that there is a totalitarian moment to that as well. But I think we need to keep hold of that problem, but also keep hold of the original problem.
As my good friend Robert Fine puts it we have to hold the critique of existing society in one hand—and we also have to understand the critique of the critique. We have to understand that the people who have most successfully critiqued existing society were the totalitarians: the Stalinists and the Nazis. So I don’t think there’s anything surprising about the rise of conspiracy theory.
By David Mikics
Does Yale historian Timothy Snyder absolve Eastern Europe of special complicity in the Holocaust?
The dispute between Poles and Jews about the Nazi period can move in unsettling directions, ones that make an unhealed wound hurt even worse. Perceived insults, like President Barack Obama’s recent reference to “Polish concentration camps,” are seen by right-wing Poles as part of a plot to blacken their country’s name in the West. Some on the Polish right are also quick to argue that Poles who assisted the Nazis in anti-Jewish actions, or who slaughtered Jews on their own initiative (such pogroms occurred both during and just after the war), acted from understandable motives: After all, Jewish “treachery” had handed their country to the Bolsheviks. But the treachery is a fiction. Polish Jews were overwhelmingly anti-Communist, and the Soviets deported many of them.
The Polish role in the Holocaust had other roots, darker ones: traditional anti-Semitism and the greedy desire for Jewish property. When the historian Jan Gross in his books Neighbors and Fear (and, most recently, Golden Harvest, written with Irena Grudzinska Gross) charged his fellow Poles with aiding the Nazi genocide and profiting from the death of the Jews in their midst, he wanted them to mourn the vanished Jewish lives they had known so well, to come to terms with their guilt, since many of them had been indifferent or complicit or satisfied in the face of the Shoah. Instead, Lech Walesa, the hero of Solidarity and former president of Poland, called Gross “a mediocre writer … a Jew who tries to make money.” (Gross’ father was Jewish.) When Gross, who teaches at Princeton, returns to his native Poland, he has to contend with public prosecutors who, a few years ago, threatened to take him to court for “slandering the Polish nation.” His fellow historian Jan Grabowski says that Gross demolished the myth of Polish innocence by focusing on the reaction of Poles to the murder of 3 million of their fellow citizens, a reaction that was often craven, money-hungry, and cruel. “He was the one who brought this stinking mess into the open, single-handedly,” Grabowski remarks.
Enter Timothy Snyder.
The Yale historian’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—hailed by Antony Beevor when it appeared in 2010 as “the most important work of history for years”—is grim and magisterial; it puts together the tragedy of the Holocaust with earlier mass murders in the regions that Snyder christens the “bloodlands” (Lithuania, Latvia, Byelorussia, Poland, and Ukraine). Snyder begins with the terrible famine that Stalin inflicted on Ukraine (more than 3 million dead); he goes on to the Great Terror, in which 700,000 died, including many Poles; and he writes movingly of the 3 million Soviet prisoners of war whom the Nazis starved to death, many of them in Byelorussian camps that were little more than barbed wire strung around masses of helpless, doomed POWs.
Like Gross, Snyder seeks to explain the actions of the non-Jews of Eastern Europe, the nearest bystanders to the Holocaust. But unlike Gross, he demands no conscience-searching from Eastern Europeans. Snyder points out that the Soviets and the Germans had ravaged the countries of the bloodlands, whose loss of sovereignty led to social chaos, hunger, threats of death, and deportation. Suddenly, Poles, Ukrainians, and others realized there was a starkly unavoidable presence in their midst, the German desire to kill Jews. It should not be a surprise, Snyder argues, that, by and large, they had little empathy for the Jews. Neither did we Americans, and we were thousands of miles away from Hitler and Stalin. The great debate between Snyder and Gross is a key juncture in the politics of memory in Eastern Europe and a test case for our efforts to understand what the Nazi extermination of the Jews meant to the part of the world where it happened.
I recently met Snyder for coffee in New Haven’s Blue State Café. Excited and nervous, he was anticipating the birth of his second child, due within days of our meeting. When he saw me he quickly folded his newspaper, and we launched, without throat-clearing, into our inescapable theme: mass murder. Snyder has the look of a hard-worked scholar on the brink of middle age—not unfriendly, but with a certain wariness about being misread; he seemed tired but in conversation was alert and careful. This fall, he said, he is preparing to teach a course solely about the destruction of the Jews and is writing a book on the causes of the Holocaust.
