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The 'Problem of Evil' in Postwar Europe
January 29, 2008 7:11 PM   Subscribe

Tony Judt's acceptance speech for the 2007 Hannah Arendt Prize: "Let me suggest five difficulties that arise from our contemporary preoccupation with the Shoah, with what every schoolchild now calls 'the Holocaust.'"
posted by anotherpanacea (30 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
Brilliant analysis by Prof. Judt.
posted by rdone at 7:49 PM on January 29, 2008


But if we wish to grasp the true significance of evil—what Hannah Arendt intended by calling it "banal"—then we must remember that what is truly awful about the destruction of the Jews is not that it mattered so much but that it mattered so little.

Good post. His implied point that gypsies and muslims are the "new Jews" of Europe is interesting.
posted by Rumple at 7:59 PM on January 29, 2008


Well, to be fair to the Roma people, who lost a larger part of their population to the Holocaust than we Jews did, they were also the old Jews of Europe. Or, at least, they were despised and destroyed in the same way that Jews were.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:26 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Judt is always ani-Israel, and here, despite the brilliant exposition of history, again he levels charges against Israel that are just not so: I read enough about the area and have never found any Israeli govt official or scholar proclaiming that to condemn Israel is to imply or bring about another Holocaust. That, when it appears, comes, generally, from the American Jewish community, and it needs here to be noted that in a recent study some 50 of young Jewish Americansclaim to have little or nothing in commonwith Israel.

The gypsies, by the way, were slaughtereed under the Nazis and so their continuing persecution in Europe is not that they are
the "new Jews."

In fact, what many scholars of the Holocaust mean when they talk about the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not the numbers killed--Stalin and Mao killed far more--but rather the fact that no modern govt in our time had systematically set out with a program to eliminate an entire people.
So with all due respect to the bad treatment of gypsies, Muslims, and many other immigrants in European nations, there is still no attempt to herd them into camps and slaughter them.

That said, turn now to Darfur, not mentioned in this speech.
I have subscribed to the NY Rev of Bks since it began--yes, I am that old--and find with great consistency that it usually finds scholarly left of center Jews to badmouth Israel in one or another form. Ironicaly, it was the Left way back in 1948 that was in the vanguard of pushing for a homeland for the displaced Jews of Europe. Today, it is the opposite among American leftists.
which makes it tough for me, a Jew and a leftist who still believes in Israel and its democracy.

Germany has done an amazing job in focusing upon the crimes of the Nazi era,and, much to its credit, has erected memorials to showthe Germanpeople what their predecesors had wrought. And, further irony, Jews coming out of Russia and other areas now prefer to immigrate to Germany rather than either Israel or the U.S.! Such are the ironies of history.
posted by Postroad at 8:27 PM on January 29, 2008 [5 favorites]


It's funny that if I were to say something is evil or say it's similar to a notorious evil of the past, that I may be serving myself or worse, inflating the word evil to meaninglessness. The risk of overcompensation by invoking a unique evil in matters of less magnitude doesn't seem to be such a serious concern to me, that we might use some evil from the past as an absolute with which to pacify the world today, sort of an original sin which may be difficult to accept, an illustration of how much is possible, when we have agreed to employ our technologies in the direct solution of our problems, and when our problems are people, their very existence, among us or even far away, that way lies absolute destruction, of somebody anyway, let's hope it's someone else at least, and anyway, that's evil.
posted by nervousfritz at 8:36 PM on January 29, 2008


Excellent post.
I believe we no longer have time or space to assimilate our collective history in a reflective and balanced manner. Blame the media. Blame the limits of the human psyche.
Blame George Bush. Blame Canada.
posted by lukievan at 8:38 PM on January 29, 2008


Holy crap, Tony Judt! His book "Postwar" is one of the best fucking things I've been assigned in a class for a while.
posted by schroedinger at 8:47 PM on January 29, 2008


This is a really interesting read, and touches a lot on what is discussed in his book Postwar. It's a great book to dip into, even if you don't have the time or inclination to read it through cover to cover.
posted by piratebowling at 8:50 PM on January 29, 2008


I read enough about the area and have never found any Israeli govt official or scholar proclaiming that to condemn Israel is to imply or bring about another Holocaust.

