Category Archives: Judaica

Books and movies of interest to the Jewish community

“WITNESSES”— Three Stories

“WITNESSES”

Three Stories

Amos Lassen

“Witnesses” is made up of three intertwined stories, told from the perspective of a pair of shoes, a German shepherd puppy, and a violin. They come together in this powerful Holocaust drama directed by Konstantin (“Costa”) Fam. It was filmed in Moscow, New York, Prague and Brest and is the first Russian production on the Holocaust and the first production to film in Auschwitz (even Steven Spielberg was not allowed to film there).

With neither dialogue nor faces, a pair of red women’s shoes discovered in a store window tells the story of the round up of the Jews and ends on display at Auschwitz in ‘Shoes.’

A German shepherd puppy (‘Brutus’), given as a gift to a Jewish woman, becomes a tool of terror when an SS officer commandeers it after an edict is issued that Jews can no longer own pets.

The three stories come together in ‘Violin,’ which follows a lovingly-crafted instrument from its creation in pre-war Europe to modern-day New York. Discovered by a modern virtuoso, played by Lenn Kudrjawizki, the violin finds its way to the Wailing Wall in Israel for a final concert.

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”— Jewish, Gay and in Japan

“THE STRANGEST STRANGER”

Jewish, Gay and in Japan

Amos Lassen

In Haruki Murakami’s novel ‘Kafka on the Beach’, we meet a mysterious man who calls himself Johnnie Walker. Is he modeled on Joni Waka, a Jewish man living in Tokyo, or is it the other way round? The charismatic and talkative Waka is a true chameleon and a self-proclaimed outsider, a “mythomaniac”, a homosexual and the natural center of every party. He claims to come from an age-old Jewish lineage.

“The Swedish artist Magnus Bärtås met Waka 20 years ago, and has since been fascinated by how this professional oddball has cultivated his entire life story as fiction. Joni Waka ignores all social norms – and there are a few of these in Japan – and sees himself as a ‘henna gaijin’, the strangest among strangers. He has a self-image that launches him into many confrontations and adventures, and he insists on living it out every single moment of his life. Rumor has it that there is something about the African man whom Waka once seduced in Daqar.”

Waka claims that he is the only Jew left in Japan descending from the old Jewish families in the country. Confronted with a social pressure, he seems to ignore dominating norms and moral, and at the same time using his outside position, as a henna gaijin (the “strangest stranger”) as a space of freedom to stage his life and create an everyday comedy.

This is a mesmerizing documentary with more questions than answers, not just about Waka, but also the very nature of truth.

“BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” by Anshel Pfeffer— Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Pfeffer, Anshel. “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”, Basic Books, 2018.

Understanding Israel/Netanyahu

Amos Lassen

Anshel Pfeffer’s “BIBI: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu” is a “deeply reported biography of the scandal-plagued Israeli Prime Minister, showing that we cannot understand Israel–its history, present, and future–without first understanding the life and worldview of the man who leads it.”

Benjamin Netanyahu finds himself involved in scandals that are all of his own making, and may soon be ousted from the office he has held longer than any prior Israeli Prime Minister aside from David Ben Gurion. Bibi is no stranger to controversy. For many in Israel and elsewhere, he is “an embarrassment, a threat to democracy, even a precursor to Donald Trump” yet he continues to dominate Israeli public. He may survive his current crises, the most challenging of his career.

Pfeffer argues that we must see Netanyahu as “representing the triumph of the underdogs in the Zionist enterprise.” Born in 1949, Netanyahu came of age in a nation dominated by liberal, secular Zionists. His grandfather and father left him with a brand of Zionism that integrates Jewish nationalism and religious traditionalism and he identified with the groups at the margins of Israeli society including right-wing Revisionists, orthodox, Mizrahi Jews, and small-time professionals living in the new towns and cities of Israel. He carefully cultivated each faction individually and then brought them into a coalition that has frequently proven unstoppable in Israeli politics.

Netanyahu also spent many years in America where he learned the techniques of modern political campaigns as well as the necessity of controlling the media cycle. He is product of the affluent East Coast Jewish community and the Reagan era whose politics and worldview were formed as much by American Cold War conservatism as by his family’s right-wing Zionism.