‘That Soviet power didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view.’ Although Bloodlands describes an array of Nazi and Soviet mass murders, its secret, as every reader discovers, is that it turns out to be a book about the Holocaust. Why the Shoah is the inevitable end point of the story that Bloodlands tells is a question that Snyder elicits without fully answering: The Holocaust stands out because it is the most developed instance of genocide. Every single Jew was marked down for murder, with the goal of making the Jewish nation vanish forever from the earth, and the German state devoted its best resources to this end. The disappearance of the Jews became an absolute priority; this was not true of the Roma and Sinti, or the Soviet POWs, or the Ukrainians under Stalin, who suffered just as the Jews did, but whose fate did not carry the same symbolic weight.
The utopian, absurd idea that getting rid of Jews means liberating non-Jewish humanity points to the central, though hidden, role that Jews played in the Nazi imagination. Jews, the people of the Ten Commandments, were the incarnations of conscience; their presence on the earth reminded humanity of the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. No other genocide took on such a task: the redemption of the world from the disease of conscience. The victims of Stalin and Mao died just like Hitler’s, but their deaths weren’t intended to have the world-altering significance that the annihilation of the Jews had for the Nazis.
Unusually for a historian in his field, Snyder—who is from small-town southwestern Ohio, where his family has lived for two centuries—has no Jewish and no Eastern-European ancestry. “I grew up as an American kid with no connection to any of these places,” he told me. In college in the late 1980s, he said, “I thought I was going to grow up and become a diplomat and negotiate nuclear arms,” but with the fall of the Soviet Union, he veered toward Eastern European studies, where he discovered high-voltage connections between intellectual life, politics, and national identity and learned to speak Polish and Ukrainian.
While Snyder never planned to become a Holocaust historian, it appears that he may now be turning into one. In 2008, he wrote a masterful essay on the Shoah in Volhynia, integrating survivor testimony with a measured account of the roles that Germans and Ukrainians played in the killing of Jews. In Volhynia, Snyder wrote, Jews were in greater danger from Ukrainian nationalists than they were from Germans. “Many gentiles came to see the murder of Jews as corresponding to their personal economic interests,” he explained. He ended his essay with a haunting passage that he later incorporated into Bloodlands, in which he recounted the inscriptions scrawled on the walls of the synagogue in Kovel. Here, where 12,000 Jews awaited certain death, they wrote their parting messages, nearly unbearable for the reader (“My beloved mama! There was no escape. They brought us here from outside the ghetto, and now we must die a terrible death. … We kiss you over and over.”).
Snyder thinks that his vast knowledge of Eastern Europe, its politics, its history, its languages, is his best qualification to write about the Holocaust. “There’s a basic problem with the history of the Holocaust,” Snyder explained. “The people who do it don’t know the necessary languages.” The pioneering Raul Hilberg relied almost exclusively on German sources; Saul Friedländer, author of a monumental volume, The Years of Extermination, is similarly ignorant of the languages of the regions where the killing took place. “Saul’s books, and in general the big books we know about the Holocaust, are basically books about Germany,” Snyder remarked. The exceptions, the historians who do look beyond Germany, are, ironically, mostly Germans. Many of them, like Snyder, are still in their forties, and the most impressive of them is probably Christoph Dieckmann, who knows Lithuanian, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew; he recently published the first volume of his study of the Holocaust in Lithuania, whose 2,500 pages make it the most comprehensive account yet written (and that’s only volume one).