I'd tend to agree with this, at least insofar as Israeli officials don't tend to stoop to this sort of hyperbole. But Judt merely writes that Israel's "defenders" make this implication, and I read him as speaking of Western intellectuals, especially Americans. As I read it now, it may be ambiguous but as it was a speech it seems fair to read charitably, i.e. not in the widest and most easily falsified sense.

In the spirit of charity, I'm having a hard time parsing the relationship between these two sentences:

The gypsies, by the way, were slaughtereed under the Nazis and so their continuing persecution in Europe is not that they are the "new Jews."

So with all due respect to the bad treatment of gypsies... in European nations, there is still no attempt to herd them into camps and slaughter them.

Could you explain?

the fact that no modern govt in our time had systematically set out with a program to eliminate an entire people.

Was the Ottoman Empire not modern? Or were their techniques not sophisticated enough?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:54 PM on January 29, 2008


no modern govt in our time had systematically set out with a program to eliminate an entire people.

Well, I have an Armenian friend who'd strongly disagree with you -- but what about the attempts of the United States to slaughter their indigenous population not 40 years before that?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:48 PM on January 29, 2008


So with all due respect to the bad treatment of gypsies, Muslims, and many other immigrants in European nations, there is still no attempt to herd them into camps and slaughter them.

Well, I suppose as with unhappy families, genocides and mass murders tend to be unhappy affairs in their own individual ways. To compare and contrast such events as an attempt to mathematically discern the relative horror of one to another is offensive to all victims The enormity of it makes for great narratives, but genocidal suffering's an incredibly personal thing. When I meet victims of genocide (whichever one it happened to be), sometimes we trade stories and just sort of cry and laugh at the senseless of even trying to convey our pain. It exists; I'll tell you what it was like in my feeble way. Getting bogged down too much beyond that and you're just making it easier for a similar thing to happen again. In my opinion.

But to reply to your point (above), all I can say is I wish that were true.

I survived several years of war in Sarajevo (barely) and not because I chose to, but rather because the city was completely surrounded by Serbs, making exit impossible. For years, we were cut off from food supplies and most forms of aid, and while we starved and suffered from lack of water, heat, electricity, phone service, medical care (etc) the Serbs rained zillions of tons of explosives upon Sarajevo's primarily Muslim population, and while they sniped at us from the mountains above (Sarajevo lies in a valley) anytime we went out doors. It would be one thing if there were relatively few victims, but in my story alone, I lost both parents (in a shelling), most of my school friends, half my neighbors and so on. I survived and eventually made it to America, where I was immediately hospitalized for severe malnutrition and ensuing medical problems.

I've mentioned all that here several times and wish I didn't have to again, but jeeez - it sure as fuck felt a lot like being herded into a camp to be slaughtered, even if it was a fairly big camp. There was no escape, and we were slaughtered. And radio broadcasts reminded us daily that it was because we were Muslim. (Others suffered too, of course.)

I could get into the situations in Kosovo, or the issues of forced sterilization of Rom women in several countries (such as Hungary and Slovakia) which are *still* making the news. I've watched Slovakian police beat up Roma for no reason, cackling and laughing as they did. It wasn't hard for me to imagine Nazi armbands on their sleeves. And there have been - in recent years - many other events specifically targeting Muslims and Roma. There is quite a lot of anti-Semitic activity as well, but (tragically) there often aren't many targets left. People have mentioned the Armenians too. I just finished "Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust," by Miron Dolot, which details the forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin. It's as brutal as any Holocaust story. Of course, there are other examples from the past century too.

Ironicaly, it was the Left way back in 1948 that was in the vanguard of pushing for a homeland for the displaced Jews of Europe. Today, it is the opposite among American leftists. which makes it tough for me, a Jew and a leftist who still believes in Israel and its democracy.

I lost a lot of sympathy for Israel when I realized how brutally they acted to repress any semblance of secular "Yiddish" culture, which I'm crazy about. The most vibrant flowering of Jewish culture in the 20th century has left almost no living trace; Israel did a lot to finish it off - forcing the Hebrewizing of names, banning Yiddish-language magazines and newspapers, state-supported attacks on certain writers and artists who didn't support certain linguistic or cultural directives, and so on. It is not what one expects from a "democracy."