It appears that Netanyahu’s influence will endure even if his career soon comes to an end. The Israel he has helped make is a mix “of ancient phobia and high-tech hope, tribalism and globalism–just like the man himself.” Pfeffer brings together stories from Netanyahu’s time in America and Israel, and from his family history, military service, and political career to show that Netanyahu is the indomitable outsider who became Israel’s three-time prime minister. We see the ways in which the prime minister is both a product and a beneficiary of the divides that have shaped the nation’s politics from its earliest days. He is the changing face of his divided nation. Pfeffer explores the complex ideological and familial foundations that continue to shape the thinking and governing of the man who might become Israel’s longest serving Prime Minster.

Benjamin Netanyahu is haunted by scandal and is a controversial figure at home and abroad. He makes headlines and arouses strong feelings because he deals with big and enormously divisive issues (war and peace in the Middle East, the nuclear ambitions of Iran, the future of the Palestinians and the fate of the Jewish people. He has a strong sense about his in making history.`

His identity as someone who has always stood outside the mainstream might just be the key to understanding the man who sees to be beyond understanding. His grandfather and father were members of the right-wing “Revisionist” movement at a time when Zionism was dominated by the left in Eastern Europe, America and Palestine. There is a theme in the history of Israel. The country’s founding fathers and their sons behaved very differently. In the case of the Netanyahus, it was because they were not allowed to become part of the establishment and this made for unusual continuity between the generations.

Netanyahu was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, a year after Israel’s independence and what Palestinians call the Nakba (“catastrophe”) forged one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. While attending high school in Philadelphia, he saw his views as out of sync with what was Israel’s collectivist ethos. By the early 1980s, after studying at M.I.T. and working as a management consultant, Netanyahu was rising quickly at Israel’s Washington embassy. It was there, and later as ambassador to the United Nations, that he perfected his public relations skills by becoming friendly with columnists, talk-show hosts and influential and wealthy Jewish and other Americans, including the then real-estate entrepreneur Donald Trump. In 1988, he went home to join the Likud Party.

In 1995, before the trauma of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination by a Jewish extremist, Netanyahu was widely accused of “incitement.” Yasser Arafat paid Rabin’s widow a condolence call; Bibi was not welcome but he still won an election by a tiny margin soon afterward.

Pfeffer focuses on Bibi’s attitude toward the Palestinians. In his first term of office in 1996, he inherited Rabin’s Oslo agreement with the P.L.O., which the Likud opposed, but grudgingly complied with it. Back in power in 2009 after a period that encompassed the second intifada, Arafat’s death and Ariel Sharon’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, he came to appreciate how Oslo maintained Israel’s security while allowing settlements to expand as the American-led “peace process” was not going anywhere. Initially, Netanyahu was seen as committed to a two-state solution while simultaneously demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. However, just a few years later things changed. Pfeffer says that the only peace that Netanyahu will consider “is one where Israel bullies the Palestinians into submission.

Netanyahu has always seen the Palestinian issue as a diversion and terrorism and unchanging Arab and Muslim hostility were and are what he prefers to emphasize. In recent years he has been obsessed with the danger from Iran whose plans to acquire nuclear weapons threaten a new Holocaust. Barack Obama’s support for the 2015 Iranian nuclear agreement and his efforts to halt Israeli settlements gave the two major leaders a reason to hate each other.

Bibi has had to deal with investigations into bribery and corruption — accused of accepting gifts of cash, champagne and cigars and by the behavior of his wife, Sara, “whose tantrums and lavish sense of entitlement at public expense made for damaging leaks.” Nonetheless, Netanyahu wins standing ovations from supporters, in particular in the United States. He sees himself as not just Israel’s premier but as the leader of the Jewish people and he seems to have little or no concern for the problem that challenges Zionism 70 years after the birth of the Jewish state and that is what to do about the other people who live on the contested land. It seems, according to Pfeffer, that the greatest achievement of Bibi’s career can be seen as a negative one, “trying to ensure that Israel did not have clearly defined or internationally recognized borders.”

By the time this book was published and hit the stores, it was already out of date and we still have more Netanyahu to deal with.

