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.

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