But the new multinational histories of the Shoah are a very recent phenomenon. For decades, most Holocaust historians focused solely on the Nazi perpetrators. The first wave of Holocaust history, under Hilberg’s influence, insisted on seeing the event through German eyes, and Hilberg disagreed sharply with younger historians’ interest in the life stories of Hitler’s Jewish victims. (“The perpetrator had the overview,” Hilberg wrote. “He alone was the key.”) He advocated, instead, a wide-angle perspective on how the vast work of killing occurred. Yet these days, Holocaust studies now mostly means looking in detail at the small communities where Jews were so often murdered, and it relies on survivor testimony. Snyder, who is clearly a large-scale explainer, has a problem with such “micro-studies.” “The field now is in a very micro-mode,” he said. “And what I think about the micro-mode is that it’s a little bit self-indulgent, because you talk about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews, and it ends up confirming your own view about Poles and Ukrainians and Jews.” The distinguished Holocaust historian Omer Bartov, an Israeli who teaches at Brown, wrote a groundbreaking study of the Wehrmacht, but now he is studying the home of his ancestors, the town of Buczacz in Ukraine. “So, Omer writes a book about the army, then he writes a book about Buczacz,” Snyder noted. “The concern is that when you get that intimate and that small, you can’t really catch the big things. You see that in [Gross’] Neighbors … it can’t really have full explanations.”
In Snyder’s view, Bartov and Gross have dodged the biggest question: why the Holocaust took place in Eastern Europe rather than elsewhere. “Actually figuring out how Soviet power mattered,” how it made possible the murder of Jews as well as all the other murders, is the true theme of Bloodlands, Snyder insisted to me. “That it didn’t matter at all is just a polemical, indefensible view. That the Soviets were just as bad as the Germans is also a polemical and indefensible view.”
But how does the collapse of state power at the hands of the Soviets lead to herding people into barns and setting them on fire, as Poles did to Jews in Jedwabne, the town studied in Gross’ Neighbors? Unlike Bartov and Christopher Browning, who describe the growing willingness of German soldiers and policemen to commit atrocities on the Eastern front, Snyder doesn’t make the breakdown of authority in Eastern Europe seem very real. Where Bartov and Browning make you feel the dissolving of moral inhibitions and show how warfare becomes murder, Snyder holds back. In a passage from Bloodlands that Bartov, who reviewed the book in Slavic Review, found deeply implausible, Snyder wrote that “there was often an overlap of ideology and interests between Nazis and local nationalists in destroying the Soviet Union and (less often) in killing Jews. Far more collaborators simply said the right things, or said nothing and did what they were told.” Here, Snyder turns the anti-Jewish deeds of Eastern Europeans into individual choices that on the whole seem rather reasonable. But this slights the collective nature of the phenomenon, the excited and dreadful group bonding that was perceived by all involved. One historian, Andrzej Zbikowski, notes the “exceptional, extreme cruelty” of the Polish attacks on Jews, the use of pitchforks and axes to mutilate bodies. In Jewish survivors’ accounts “no reflexes of compassion were recorded, nor even a turning of the head in shame,” Zbikowski asserted.
Snyder demonstrates that what permitted Poles to kill Jews in the wake of the German invasion, and then again after the German defeat, was the lack of a strong authority, a missing set of rules. But he avoids the question of what the pogroms accomplished—namely, a revival of the society that had been torn apart by Soviet occupation. That society came together to oppose not the conquering Germans, but the helpless Jews. The Poles’ resulting sense of guilt, which Gross emphasizes, largely disappears in Snyder’s work, replaced by an evenly distributed wrongdoing. Non-Jews steal from non-Jews, too, and kill them, Snyder reminds us. But these remarks do little to explain the rampant Polish eagerness to despoil the Jews who lived alongside them, a social fact that many observers saw at the time as a sickness. What do the killings of Polish (and Jewish) officers at Katyn, terrible as they were, have to do with Poles persecuting Jews? In his collage of terrible events, Snyder sometimes suggests that there were crucial links among these disasters. But he doesn’t demonstrate what those links actually were.
In our interview, Snyder wrestled with the question of Polish collaboration. “Why are they willing to take part?” he asked me, and groped toward an answer. “Mainly because of the previous destruction of their state by the Soviet Union. They’re trying to redeem themselves, to undo their humiliation.” Are the Poles—and the Ukrainians, and the Lithuanians—to be faulted for this behavior, or should we try to stick to neutral description? Snyder in Bloodlands is still the diplomat he once wanted to become; he stays neutral. He badly wants to avoid the nerve-fraying quarrels, the nationalist squabbles that Gross dived into.