“A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan” by Sylvia Ruth Gutmann

Gutmann, Sylvia Ruth. “A Life Rebuilt: The Remarkable Transformation of a War Orphan”, Epigraph Publishing, 2018.

The Stories We Need to Hear

Amos Lassen

I am quite sure that some of you are already over reading abut the Holocaust and I must admit that I have sometimes felt that way but we are now at the end and the Holocaust survivors that are still here will be leaving us and their stories are much too important to lose. These are stories that we need to hear—not so much because of the horrible ways that Jews were treated but how they managed to hold on during the darkest event in history. It is hard not to notice the tremendous number of books that come out very year about the rise of Nazism and the destruction of European Jewry but each book is different and while the terrible atrocities rarely vary, the people who were forced to endure them certainly do. It is really amazing to some of you to know that there are many people who know nothing about the Holocaust and it is only in recent years that it has become part of the curriculum of schools. We have been told you never forget and I do not see how we can especially when so many were affected by it.

That takes us to Sylvia Ruth Gutmann’s “A Life Rebuilt”. We do not always think of rebuilding lives but after considering what the victims of Nazism endured, it is easy to see why people want to build anew and leave behind what they experienced but that is easier said than done. Besides writing is therapeutic and doubt that anyone can deny that those who lived through the period of Nazi power, is in need of therapy. We have those whose lives were taken from them and it was necessary to rebuild. This is a story of loss and survival, resilience and the desire to live to live. It is also a story that inspires its readers to say, along with the rest of us, “Never again!!”.

Sylvia Ruth Gutmann was born to Jewish parents in 1939 in Belgium. Just six months before her birth, her parents were forced out of their Berlin home and fled across borders. From Belgium it was on the south of France where she spent the first three years of her life hiding. Then in 1942 during the summer, she and her mother and sisters were arrested by the Vichy police and sent to Rivesaltes, a French interment camperHear. After that her mother was sent to Auschwitz. In the summer of 1942, three-year-old Sylvia, her two older sisters, and her young mother were arrested by the Vichy police and shipped to the French internment camp in Rivesaltes. Shortly thereafter, her mother was deported to Auschwitz and forced to leave her children behind. Her father who was bedridden was also sent to Auschwitz and the children never saw heir parents again. Needless to say, she was traumatized and then when she was just seven, she was sent to New York where her aunt and uncle would help take care of her but this was not easy. Her uncle was a caring man but his wife was quite cruel. Sylvia was told to think ahead and not to look back and try not to remember what she had seen. The kind of messages she received in this country made her a silent person and she was forced “to hide in plain view”. For the next fifty years Sylvia tried to put her life together again. When all of this happened she had been too young to grasp what was going on but she knew she lost her parents. Like so many others, Sylvia had to build a life but she had no real awareness of what to build it on. Really the only memory that she had was that of her mother leaving her behind as she got on a train. I cannot imagine a more difficult basis upon which to build a life.

Having lived in Israel with many Holocaust survivors and being active in the American Jewish community, I have had no shortage of Holocaust stories and each affects me differently. I have tried to picture Sylvia saying goodbye to her mother at such a young age and I can’t but that is probably because I do not want to see something so terrible. I do not want to feel what Sylvia felt that day. Yet I do see it and so much more like it whenever I think about that period of history. This is a bloody and cruel heritage that we must never forget. From all of this Sylvia suffered from depression; she gained weight and it appears today that she was suffering from PTSD. She writes of her marriages, financial problems and being a mother to a child with special needs.

Sylvia was saved and hired by the United Jewish Appeal as a spokesperson and began to piece her life back together as best she could. Sylvia is a wonderful story teller which is difficult for a story of this kind but I must say that I was totally mesmerized and read the book in one sitting. And, yes, I wept because I am human. This is a story that covers sixty years and three countries. Sylvia even returned to Germany to live there for several years and while she was there, (as to why and how she got there, you will have to read to find out and then try to understand) she began to share her family’s story and fate with German students, senior citizens, and even neo-Nazi groups. She says that when she returned to Germany, she was able to honor the memory of her parents and remarks that the irony is that it was the Germans who took her parents and their freedom but then turned around and gave it to her. Her time in Germany allowed her “to reconcile with the people she had feared and loathed, and resurrected the lives of the parents she cannot remember, and cannot forget.” I doubt that there are many others who could say the same or even want to. I have a hard time with that but I did not allow it to take away from the read.