I suspect that just as "leftists" in America were the first to criticize America for ignoring civil rights issues after 9/11 (rightly, in my opinion), American leftists find it hard to support an Israel with extreme human rights issues, outward discrimination and the commonplace appearance of governing via religious righteousness, not common sense or decency. They've got the "reasons," of course, but so does George Dubya Bush, and I'm sorry . . . I just can't respect them.

It's probably not fair for me to judge a country against the sort of idealization that centuries and centuries of dreams impose on its existence, but there you are. It's sad to see it be a sort of smaller version of a megalomaniacal America, but the parallels seem obvious to me.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 10:00 PM on January 29, 2008 [34 favorites]


I read enough about the area and have never found any Israeli govt official or scholar proclaiming that to condemn Israel is to imply or bring about another Holocaust.

"Iran is a member state of the United Nations that is threatening to destroy another member state of the United Nations," [former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres] said. To be fair, at the time Sharon was an ex-govt offical, certainly not a scholar, and he doesn't say "Holocaust" but to many people the destruction of Israel the state is more or less synonmous with the destruction of Israel the people.

What Judt explains is that the focus on the historical events of the middle of the last century has changed between now and then. He doesn't describe how (or why) this has happened only that it has. It is on one hand an interesting look at the collective memory of mankind.

My own experience tells me that many Americans today believe the US entered the war to stop Hitler and the Holocaust, not really realizing that the systematic murder of Jews and others was not reflected in the self-interests of the nation at that time. Germany declared war on America the day after Japan its war with America at Pearl Harbour. America's involvement in WW2 had nothing to do with the Holocaust and that would seem to be the cold, hard truth of the matter.

Judt's main point seems to be that "a Holocaust focus" today can be taken too far, that the Holocaust - like the black hole of humanity that it was - can bend and distort the light around it.

He's in a way making the argument of the Iranian president, in a somewhat more scholarly and eloquent way.
posted by three blind mice at 3:25 AM on January 30, 2008


I lost a lot of sympathy for Israel when I realized how brutally they acted to repress any semblance of secular "Yiddish" culture, which I'm crazy about. The most vibrant flowering of Jewish culture in the 20th century has left almost no living trace; Israel did a lot to finish it off - forcing the Hebrewizing of names, banning Yiddish-language magazines and newspapers, state-supported attacks on certain writers and artists who didn't support certain linguistic or cultural directives, and so on. It is not what one expects from a "democracy."

Forced Hebraicisation of names? Never happened. Or do you think the families of people well known in Israel like Arik Einstein and Ezer Weizmann got some kind of 'Einstein / Weizmann' exemption for people whose names end in 'n'? Lots of people did Hebraicise because it was a popular and forward looking move in the thirties and forties. Forced? No. There was a Gruenbaum in the first Israeli cabinet.

Banning Yiddish language magazines and newspapers? There were plenty in Israel last I looked, and though they largely weren't secular, there just aren't that many secular Yiddish speakers there or anywhere any more.

State-supported attacks on certain writers and artists who didn't support certain linguistic or cultural directives? Like who? What? When? Are you telling me that Bashevis Singer would have written even more than 18 novels in Yiddish and collected even more Nobel prizes if the evil Mossad agents hadn't stopped him by... showing up in New York and feeding him herring until he became vegetarian? Also, how did Agnon get away with all that mediaeval and mishnaic Hebrew in his voluminous output before picking up his Nobel? Surely he should have been writing strictly in a modern style. Or Ben-Yitzhak whose style was essentially Biblical? If there was a Zionist Hebrew culture thought police they did a crap job.

There is something extremely pernicious and axe-grindy about the idea that it was Israel and not - say - the Nazis, who killed off secular Yiddishkeit. It's the old old argument between the Jewish socialist Bund (centered around Yiddish) and the Socialist Zionists (centered around Hebrew) which the Bundists lost very badly, mainly by dying at the hands of the Nazis. This sounds like a pale echo of that argument, or would do if it wasn't for the grinding of that axe, which is all I can hear.