Bloodlands has been translated into Polish, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian, and when readers from those countries read the book, they are forced to reckon with the enormity of the Holocaust. Similarly, when Jews read Bloodlands, they are challenged to acknowledge the struggles of other groups, the mass death that afflicted them, too. We are reminded that everyone’s fate is interlocked with everyone else’s. This is one reason—a fitting, even necessary one—for writing, as Snyder does, about all the murdered peoples of the bloodlands together. But Snyder also suggests that there is a second, just as pressing reason: the need to understand the role that earlier cases of mass death played in the later ones. Here, Snyder falls short. He falls back on an eloquent empathy for all the lost, rather than reaching the causal explanation that he hints at throughout his book. The famine in Ukraine did not lead to the death of the Soviet POWs, nor did the Great Terror lead to the Holocaust.
Snyder soundly rejects the argument of the conservative 1980s historian Ernst Nolte, who said that the Germans imitated Soviet mass murders. But if Nolte is wrong (and he is), what, then, do Bolshevik crimes have to do with Nazi ones? When I asked Snyder why he is so intent on putting Holocaust history in an Eastern European context, he said, “It relativizes. When you read Jan’s book about the Jews being burned in the barn [in Jedwabne], it’s a horrible thing, but when you know that there were a couple of thousand instances like that, most of them not involving Jews, it relativizes it. We see it more as a question of what humans can do to humans.” In 1943-44 there was a war between Ukrainian nationalists and their Polish counterparts. Ukrainians tortured Poles and burned them alive, men, women, and children; and Poles responded in kind, with violence just as gruesome. Those who ask how Poles and Ukrainians could have done what they did to Jews overlook the fact that they did the same terrible things to each other. After the war, in Poland, “Jews were not substantially more at risk of losing their lives than Ukrainians and Germans, or Polish oppositionists, for that matter,” Snyder explained. You wouldn’t know that from Gross’ Fear, which describes the epidemic of lynchings that terrorized Jewish survivors who returned to Poland in 1945 (nearly all of them left; many, ironically, for the safety of DP camps in Germany).
Here, Snyder hazards a criticism of Gross, whom he clearly admires. Gross thinks that Jews were and are crucial to Poland’s image of itself, a concealed trauma at the nation’s center. Snyder is not so sure. “I’m not convinced by the post-Holocaust argument that the Jews were always so incredibly central to the Polish imagination,” Snyder told me. Gross, by contrast, writes that “living Jews embodied the massive failure of character and reason on the part of their Polish neighbors”; that is why official newspaper condemnations of the Kielce pogrom of 1946 sparked massive strikes among workers, who protested in favor of the massacres. Here Gross proves more capable than Snyder of interpreting the painful reality of what Poles did to Jews. Gross notes that the Polish intelligentsia, stalwart in its opposition to anti-Semitism, was utterly unable to comprehend the outpouring of anger against Jews, the fact that they were being killed again, so soon after the Germans had left, and with the approval of most Poles. The shocked reactions of Polish intellectuals to the mass killings undermine Snyder’s argument that, when it comes to murder, there may be nothing much to explain.
Snyder never mentions the dismay of many in the Polish underground and the Polish government-in-exile over the moral degradation of their countrymen under German occupation. At the end of 1942 the underground reported that “the popular opinion is nearly united. Everyone is against the cruelty and the injudiciousness with which the Jews are being murdered, but in general they think that ‘the judgment of history against the Jews has arrived.’ In the thoughts of the society there is no sharp protest against what is happening, and no warm sympathy.” When offered a thousand zloty or a bottle of schnapps in exchange for turning in a Jew, many took the bargain; all knew that the Jew was headed for certain death. Dr. Zygmunt Klukowski, director of a hospital near Zamosc, wrote in November 1942, “In general some terrible demoralization has taken hold of people with respect to Jews. A psychosis took hold of them and they emulate the Germans in that they don’t see a human being in Jews, only some pernicious animal, which has to be destroyed by all means, like dogs sick with rabies, or rats.” Klukowski bears witness to what the sociologist Thomas Kühne, a specialist on the Holocaust, calls the “creative” aspect of genocide, the thrilled solidarity it spurs in the perpetrators and in onlookers as well. Jan Karski, who urgently alerted the Western allies to the reality of the Nazi death camps, confessed in a despairing mood that the Polish nation largely embraced the Nazi plans for the Jews; this was the “thin bridge,” in his phrase, that united the Poles and their occupiers. (Neither Klukowski nor Karski was Jewish.) Zegota was the branch of the Polish underground dedicated to saving Jews, a band of men and women who put their own lives on the line; they come as close to sainthood as anyone could, or did, in World War II. But even Zegota issued a statement declaring that Jews were the enemies of Poland. In this atmosphere, in which the feeling that Jews were alien intruders was almost universal, genocide did its work.