“THE INVISIBLES”— Jews in Berlin, Hiding

 

“The Invisibles”

Jews in Berlin, Hiding

Amos Lassen

You might find it surprising that even under the oppressive National Socialist regime, at the height of the war, homelessness afforded a cloak of invisibility—fortunately. The air raid blackouts also helped. Even after Berlin had been declared “free of Jews” in 1943, an estimated seven thousand remained in hiding throughout the city. About 1,700 would survive the war and outlive those that tormented them. Four of those survivors tell their stories in Claus Räfle’s dramatic-documentary hybrid or mockumentary, “The Invisibles”.

Cioma Schönhaus set a new standard to the meaning of survival. For a while, he lived night-to-night pretending to be a new draftee summoned to Berlin, living in spare rooms provided by patriotic Germans for recruits awaiting their formal mustering. Eventually, he became involved with a counterfeiting ring and saved thousands of German Jews and dissidents with his fake papers, while also making enough money to eat in fancy restaurants.

After dying her hair blonde, Hanni Lévy spent her days in cinemas and window-shopping on the Kurfürstendamm, but she never knew where she would spend her nights or where her meals would come from. Ruth Arndt and her sister would eventually become maids for a high-ranking military officer, who knowingly shielded them from his colleagues. Eugen Friede probably lived a more typically “hidden” existence, but he too would become involved with the resistance. The people we meet here did not spend much time locked away. Instead, they largely followed a hide-in-plain-sight strategy, which seemed to work, because the National Socialists never expected it. Of course, their involvement in resistance networks would raise the stakes even further if they were caught.

There have been other films that combined talking head documentary segments with dramatic representations. Director Räfle gives them both equal weight. Probably the strongest performance is that of Alice Dwyer as the desperate Lévy, but the late Schönhaus’s recollections are the most fascinating. Nevertheless, the entire ensemble is quite strong and the oral history of all four survivors is profoundly valuable.

The film adds another dimension to what we know about the horrors of National Socialism. All four survivors go out of their way to celebrate the righteous Germans who sheltered them. What this film documents and dramatizes is incredible.

“The Israel Bible” edited by Tuly Weisz— God’s Focus on the Land and People

Weisz, Tuly. “The Israel Bible”, Menorah, 2018.

God’s Focus on the Land and People

Amos Lassen

I have been hoping to see a Bible centered book about Israel and it is finally here from Menorah Books. “The Israel Bible” is centered around the Land of Israel, the People of Israel, and the relationship between them. It was designed for both Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike and is a unique commentary explaining God’s focus on the Land of Israel. The commentary is alongside the original Hebrew text and the New Jewish Publication Society translation. The chapters are highlighted by verses that relate to Israel, including relevant quotes and perspectives from prime ministers, as well as maps, charts, and illustrations. For the 70 years since of its existence, the State of Israel has been at the forefront of the world’s attention . Today, there are efforts to vilify the Jewish state and take her to task. Nonetheless, there is also an ever-expanding movement of biblical Zionists who stand with Israel as an expression of their commitment to the word of God. It is very difficult to understand the clash between the conflicting ideologies, while at the same time trying to understand what the modern world thinks.

Rabbi Tuly Weisz helps to draw the reader in to the Torah, and to the Land of Israel. In this bible, we are witness to the land and the people as one. It is almost impossible to read the Bible without thinking that the Bible, the land, and the people of Israel are one. It is so important to know about the past of Israel and its significance of Israel past, present, and future. In 1948, the prophecy came to fruition and today no one can disconnect the people from their land. Jews and Christians share a biblical heritage, and The Israel Bible shows clearly shows us that this is the land God chose for the Jewish people.

At its core, the Hebrew bible is a description of a love story between a people and its land, between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. From its earliest history, the land has been central to Jewish living and Jewish destiny. The Jewish people lived there were exiled from it, mourned it, returned to it and went to war over it. Now with the return, Israel regains its place at the center of Jewish life.

