Claude Lanzmann et l’essence de la condition juive

Je viens de terminer, confus et perplexe, la lecture des mémoires de Claude Lanzmann « Le lièvre de Patagonie ». Il nous fait partager sa perception d’événements personnels, culturels at politiques depuis son enfance, par la Seconde guerre Mondiale, jusqu’ au début du nouveau millenium. Son rôle dans la scène culturelle et politique de la France, même durant son engagement dans la Résistance contre l’occupation allemande, est celui d’un témoin. Une partie majeure du livre décrit comment, mais pas pourquoi il a créé son film « Shoah ». Le livre m’a conduit à regarder le film.  « Shoah » n’est pas un documentaire mais un témoignage horrible qui pousse la capacité humaine de la souffrance au-delà de toute limite imaginable.

La véritable nature du personnage demeure énigmatique. Il se voit un vrai Français mais aussi un Juif. Néanmoins, il n’admet aucun lien avec le judaïsme religieux, traditionnel ou même culturel. Pour quelle raison soutient-il fermement l’existence d’Israël ? Il s’aligne en faveur du mouvement prônant l’indépendance de l’Algérie et comme journaliste il rencontre les meneurs de la lutte. Cependant, le serment de Boumediene de combattre jusqu’à la destruction de l’État Juif éteint ses sympathies. L’idée de la mise à mort l’obsède. Il imagine les derniers gestes d’un condamné à la guillotine. Comme journaliste il assite au procès d’un curé coupable d’un meurtre sordide. Et Shoah est le récit individualisé de mises à mort à l’échelle industrielle.

Lanzmann vient fréquemment en Israël. Il y filme un documentaire « Tsahal », ayant pour sujet l’armée israélienne et un autre « Pourquoi Israël ». Il rencontre des personnalités politiques et culturelles. Pourtant il pense et se comporte comme un étranger ou plutôt comme observateur distant. Se referrant à sa francité il justifie pourquoi le besoin de réaliser l’espoir juif vieux de 2000 ans du retour à Sion n’est pas à son ordre du jour.

L’importance qu’il donne à sa rencontre avec un lièvre ébloui sur un route de Patagonie est sa façon de circonvenir sa confrontation avec la signification de son essence juive. Est-il un Juif parce que même chez les plus ouverts des Français de souche il est considéré comme tel ? Ni Honoré de Balzac, ni Jules Verne n’étaient des antisémites. Malgré cela, il y a des passages dans « Eugénie Grandet » et « Le château des Carpathes » qui pourraient figurer dignement dans « Der Stürmer ». Le mot « Juif » garde un sens péjoratif. Pour éviter de l’utiliser les Français ont inventé le mot « Israélite ». Lanzmann ne semble pas être embarrassé par ces ambivalences. Il fait partie du cercle le plus intime des gens qui pivotent autour de Sartre. Bien que prenant partie contre l’hostilité de Sartre à l’égard Israël, il ne met pas en cause son opinion que l’antisémitisme est la cause de la permanence de l’essence juive.

La tuerie organisée de six millions de Juifs n’est pas la seule instance de mise à mort massive sous l’égide de la purification ethnique. Par le choix du sort des Juifs durant la Seconde Guerre Mondiale et du titre hébreu « Shoah » Lanzmann dévoile son essence juive. Pourtant le seul indice qu’il donne pour établir sa condition de Juif est le nez de sa mère. Apparemment il a difficile à reconnaître que sans le contenu religieux la lignée crée une identité nationale indélébile mais immatérielle qui sépare les Juifs de la société des Gentils. Le sionisme accompli par l’immigration en Israël rompt cette cloison. En liant l’identité nationale juive avec son territoire ancestral il alimente le mécanisme qui permet aux Juifs Israéliens d’être à pied égal avec les peuples de toutes les nations.

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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.

 

Between the color of the skin and the content of the character

Ethnic prejudice is deeply anchored in the soul of Homo sapiens. Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson shot to death Michael Brown. A police patrol called in to quell a family feud in Kafr Kanna, Israel shot and killed Kheir Hamdan. In both cases violence preceded the use of firearms. In both cases the policemen and the victims differed ethnically. In both cases the killing unleashed riots and turmoil.
Ethnic bigotry is the engine behind the riots that followed officer Wilson’s clearance by a grand jury. But ethnic bigotry has also creeped insidiously in the way we use politically correct terminology to designate some ethnic groups. The New York Times of 25 November 2014 described the Missouri grand jury that cleared officer Wilson as “a group of nine whites and three African-Americans.” Why did the newspaper not use the wording European-Americans and blacks? Why is black offensive and white is not? Anyhow, judging the Missouri jurors by the color of their skin, but not by the content of their character, the New York Times has put off Martin Luther King’s dream by another century.

Beheading is part of Islamic culture

Following the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453, Venice tried to safeguard its commercial and maritime interests using diplomacy to contain the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. The delegation included Gentile Bellini, one of the leading Venetian painters as a cultural ambassador to soothe the conquerer. Although Islam forbids representation of the human figure, Gentile Bellini was charged to draw a portrait of the Sultan. To illustrate his artistic skills Bellini showed the Sultan a painting of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The painting impressed favorably Mehmet. Still, he pointed out that the neck of the severed head protruded too much. Bellini was not convinced. So Mehmet ordered on the spot to behead one of his attending slaves (Moslems cannot be slaves) to prove he was right.