Israel has been guilty of acting brutally towards the Palestinians. Internally the state has been guilty of acting brutally towards the wave of immigration from the Arabic speaking world in the fifties. But acting brutally towards the proponents of Yiddish speaking culture to the extent of actively repressing it? There is zero evidence for this. It was something else, not repression on the state level, but something hapenning internally in the minds of individuals finding their own solution to the argument between the Bund (z"l) and Hashomer Hatzair.

... a Jew and a leftist who still believes in Israel and its democracy...

Blimey. Two of us. Wow.

*waves*

I honestly thought it was just me left. And lately I'm not even sure about me. I'm not at all sure Hashomer Hatzair should have lied down and died in 1948 and abandoned the idea of Zionist support for a binational state. And now everyone seems to think that Zionist thought runs on a continuum from Sharon on the left to Kahane on the right, which makes it almost impossible to discuss anything with anyone without a massive preamble which many people simply can't get their heads round.
posted by motty at 3:38 AM on January 30, 2008 [6 favorites]


Clarification time. What I was saying was that since the Nazis went after the Roma during the time they went after the Jews, the Roma are not the new Jews...the gypsies have alwys been the victim in areas of Europe, but the hatred toward them is hardly equivalent to rounding them up and killing them. Think of Blacks in America, or the new Jews--towelheads as they are called or wetbacks.

As for Israel; it has long been a central idea that Jews worldwide would "return home" to israel--thus if there were anti-semitism, that would wake up the Jews to migrate to Israel, so it would seem, and thus Israel is saying that anything bad said about the state of Israel is a show of antisemitism. In fact, many many within Israel say many bad things about polict etc--that is called not antisemitism but democracy.

As for the reatment of Arbas in and outside Israel, suffice it to say that Israel has some million or so Arabs within Israel that are citizens--they can run for office, own land, vote, etc...if Israel is so oppressi ve, those Arabs do have the right to leave, unlike the 750 thousand Jews booted out of Arab lands.
posted by Postroad at 3:53 AM on January 30, 2008


Great article—thanks, anotherpanacea. Judt is one of the few historians who both writes clearly and readably for the general public and has a strong moral vision he applies to the world around him.
We are losing the capacity to distinguish between the normal sins and follies of mankind—stupidity, prejudice, opportunism, demagogy, and fanaticism—and genuine evil. We have lost sight of what it was about twentieth-century political religions of the extreme left and extreme right that was so seductive, so commonplace, so modern, and thus so truly diabolical. After all, if we see evil everywhere, how can we be expected to recognize the real thing? Sixty years ago Hannah Arendt feared that we would not know how to speak of evil and that we would therefore never grasp its significance. Today we speak of "evil" all the time—but with the same result, that we have diluted its meaning.
This is both true and eloquent.

Thanks for that "something else" link, motty; it was an illuminating read.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 AM on January 30, 2008


Tony Judt is da bomb.
posted by Mocata at 7:03 AM on January 30, 2008


"My own experience tells me that many Americans today believe the US entered the war to stop Hitler and the Holocaust, not really realizing that the systematic murder of Jews and others was not reflected in the self-interests of the nation at that time. Germany declared war on America the day after Japan its war with America at Pearl Harbour. America's involvement in WW2 had nothing to do with the Holocaust and that would seem to be the cold, hard truth of the matter."

This is still what we're facing now. GWB would have us believe we entered the Middle East conflict for altruistic purposes but the truth is he and his daddy were responding to pressures in the oil market - some of which we may not even fully understand. There are reasons why his dad protected Kuwait and there's reasons why we never confront Saudi Arabia. There are a great deal of gov't committing atrocities on our fellow man... The U.S. is one of them. We enter into conflict when it appears to be for our own self-interest. That's it.

It's not just war either. We didn't enter the Kyoto Accord because corporate interests found no profit in it. Other countries entered into it because they had nothing to lose. Still other countries entered into knowing it might weaken their economy rather than strengthen it, but America was not going to be one of those countries. It won't be until the average American consumer sees a direct correlation between filling their SUV with gas and changes to their environment that they'll wake up. Again, selfish self-interest.