“The Israel Bible” has clear translations, introductions and incisive commentaries written by a team of impressive scholars. There are also transliterations and maps thus making this a fine study especially for those who understand and appreciate the absolute fundamental importance of Israel for the rest of the world.

 

“A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture” by Shachar Pinsker— Coffee, Jews, Modernity and Culture

Pinsker, Shachar. “A Rich Brew: How Cafés Created Modern Jewish Culture”, NYU Press, 2018

Coffee, Modernity and Culture

Amos Lassen

Shachar Pinsker gives us a fascinating look into the world of the coffeehouse and its role in shaping modern Jewish culture. There are, without question, certain places that we associated with Jews but I do not think that the coffee house is one of those. This is what makes Pinsker’s thesis so interesting to learn that coffee houses have influenced the creation of modern Jewish culture from the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. It is certainly true that in Israel, coffeehouses are places from which culture evolves but I never really thought that to be the case in the rest of the world. Roots of coffeehouses go back to the Ottoman Empire when coffee began to gain popularity in the rest of Europe. Pinsker maintains that “’otherness’” and the mix of the national and transnational characteristics of the coffeehouse might explain why many of these cafés were owned by Jews, why Jews became their most devoted habitués, and how cafés acquired associations with Jewishness.”  

Cafes “anchored a silk road of modern Jewish culture.” There was a network of interconnected cafés that were central to the modern Jewish experience in a time of migration and urbanization and these were in places like Odessa, Warsaw, Vienna, and Berlin to New York City and Tel Aviv. When I lived in Tel Aviv, a typical night out began at a coffeehouse and usually ended at one as well. Dizengoff Street was coffeehouse after coffeehouse and we would see the literary world there all the time. Pinsker tells us that it was in coffeehouses that Jewish culture was created and he learns this from newspaper articles, memoirs, archival documents, photographs, caricatures, and artwork, as well as stories, novels, and poems in varied languages set in cafés. Jewish modernity was born in the café, “nourished, and sent out into the world by way of print, politics, literature, art, and theater.” The experiences and creations that came out of the coffeehouses were felt by those who read, saw, and took in a modern culture that redefined what it meant to be a Jew.   

Pinsker’s approach here is literary with  examples of poetry and prose written in and about cafés. What we get in this book is a mixture of the social sciences and the humanities as a way to analyze and explore Jewish history. Coffeehouses are both intimate and public and religion really plays no part in that aspect of culture. While Jewish culture in most cases began in temples, synagogues and houses of studies, that culture was nurtured in coffeehouses. Modern secular Judaism is one of the byproducts of the coffee industry. I cannot help but wonder if that will continue now that there seems to be one coffeehouse for every three people and the conversations that we see and hear there are now electronic.

I am a coffee aficionado so this was a fun read for me. I remember coming to Boston from the south in the 60s and being impressed by the number of coffeehouses and the numbers of people that went to them. We had nothing like that in New Orleans except for the beignet and coffee stands in the French Quarter but it was an effort to get to them. Now these cafes are everywhere and they seem to be the preferred meeting places.

The book is heavily documented and wonderfully written besides having something interesting to say. We read “discussions of many long-forgotten or unknown texts and [see]a generous sampling of photographs of the sundry cafes’. How could that not be fascinating? Here is a Jewish cultural and literary history that shows how the café served as a place where Jewish writers, artists, and intellectuals met in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We can now add another place of Jewish culture.

“Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism” by David Kupfert Heller— The Shaping of an Ideology

Heller, Daniel Kupfert. “Jabotinsky’s Children: Polish Jews and the Rise of Right-Wing Zionism”, Princeton University Press, 2018.

The Shaping of Ideology

Amos Lassen

Note: Some of you might want to have a look at the definition of Revisionist Zionism before reading this review.

Having been a product of a Zionist youth movement, albeit not quite as radical as what was in Poland, I am quite aware of the power of the youth in shaping ideology. In Poland, between the two World Wars, both Jewish adults and youth were instrumental; in shaping the ideology of right-wing Zionism. By the end of the 30s, there were some 50,000 young Polish Jews who were members of Betar, the youth movement that grew out of Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s revisionist Zionist ideology. Poland was home to Jabotinsky’s largest following as well as the place where right-wing Zionism developed. Writer David Heller through extensive archival material has found how the young people in Betar were instrumental in shaping right-wing Zionist attitudes about the roles that authoritarianism and military force could play in the quest to build and maintain a Jewish state.