“Jan has a problem that I don’t have, which is that Jan is Polish,” Snyder told me. “So, Jan is having a discussion with a colleague in Poland who asks, what about the relevance of the Soviet occupation, and Jan says, no matter how relevant it is, does that mean we ‘understand’ that so many people killed Jews? He’s using the word ‘understand’ in a moral way, rather than in a scholarly way. [Gross’ work] is universal in its arguments, but it tends to be national in its ethics.” He paused. “It’s a role that I actually admire,” Snyder added—but one that is only possible for a Pole.
Instead, Snyder proposed, in our interview, a provocative thought-experiment: “If the Soviet Union invaded the United States to the Mississippi, there would be all kinds of explanations about how that was possible, and we would fall prey to something like ‘Judeo-Bolshevism.’ ” He’s probably right, of course: America has never experienced foreign occupation (unless you count the South after the Civil War). If it ever does happen, you could probably expect lynch mobs, conspiracy theories, and the stringing up of internal enemies—and not just on talk radio. But despite Snyder’s effort to ameliorate Polish behavior through counterfactual historical comparison, Gross still makes a convincing case that Poles themselves felt guilty about the deaths of their countrymen and the country’s profit from the wartime genocide. The whole society knew that something was wrong and was terrified to admit it, which is why, after the war, Poles persecuted not only Jews, but also Polish rescuers of Jews, many of whom were afraid to admit what they had done: Instead of heroes, they were seen as traitors.
Often in Bloodlands, Snyder presents deeply moving vignettes of Hitler’s and Stalin’s victims; he quotes their words when, about to die, they tried to sum up their lives. The reader is grateful that Snyder has so lovingly—there is no other word for it—given us the memory of these people. Yet the spectrum of characters in Bloodlands is oddly curtailed; all of the book’s capsule portraits are of victims. For all Snyder’s insistence that he is interested in the role of the perpetrator and the bystander, he finally, like most of us, prefers to commemorate the murdered innocents than to reach “into that darkness” (to quote Gitta Sereny’s title for her book on the Commandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl), the place where the murders are planned and carried out and observed with a poisonous mixture of feelings. That Snyder is tactful where he should be daring is proof that diplomacy has its limits.
David Mikics is the editor of The Annotated Emerson, and author of Who Was Jacques Derrida? and other books. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.
By Baruch Cohen
Never did I ask why dawns are red
Never did I ask why flags are like hawthorns
Never did I ask why flowers look tearful in those mornings
Never did I ask why dusks don’t lose their splendour
I always saw Mother’s tears
How she wiped them with her handkerchief, I never saw.
I always saw brows shining with sweat
I always saw how grains burst under sun
But a fruit without lamenting, I never saw
I always understood man’s sigh
I always looked for that gushing spring
Never did I ask why mountains stab the sky’s back
Never did I ask why the sun refreshes itself in Earth’s poems
Never did I ask why stars whisper to me with their twilight
All these things I received, the whole Universe
Like Mother’s warm caresses
All these things I received, just like my Mother’s earthly end--
I never asked.
I never asked why my Mother’s warm lips no longer whispered lullabies,
Why those hands no longer kneaded the leavened yeast
Or why my Mother’s eyes no longer saw
The great seal of suffering,
(Baruch Cohen is Research Chairman at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research. The initial draft of this poem, written in 1952, was translated from Romanian by Alex Enescu, a CIJR student-intern & editor of Dateline: Middle East.)