To be fair though, sometimes selfish self-interest is enough and sometimes it can work towards altruistic ends, but only if one is a forward thinker. Though the straw that broke the camel's back for us was Pearl Harbor, we helped stop the Nazis once we got into World War Two, because we realized the systematic slaughter of jews and anyone who was not on board with The Reich meant that if we didn't stop them where they were then, they'd come after us next.
posted by ZachsMind at 7:46 AM on January 30, 2008


Postroad, Arabs in Israel cannot serve in the army; how would you feel if we didn't let blacks serve in our army?
posted by Bletch at 10:57 AM on January 30, 2008


Great point, Bletch, apart from the first bit which is wrong - the Druze are conscripted like the majority Jewish population and while members of other Israeli minorities including Arabs are not conscripted they can and do serve in the Israeli army if they choose to volunteer, though for some bizarre reason most don't. Oh, and also the second bit, which compares the situation of African Americans to the situation of Israeli Arab Palestinians with the heavy implication that those situations are very similar, which they are not, not at all, and even if they were, which they aren't, the point in any case does not apply owing to the wrongness of the first - conflating 'not being conscripted' with 'not being allowed to serve' fails the 'making any sense on any level at all' test. But thanks for playing.

God I love discussing this topic with people. I could do it all day. It's such fun.
posted by motty at 11:47 AM on January 30, 2008


Doesn't change the situation at all; it's still discrimination against a minority ethnic group. If we did this - even with a draft - it would be unacceptable and against our principles of democracy. That's why I'm making the comparison.

Israel is a fine democracy for Jews. It's much less fine for other citizens of the Jewish State, not to mention those non-citizens living in the adjacent nonfunctional occupied state whose lives it rules.

"they can and do serve in the Israeli army if they choose to volunteer, though for some bizarre reason most don't"

Laughable.
posted by Bletch at 12:33 PM on January 30, 2008


If you love it so much Motty, maybe you can do some more research so you can be better informed.

Arab Israelis are routinely, actively, and systematically discriminated against in every level of Israeli society, despite paying taxes and generally being good, quiet citizens. There are examples everywhere you look in every strata of society, in every part of the country from the Galilee to the Triangle. The most pressing examples are in public spending, where we see towns like Tayibe, which has 30k citizens and zero sewer system, crumbling roads and schools, and overcrowding due to the fact that the Government refuses to allocate land zoning for residential use, and the fact that, despite technically being able to own land, Israeli Arabs are in practice barred from buying most land, especially around their own villages, which has been annexed (aka stolen) and given to the JNF.
posted by cell divide at 12:46 PM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


Bletch, you said Arabs in Israel cannot serve in the army, and that is not true. Now you are making a different point and saying that exempting the Arabs from conscription is discrimination. That's not at all clear for reasons that ought to be obvious in terms of the complications of the situation. Moreover, in terms of the genuine discrimination the Arab Israelis do face, not having to serve in an army that could put them in extremely awkward situations is pretty much at the bottom of their list of woes.

Meanwhile, Cell divide, I agree with you completely. The situation of Arab Israelis is a complete disgrace. I never suggested otherwise and nor would I. What is your point exactly? Why the unnecessarily aggressive and belligerent tone? Why do you call me the one who needs to be better informed when I was merely responding to Bletch's point and pointing out that the emotive content in it - all of it - had no actual basis in fact. Are you maybe confusing me with someone else and this conversation with some other conversation?

A comment consisting of a factual inaccuracy coupled to a false analogy deserves being countered even when you agree with the underlying sentiment. Arguably it deserves being countered all the more so in such a case. Why is that so hard to grasp?
posted by motty at 1:10 PM on January 30, 2008


No, the IDF's discriminatory policy is a pretty clear case of racism. Arabs are presumed to be disloyal to the Jewish State, and they are discouraged from participating in the civic service that's central to it. What happens when they do try to participate?

No Arab pilots for now: The IDF's Personnel Directorate has decided to reject the request of an18-year-old Arab Muslim from northern Israel who sought to join the army's prestigious pilot training course, Israel's leading newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth reported Tuesday.

The teen's flying instructor also expressed his disappointment following the army's decision.

"There is no other way but to include all the State's citizens in running the State and protecting it. We don’t see them as part of the State today, but a large majority of them do see themselves as part of this country," he said.