I believe it is important to stress the importance of “to build and maintain a Jewish state.” This is what all Zionist youth groups shared and they differed on just how to do this, It was certainly not easy to be young and Jewish on the eve of the Holocaust and we see here through letters, diaries, and autobiographies, the turbulent lives that these young people lived. Jabotinsky has been called many names firebrand fascist to steadfast democrat, yet he deliberately delivered multiple and contradictory messages to his young followers, leaving it to them to interpret him as they saw fit. Betar had a surprising relationship with interwar Poland’s authoritarian government and in this book we popular misconceptions about Polish-Jewish relations between the two world wars overturned and we become very aware of the fervent efforts of Poland’s Jewish youth to determine, on their own terms, who they were, where they belonged, and what their future held in store. It is important to remember that we are dealing with young minds here but these young minds had every intention of staying alive and witnessing the birth of the Jewish nation.

This is a chapter in the history of Zionism that has been ignored and often we forget about the importance of our young people. Granted a lot of the Zionist education came from the home, the right-wing Zionist ideology came from the youth themselves. Much of what they developed still has a certain allure today.

Heller reclaims little-known events in Poland before the Holocaust and uses these to produce a highly original work that is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the origins of the Zionist Right. What he has found are the stories of ordinary Betar members through their letters and diaries and autobiographies and uses these in an attempt to understand the distinctively Polish roots of right‐wing Zionism and how it developed between the two world wars in Poland under the leadership of its founder, Ze’ev Jabotinsky.

We read how Jewish youth in Poland actually understood their political and social options, and how they made sense of a world that was changing its course right in front of them. We forget that right-wing fundamentalism was on the rise throughout Europe and America as well. In effect, this book becomes the first social history of right-wing Zionism. The Revisionism that Heller shows us moves Jabotinsky from the center and we see that interwar Poland and Palestine were in constant negotiation between the leader and his base, and between youth and their elders. Heller analyzes the conditions under which Zionists come to embrace the authoritarian Right and this becomes very relevant to both contemporary life and history.

I was totally mesmerized by what I read and, in fact, I read the entire book in one sitting having been inspired by a group that I had been with earlier that day. I have always considered myself to be a knowledgeable Zionist but I suddenly realized how much I do not know and how much I have misunderstood.

Many thought that Jews were seeking a better world through Communism and were aware of the violence and repression that had accompanied the early years of Soviet rule. There were socialist Zionists who loved “the romance of the Communist revolution, with its promise to promote social justice, abolish unearned privilege, and fight anti-Semitism.”

Jews and Communism went beyond membership in the Communist Party itself. We learn that the apolitical Hashomer Hatzair movement redid itself in the cities of Warsaw, Bialystok, and Lodz and became quite radical. The youth movement’s leadership in central Poland, and soon after in Galicia, were drawing battle lines at their conferences between those who endorsed communism and called for class warfare and revolutionary struggle, and those who did not. This was already in 1925 and those who defended the youth movement’s original commitment to transcend party politics were outflanked by leaders who adopted a pro-Soviet position.

Jabotinsky reached out to the National Democrats, and expressed no concern when they praised him and referred to him as a “Jewish fascist.” There was an apparent symbiotic relationship between Betar and the Polish government. Some saw it as an expression of mutual affection but in reality it was a complex and sometimes-contradictory give-and-take between the Poles and Betar members had no intention of becoming “Poles” and they were above all else Zionists.

Toward the of the 1930’s, Jabotinsky met with the post-Pilsudski Polish officials to put into action his “Evacuation Plan”, which called for the emigration of 1.5 million eastern European Jews to Palestine in the next 10 years. He learned that Polish anti-Semitism was the byproduct of economic rivalry between Poles and Jews in a poor and overcrowded Poland. overcrowded poverty-stricken nation.

Many young Jews were politically promiscuous, frequently changing party affiliations and Poles thought of them as having ephemeral loyalties. By July 1944, Revisionists were meeting with Soviet officials in order to solicit Soviet support for the State of Israel. (p. 246).

