Claude Lanzmann and the meaning of secular Jewishness

I just finished reading Claude Lanzmann’s memoirs “The hare of Patagonia”, leaving me stirred and perplexed. He recounts his perception of personal, cultural, and political events from his childhood, through World War II to the beginning of the new millennium. His role in the cultural and political scene of France, even during his engagement in the Résistance against the German occupants, is that of a witness. A large part of the book describes how, but not why, he created his movie “Shoah”. The book induced me to watch the movie. “Shoah” is a gruesome testimony not a documentary. It pushes human endurance to suffering beyond any imaginable limit.

The true nature of Lanzmann’s personality remains an enigma. He considers himself a true French but also a Jew. Still, he alienates himself from Judaism as religion, tradition and even culture. Antisemitism he encountered only as a youth during his schooling years. He is a staunch supporter of Israel. He sided with the Algerian independence movement and as a journalist met with the leaders of the rebellion. However, independent Algeria leaders’ vow to wage war until the destruction of the Jewish State dimmed his sympathies. Inflicted death obsesses him. He tells how he imagines the last gestures of men led to the guillotine. As journalist, he covers the trial of a murderous priest. And Shoah is the individualized story of inflicted death at an industrial scale.

Despite his frequent visits to Israel, a documentary movie about the Israeli Defense Forces “Tsahal”, a movie “Why Israel”, his meetings with Israeli political and cultural figures, he thinks and behaves like a foreigner or more accurately like an outside witness. Referring to his “francité”, a word that encompassed all the traditions, culture and idiosyncrasies that characterize French people, he explains why he does not feel the need to fulfill the 2000 years old Jewish hope of return to Zion.

The importance he assigns to his encounter with a hare on a Patagonian road is his way to evade the question of the essence of his Jewishness. Is he a Jew because even enlightened “Français de souche”, stem-rooted Frenchmen, unwillingly see him as such? Neither Honoré de Balzac nor Jules Verne were antisemites. Yet, passages in “Eugénie Grandet” and “Le Château des Carpathes” fit the tone of “Der Stürmer”. To ease referring to the Jewishness of people in their midst, the French have laundered contemptuous “Juif” into neutral “Israélite”. Lanzmann does not seem to be bothered by these ambivalent attitudes. He was in the innermost circle of people orbiting around Sartre. While taking issue against Sartre’s hostility toward Israel, he does not question the sartrean view that antisemitism ensured the permanence of Jewishness.

The organized killing of six million Jews is not the only instance of ethnic massive murder. Telling the fate of the Jews during World War II and using the Hebrew word Shoah to title the movie reveals Lanzmann’s Jewishness. His life story and his oeuvre epitomize the elusive nature of Jewish identity. The closest he comes to suggest what makes him a Jew is the shape of his mother’s nose. I believe his problem is not recognizing that with religious tenets removed, lineage creates the indelible but immaterial national identity which segregates Jews from gentile society. Fulfilled Zionism removes this barrier. By attaching the Jewish national identity to its ancestral territory it powers the mechanism that sets Israeli Jews on equal footing among people of all nations.

Freedom of thought, freedom of expression and breaking silence

In one of my old vinyl recordings Pete Seeger sings “Die Gedanken sind frei”, “Thoughts are free”. In Nazi Germany expressing freedom of thought was a deadly endeavor that Hans Fallada made powerfully vivid in his novel “Jeder stirbt für sich allein”, “Every man dies alone”. In the former Soviet world, gruesome was the silence of parents for fear their children would inadvertently divulge dissident words heard at home.

Israel was born as a true democracy and still is very much so despite the violent hostility in which it was conceived, gestated, and developed. The press and whistleblowers can expose wrongdoings that powerful people at the highest level of government commit. Yet, repeated insidious undermining of freedom of expression granted by the Declaration of Establishment of the State of Israel has prompted me to break silence. My outcry stems from the official inference that targets culture, arts, literature, and academic freedom. It endangers freedom of thought that spurs creativity.

The implementation of a new code of ethics that would prevent University professors to expose discriminatory rules targeting dissidents and Arab viewpoints is as venomous as the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Painter Yair Garbuz was denied the highest award granted by Israel because he is used deleterious wording to qualify a superstitious slice of the population that most certainly ignores his oeuvre and even his name. Yair Garbuz may have overlooked talisman worship is a remnant of strict obedience to rituals which shielded Jewish communities engulfed in oppressing environments. Still, the denial aims at muzzling the thoughts that feed his artistic imagination.

Cutting the funding of a theater because its program includes readings of Mahmoud Darwish poetry is another measure to quell dissident voices. The rhythmic sound of words gives poetry its magical sense. Translation loses this power but still carries the strengths of Darwish’s nostalgic images of a lost land. His voice needs to be heard although it strikes phony sounds to my ears. From his verses emerges also repeated reference to blood and weaponry revealing an atavistic hatred that distorts the true meaning of the past. Did he forget that the Arab sword conquered Palestine still inhabited by Jews and the murderous attack carried out 1300 years later by the armies of five Arab countries on the day following the rebirth of the Jewish State?

Government interference against freedom of thought culminated with the contradictory rulings about closure and reinstitution of public broadcasting. The hidden purpose of the saga was to silence criticism of the Prime Minister and of his household. Episodes could have raised laughter like medieval farces played in the forecourt of churches had they not threatened the livelihood of hundreds of people. Using economical pressure to muzzle embarrassing revelations and to promote political agendas is a pernicious form of public opinion control. I keep in mind that the media, commercial and public, are not always at the service of objective truth. They have their own agendas that exert control on the selection and presentation of the material they publish. The multiplicity of media that generates competition for ratings enforces self-regulation from which reliability finally emerges. Yet, perversion challenges even this form of check and balance when, during an election campaign, the owner of a leading newspaper, known for his sharp criticism of the Prime Minister, proposes to mitigate his attacks in return for limiting the diffusion of a competitor. Advertisement, which fuels commercial media, interferes with freedom of thought by shaping the way we purchase goods and entertainment. Still, the freedom of choice remains our own responsibility. Advertisers also have an impact on the contents of radio and television programs as they seek to reach the widest possible audience, often at the expense of quality and good taste. Freedom from these constraints is the main “raison d’être” of public broadcast because it is the channel of cultural innovation.

I find comfort in being able to write this post.