This is not democracy. Arabs aren't seen as "part of the State".
posted by Bletch at 1:26 PM on January 30, 2008


Motty: Arabs are not conscripted they can and do serve in the Israeli army if they choose to volunteer

Also from the news story above:

The teen's father said Monday that "in the past few days I spoke with a senior official at the IDF's Personnel Directorate who explained to me that the course is closed to the Arab sector for the moment."

Looks like you're wrong there.
posted by Bletch at 1:31 PM on January 30, 2008


Forced Hebraicisation of names? Never happened. Or do you think the families of people well known in Israel like Arik Einstein and Ezer Weizmann got some kind of 'Einstein / Weizmann' exemption for people whose names end in 'n'? Lots of people did Hebraicise because it was a popular and forward looking move in the thirties and forties. Forced? No. There was a Gruenbaum in the first Israeli cabinet.

My source for the following is the book, "Words On Fire: The Unfinished Story Of Yiddish" by Dovid Katz who is, among other things director if research at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute.

He quotes M. Tsanin: "As far as changing names is concerned, for góles names to "names of the redemption," it was a question of economic survival. The most fanatic name changers were David Ben Gurion and [Israel's first foreign minister] Moshe Sharett [1894-1965]. They did not fail to badger anyone in their environment with the question, "When are you going to Hebraize that galút name of yours?" Sharett, himself originally Shertok, used the law. When ministries and diplomatic posts and establishment jobs were being created in the new days of the state, a candidate for a job could not even dream about being accepted without changing to a Hebraicized name.

"One of the funniest things I ever heard was the formal proposal by the second president of the State of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Tsvi, made from the dais of the Knesset, to pass a law retroactively Hebraicizing the names of the great founders of Zionism."


So, at the very least it was a sort of "coercion" if one wanted to join the elite. And, anecdotally, I've spoken to Israeli Jews (with Hebraicized names) who regret the loss of their "real" names and the sort of chauvinism shown towards anything Yiddish, but who say it "had" to be done in order to get by. This hardly squares with the "popular and forward looking" sensibility you describe. To be excluded from jobs, posts and privileges (there's a lot more about this in the book) on the basis of one's name is a kind of "force."

Banning Yiddish language magazines and newspapers? There were plenty in Israel last I looked, and though they largely weren't secular, there just aren't that many secular Yiddish speakers there or anywhere any more.

Today, perhaps . . . but the damage has been done. As you point out, secular Yiddish speakers are mostly gone. Was it because they were repeatedly attacked by "gangs of Hebraist thugs," as was Yiddish philosopher Chaim Zhitlovsky? Or because of gangs like "the Battalion of the Defenders of the Language" who were organized to "beat up Yiddish writers, firebomb kiosks, and disrupt literary and cultural events" - and championed by Zionist leaders and scholars? When editors and publishers of the Yiddish paper Tog created and funded (at massive cost) a chair for Yiddish studies at Hebrew University, the Battalion "incited rioting, roughed up professors and members of the relevant committees, and pasted the city with posters condemning the plan to put an abomination in the sanctuary of Hebrew purity." Much of this happened before the formal establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, but nearly all the early Israeli leaders were either directly involved or in public support of these actions.

And yes, Yiddish papers and magazines may exist today, but in the beginning, as Katz writes, they were banned. Well, not "banned" exactly - they had the legal right to exist, if they secured a permit. But the Israeli government would not issue permits to Yiddish newspapers. This is part (just part) of what I regard as "state-supported attacks on certain writers and artists who didn't support certain linguistic or cultural directives." Katz details how some savvy Yiddish-language publishers tried to get around these de facto bans (most of the ultimately unsuccessful, but the stories are great.) I don't have the energy to copy all the relevant parts of the book, but let me provide two more items:

1) ". . . the campaign against Yiddish picked up steam in the wake of the arrival of Yiddish-speaking refugees from Europe. One metaphor for the period was founding Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion's walking out of the reception for the first anti-Nazi resistance fighter to reach Palestine after the war. She was Rozka Korczak (1921-1988), who escaped from the Vilna ghetto and organized partisan units in the forests. Ben-Gurion listened to her tale (told in Yiddish) for a while, then stormed out with the memorable phrase, Ha-safá tsorémet li-ba ózen (the language grates on my ear.)" Hardly the language (or behavior) that one would expect in regard to a true hero . . . but such was the popular Israeli attitude toward Yiddish.