When we speak of fascism we begin to understand that there is really no straightforward or objective definition of a fascist. It was said that the Revisionists are Jewish fascists and many Betar members agreed, but many did not. Some Betar leaders suggested that the Revisionist movement had a great deal to learn from Germany’s Nazi Party. Jabotinsky always maintained his belief in democracy, although he was known to say that “fascism has many good ideas”.

Heller maintains, in opposition to others that thought differently that Jabotinsky did not anticipate the Holocaust. Jabotinsky said that Jews needed to leave Europe because of the economic boycott of Jews and not because of the Nazi reign of terror.

I was a bit disappointed that Heller did not cover Jabotinsky’s views with those of fellow-Revisionist Jacob Gens, the eventual Judenrat leader of the Vilna Ghetto under the Nazi German occupation. Jacob Genes had that Jews, while seeking their own homeland, should be unswervingly loyal to the nations in which they live. They should not be separatists demanding special rights or deny patriotic bonds.

A definition of Revisionist Zionism:

Revisionist Zionism (Union of Zionists-Revisionists; abbr. Hebrew name, Ha-Ẓohar; later New Zionist Organization) was the movement of maximalist political Zionists founded and led by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky in Poland. In the later 1920s and in the 1930s, the Revisionists became the principal Zionist opposition party to Chaim Weizmann’s leadership and to the methods and policy of the World Zionist Organization and the elected Jewish leadership in the Land of Israel. The initial nucleus of the Revisionist movement consisted of a group of Russian Zionists who had supported Jabotinsky during World War I in his campaign for the creation of a Jewish Legion.

the main instrument of economic activity, and to conduct a “political offensive” which would induce the British government to adapt its policy in Palestine to the original intention and spirit of the Declaration. The Revisionists based their ideology on Theodor Herzl’s concept of Zionism as essentially a political movement, defined by Jabotinsky as follows: “Ninety per cent of Zionism may consist of tangible settlement work, and only ten per cent of politics; but those ten percent are the precondition of success.” The basic assumption was that as long as the mandatory regime in Palestine was essentially anti-Zionist, no piecemeal economic achievements could lead to the realization of Zionism, i.e., the establishment of a Jewish state with a Jewish majority in the entire territory of Palestine, “on both sides of the Jordan.”

At its inception, the Revisionist program centered on the following demands: to reestablish the Jewish Legion as an integral part of the British garrison in Palestine, to develop the Jewish Colonial Trust as the main instrument of economic activity, and to conduct a “political offensive” which would induce the British government to adapt its policy in Palestine to the original intention and spirit of the Balfour Declaration.

 

“BYE BYE GERMANY”— Coming to America

“Bye Bye Germany” ( “Es war einmal in Deutschland”)

Coming to America?

Amos Lassen

David Berman and his friends who are all Holocaust survivors want to go to America as soon as possible. For this they need money. Director Sam Garbarski brings us a story about surviving Jews after World War II and their struggles to make a new life in and/or leave a war-ridden Germany. The film recreates post-WWII Germany and actor Moritz Bleibtreu carries the film steadily with a solid performance. surrounded by a number of more or less fully drawn supporting characters. The film is filled with heart and there are a few moments of poignancy as the horrors of the war is seen in flashbacks.

Dealing with the delicate subjects of Jews left behind in Germany after the concentration camps and investigations into collaboration between deportees and the profiteers of the post-war period in the same film is a big job. Doing this through comedy without disrespect is commendable. Belgian director was honored for his film at the Berlin Film Festival, one of the very big and important showcases for new films. This German-Belgian-Luxembourgish co-production ventures into an area that is both well known and hazardous: the use of Jewish humor on the darkest period in history. Moritz Bleitreu is David Bermann the leader of a group of concentration camp survivors, each with their own story and trauma, who recruits them to join forces to set up a business selling household linen. Germans are seemingly in serious need of this, and guilt-ridden enough not to slam the door in the face of a group of Jewish traveling salesmen. The idea is to make enough money to leave Germany and head for America. The group is filled with the energy and audacity of Bermann who starts producing curtains “made in Paris” and the group makes it up as they go along to peddle their goods to their clients. The film uses a series of cynically comical and visionary methods, in terms of marketing. 