Beheading is a part of the Islamic culture. The way ISIS, alias ISIL, alias Da’esh, alias Hamas, alias Taliban, alias Jahbat El Nusra, alias Hezbollah, alias Al Qaida, alias World Jihad,. . . deals with human life of Infidels follows the dictate of the Prophet. The rule applies to non Moslems, but also to Moslems that do not obey the fundamentalistic interpretation of the Sharia. President Obama in his 25 September 2014 address to the UN general assembly denied the fight against ISIS was a “clash of civilization” and exhorted Islam “You come from a great tradition that stands for education, not ignorance; innovation, not destruction; the dignity of life, not murder.” Swedish new prime minister, Stefan Lofven in his inaugural address to Parliament on 3 October 2014 declared Sweden would recognize the Palestinian State in complete disregard of the thread that this unilateral recognition entails for Israel, the only democratic and human rights abiding nation in the Middle East. Do we witness again the “Munich syndrome”, that is the inability of the Free World to oppose tyranny before it is too late?

All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.*

* A mantra in Voltaire’s “Candide”, a satire against utopian optimism.

For the past twelve days Israeli have lived like the British, the French or the Americans, without the need to look for a shelter and run for cover. The 30-day cease fire interrupting rocket launches from Gaza to which Hamas, Jihad and Israel have agreed under Egyptian auspices is holding. As the involved parties keep radio silence, it may well be that under the cover of secrecy some sort of arrangement is underway. “All for the best?”

Suddenly headlines have turned to the forceful territorial control by Sunni Moslem ISIS (alias ISIL, Day’esh) of Northern Syria and Iraq, through ritual massacres against Yazidis, Shia Moslems and Kurds (Sunni), topped by the sacrificial beheading of two Infidel journalists. Fierce fighting in the Syrian Golan, near the Israeli border, opposes Syrian President Bashar El-Assad troops (Alawis, a Shia break away sect) and Sunni Jabhat El Nusra rebels who overran UN peace keeping units, abducting 43 UN soldiers from Fiji.

Headlines can now feed on the mass murders in Libya, where apparently tribal rivalry is the source of the conflict. Next on the list we have the fighting in Eastern Ukraine, a conflict that Samuel Huntington predicted many years ago in his “Clash of Civilizations” on the basis of ethnic cultural differences. Are we really “in the best of all possible worlds?”

Present, Past and Art

I just finished reading O’Connor’s book “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece”. My wife came across the book while browsing in our local bookstore and fed it to me as ” a must reading.” Who am I to resist my wife’s request? The truth is we share a special attraction for Klimt’s paintings. We were familiar with ubiquitous poster reproductions of “The Kiss”, but an exhibit entitled “Vienne” at the Pompidou Museum in Paris revealed Klimt’s stature as a major art figure. Years later a visit to Vienna gave us the opportunity to discover the full scope of his talent and his impact on the social and cultural life of the city. It is easy to understand I was eager to follow my wife’s recommendation.

Ever since Zionism became a national movement with a territorial claim, the Arab world has used terror to obstruct the Jewish people’s endeavor to rebuild their homeland in parts of the desolate barren land that lays between the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. In this historic perspective Zionism triggered the current conflict with Gaza as just another episode of what seems an everlasting struggle.

If you have reached to here in reading the post, you may ask what associates the two here above paragraphs. The link is Vienna. O’Connor brings to life the cultural elite of Vienna in which Jews were almost on a par with Gentiles. Ferdinand Bloch, a rich Jewish industrialist and his wife Adele Bauer, daughter of a banker, commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of Adele that became “The Lady in Gold”. Viennese journalist Theodor Herzl is the figure who fathered the political credentials of the Zionist movement and formulated the framework on which the State of Israel exists today. He bears thereby a responsibility for the relentless hostility our country endures. Herzl was a prominent figure in the social and cultural life of Vienna in which the Austrian version of “Art Nouveau” burgeoned. He was a frequent guest in the circle of wealthy Jewish families that patronized Klimt. These Jewish families had become an integral part of the Viennese elite. They rejected Herzl’s national aspirations to end persecution. They sought instead to solve the “Jewish problem” by assimilation and inter-marriage into the Gentile high society. The glitter of wealth masked the fragility of the grounds on which assimilation was built. The Jews ignored early signals of rampaging antisemitism and were taken by surprise when the German Anschluss unleashed murder, beating, rape and looting, putting an end to a glamorous way of life. An ironic turn of fate illustrates the tragic extend of the Jewish elite’s collapse. Heydrich, the mastermind of the “Final Solution” of the Jewish problem elaborated at the Wannsee conference, chose the palace Ferdinand Bloch owned in Prague as his residence.

Like the Phenix that is reborn from its ashes, the surviving descendants of the Lady in Gold put up a successful legal fight to retrieve the looted painting from Austrian custody. It is now on display in a New York museum, under the aegis of American Jewish magnate Ron Lauder. In my view it is still in exile. Beyond its aesthetic qualities and the troubling glance glittering in Adele’s eyes, the painting bears the plight of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. Herzl’s Zionism has given birth to the Jewish homeland in Israel, a country opened to Jews wherever they are. The rightful ultimate harbor for the Lady in Gold is in Jerusalem side by side with the Wailing Wall, the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Holocaust Shrine.

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