2) Quoted in the same book, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi "sums up the ideological background to the campaign of name changes, and the implications." Here's a telling quote:

"One declared aim of the Zionist revoltuion was to create a new human being, the opposite of the old Jew in the Diaspora . . . The new Jew, the Israeli, had to be the exact opposite of the old Jew. Zionism was at one with European anti-Semitism in rejecting the traditional Jewish image."

Beit-Hallahmi is a noted Israeli scholar.

There is something extremely pernicious and axe-grindy about the idea that it was Israel and not - say - the Nazis, who killed off secular Yiddishkeit.

Of course, the Nazis pounded most of the nails into that coffin. But it's fair to say that, after the war, the Israeli state did turn its back on secular Yiddish culture in many ways, and there's a certain tragedy in that which I find particularly heartbreaking, admiring it as I do.

All of history is whitewashed, the more so as time goes on. I see it happening with my own genocidal experiences, and I regard that (even though it served my status as a victim in some way) as a tragedy. Why? Because I want to live an honest life. So I ask myself questions about my country of Bosnia and my experiences and those of my country's leaders. Was it right to accept aid from militant Islamic states? (We were starving and had no arms to defend ourselves, but still . . . ) Are the atrocities committed by my nation as bad as atrocities committed in unchallenged aggression by Serbs, when ours were committed in defense, after suffering patiently as victims while waiting for international assistance which didn't arrive? (I have mixed feeling about it.)

The history of Jewish people is so amazing, and should give any Jewish person such ample cause for pride, that to avoid looking at the downside of things strikes me as ludicrous. The history of Bosnian Muslims isn't nearly as replete with fantastic achievements over such a long span of time. And the attempted genocide of Bosnian Muslims occurred so recently that it may be unfair to expect a relatively objective analysis of it. But I endeavor to do so, and if I can do it for my history, so can you do it for yours. Please read the Katz book (there are others describing these events, this just happens to be the one with which I am most familiar.) Unless you are just unwilling to confront the details of what I've briefly touched on, you will definitely find the information in it, new, interesting and worthy of thought.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 2:39 PM on January 30, 2008 [4 favorites]


Today, perhaps . . . but the damage has been done. As you point out, secular Yiddish speakers are mostly gone.

I think you overstate the role of Israeli policy and understate the role of the Nazis, general pressures to assimilate, and the messianic political nature of early Zionism. The majority of Yiddish speakers and culture were wiped out by the Nazis, not by anything that happened in Israel. Even in places that had vibrant Yiddish cultures that were primarily secular, those cultures have faded to non-existence through general assimilation. New York city is a great example of this, and there was no policy to force assimilation or formal process by which it was enforced. The turning-away from "old" culture, the culture of immigrants is a persistent theme in Jewish American fiction, tellingly written by the children of those same Yiddish speaking immigrants. And, not to be overlooked, those same Yiddish ghettos (in both Europe and the US) produced socialist and communist thinkers whose aims were to exceed the limitations of ethnic identity. In the US those folks went into the Labor movement, in Europe, through a strange set of circumstances, many of them became Zionists. It's worth reading the primary sources in The Zionist Ideal to get a sense of just how political the early Zionist movement really was. (The dueling scenes in the first volume of Arthur Koestler's autobiography give a sense of how the conflation of leftists and Jews was always a mainstay of even the pre-Nazi German right.)

Ultimately, it's a troubling choice to lay the dissolution of "secular Yiddish culture" at the feet of Israeli policy, as it overlooks the seriously threatening historical contingency that lead to Zionism and the flight to Palestine in the first place. This makes of a complex situation something about which one can lose "a lot of sympathy for Israel" rather too easily. Don't forget that Herzl didn't just decide to become a rabble-rouser to fuck up the Middle East, he was a reporter covering the horrors of the Dreyfus Affair when he decided that enough was probably too much.
posted by OmieWise at 4:58 PM on January 30, 2008


Ultimately, it's a troubling choice to lay the dissolution of "secular Yiddish culture" at the feet of Israeli policy, as it overlooks the seriously threatening historical contingency that lead to Zionism and the flight to Palestine in the first place.