Alongside these comical incidents, the general atmosphere is effectively conveyed by the opening scene, in which we see a little three-legged dog (here, everyone has some sort of injury) running between the shacks of a destroyed Berlin to a spiffy tune which, against this backdrop. The film has another more solemn plotline— Over the course of a series of interrogations, a young German Jew who emigrated to the United States shortly after 1933 (Antje Traue), who has returned to Germany to join the post-war effort, tries to establish, on the orders of the allied forces, whether or not David collaborated or not from his concentration camp, to survive there. Bermann’s humor and gall make his testimony into a huge pack of lies, peppered with Yiddish, in which he explains how he was hired to teach Hitler the art of telling jokes. 

Each plotline and sub-plotline within the film leads to a big twist of fate, which could be seen as positive or tragic, before Bermann concludes by sparing a thought for the Jews who, like him, made the inexplicable choice to stay behind. Covering dark subject matter with a light touch is a difficult balance to achieve, and “Bye Bye Germany” gets it right… most of the time. The film has an interesting perspective in that its characters live in a displaced persons camp near Frankfurt in 1946. David is a Jewish peddler who was a successful wheeler and dealer before and during his time at a concentration camp. While he’s grateful for his liberty, he would enjoy it more with a lot of cash and so he creates his scheme.

This is another German film dealing with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. But there is one crucial difference here and that is that it focuses on the lives of those Jews who stayed in Germany.

We cannot forget that 75 years ago Germany happily supported the humiliation and deportation of millions of people, the mass killings, and the gassing of men, women, and children. Garbarski was born in Germany but he is actually Belgian and I have always found it interesting that there are so few German movies made about the Holocaust. This is a funny, sad, and moving film that will make you laugh and cry with its very good Jewish black humor.

“Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century” by James Loeffler— The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Loeffler, James. “Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century”, Yale UP, 2018.

The Forgotten Jewish Roots of International Human Rights

Amos Lassen

James Loeffler gives us an original look at the forgotten Jewish political roots of contemporary international human rights, told through the moving stories of five key activists.

2018 marks the seventieth anniversary of two important events in twentieth-century history: the birth of the State of Israel and the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The two are tied together in the ongoing debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, global anti-Semitism, and American foreign policy. However, the surprising connections between Zionism and the origins of international human rights are completely unknown today. In “Rooted Cosmopolitans”, James Loeffler explores this controversial history through the stories of five remarkable Jewish founders of international human rights. He follows them from the prewar shtetls of eastern Europe to the postwar United Nations, a journey that includes the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, the founding of Amnesty International, and the UN resolution of 1975 labeling Zionism as racism.

The five men we follow are:

Peter Berenson, British lawyer, Jewidh youth activist and Holocaust rescuer turned Catholic convert and founder of Amnesty International.

Professor Hersch Lauterpacht, Polish Zionist and founding father of international human rights law and key drafter of the Israeli Declaration of Independence

Dr. Joseph Robinson, leader of the interwar Lithuanian Jewry and legal pioneer behind the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials and the International Refugee Convention

Jacob Blaustein, American Jewish leader and chief human rights booster in postwar American foreign policiy

Rabbi Maurice Perlzweig, British Zionist leader turned UN human rights activist

Here is a book that challenges long-held assumptions about the history of human rights and offers a surprising new perspective on the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There are several surprises here and they alone are worth the cost of the book but there is also so much more. I was totally surprised in that I consider myself knowledgeable in Jewish and Israeli history, yet I knew nothing about the five men at the core of the book. I was also somewhat shocked at what the book has to say about Hannah Arendt who, while I do not always agree with her, I have always been stunned by her knowledge and discourse. I believe her to be one of the great mines of the twentieth century.

We see and better understand the complex aspirations for global justice. Here is reshaped Jewish and human rights history. Loeffler’s research reconstructs the forgotten role of Jewish leaders in creating the architecture of human rights and gives us a nuanced account of the common origin of Zionism and human rights organizations “and of their increasingly tortured relationship.”

The book challenges orthodoxies both on the right and on the left and it can transform popular understandings of this critical period of history. Loeffler rewrites our received narratives about human rights and Zionism.