This is a very reasonable reply, although it seems fair to mention two things in response to it.

One is that the establishment of Israel was the subject of great debate among Jews. This was for many reasons, which weren't necessarily interrelated . . . but some of the ones relevant to this dialogue had to do with the ways in which "Jewish" (meaning "secular Yiddish") culture would be altered, given that it was considered (and was) something which was defined partially in context of the states in which it existed. Another is that Zionism was considered to presuppose strongly nationalistic and religious ideas which were anathema to the lively secular beliefs and activities of many Jews. These reservations, in retrospect, were not entirely without justification. So there did exist a desire to maintain this unique culture among its people.

The other is the issue of assimilation. I wouldn't expect secular Yiddish culture to last in the USA, which is the ultimate assimilatory nation. Yiddish speakers in America were but of many immigrant groups, all of which assimilated - in fairly quick order - to the strong and pre-existing, English-speaking and largely secular culture. There wouldn't have been any advantage (save for deliberate exclusion, as with some religious communities) to not assimilating.

But the issue of secular Jewish assimilation isn't necessarily comparable in a country in a self-defined Jewish state, especially one in which the majority native language its citizens would have been Yiddish (and most Sephardic Jews spoke Arabic!) Even if Hebrew had managed to become the de facto national language without the unnatural forces which allowed it to do so with astonishing speed, secular Yiddish culture may have survived much longer if allowed to freely run its course.

In many ways, Israel has made it known that it considers itself even the ex post facto legal authority of the Jewish people, which - despite awkward moments - doesn't seem unreasonable to me. Yet in doing so, Israel also takes on the responsibility for preserving the culture of Jewish people in its myriad forms. This is the stated opinion of the Israeli government itself.

From that perspective, the historical treatment of secular Yiddish culture by Israel has been unfortunate . . . which was really my point.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 9:05 PM on January 30, 2008


One is that the establishment of Israel was the subject of great debate among Jews. [...] Another is that Zionism was considered to presuppose strongly nationalistic and religious ideas which were anathema to the lively secular beliefs and activities of many Jews.

I agree entirely that Zionism was a contentious movement among European Jews. The early history of the movement is filled with healthy and vigorous debate. There were many folks who thought it was unnecessary, that assimilation in Germany, for instance, had made the need for a Jewish homeland superfluous. Among the same group of politically progressive young people who formed early Zionist groups, there was indeed objection to the nationalism inherent in Zionism, when many were interested in trans-national political movements. And there was concern among religious Jews that an organized aliyah to Palestine was somehow interfering with the proper unfolding of messianic history.

The friendship of Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin is particularly interesting in this regard because they felt so differently about these issues. Scholem became a Zionist early, studied Hebrew, moved to Palestine. Benjamin aligned himself with leftist politics in Germany, immersed himself in high culture and made his life as a critic and writer. Scholem's memoir of their friendship shows how close were there beginnings and how much they disagreed about. Their collected letters are similarly illuminating. Benjamin was deeply unconvinced that a Jewish state was a good idea, and felt that Zionism limited, rather than expanded the options of European Jews. But, again, this was a debate occurring in the 20s and 30s. Benjamin killed himself in 1940 while fleeing the Nazis. The story looks and seems much different before one gets to the end, as its a story of intellectual debate, where several different options seem to have equal legitimacy. By the end, however, the terms of the debate have shifted radically, obviating much of what came before. That doesn't and shouldn't erase history, but it does suggest that we need to include all of the terms to understand the outcomes.

On the other hand, Diaspora culture is indeed something that should be preserved. The point that assimilation should be expected to work differently in Israel is a good one. I've always thought it was telling that in 1956, when Egypt expelled the Jews, so many of them fled to Paris rather than Israel.
posted by OmieWise at 4:36 AM on January 31, 2008


This is a great discussion, and I'd just like to thank you guys for being so polite and informative while disagreeing. Kudos.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 AM on January 31, 2008


Ditto lh
posted by lalochezia at 10:56 PM on January 31, 2008


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