The High Court of Justice in London, 1967. Dr Miklos Yaron, a Hungarian gynaecologist, is suing his former assistant Ruth Kaplan for libel. Kaplan has published a pamphlet accusing Yaron of collaboration with Nazi leaders in 1944. As a member of the Central Jewish Council set up by the Nazis, Yaron had known that millions of Jews had already died in extermination camps. Nonetheless he agreed to assist Eichmann with his plan to destroy the Jews of Hungary.
Is there anyone in Britain interested in the theatre, in civil liberties or in Jews who can’t identify this as a scene from Jim Allen’s play Perdition? The successful lobbying by Jews in Britain to have its production cancelled has made it one of the most famous plays of the decade. I have read it and like it very little, but by forcing its cancellation, modern Jewish leaders, Zionists among them, have given credibility to one of the assertions Allen makes about Zionist leaders of the past. A Jewish joke if ever there was one, but not many people are laughing.
As the play is set entirely in the courtroom, I’ll start with a confession: I am the only Jew in England who is not an expert on Zionist politics 1939-1945. Have you put on your picketing shoes yet? Hold on, there’s more. When I was growing up in South Africa I was totally uninterested in – not to say, embarrassed by – Zionism, or, more accurately, by Zionists. How I felt is captured by Lenni Brenner’s account, in Jews in America Today[*] of the callow youth who are heard to say: ‘I wouldn’t be seen dead with those creeps.’ Reading the correspondence Perdition elicited, it came back to me why I felt as I did.
In the play, Ruth Kaplan charges Yaron with gross self-interest. She claims that Yaron’s reward for keeping silent about the fate he knew awaited the Hungarian Jews in the camps was that he, his family and his associates would be allowed to emigrate to Israel. Yaron’s defence is twofold. If he had not obeyed Eichmann, he would have been executed. Indeed, many other members of the Central Jewish Council had refused and were killed. More important, he had also been a member of the Zionist Rescue Committee which had achieved some success in smuggling Jews out of the country, even in freeing a number from the camps. He believed his duty lay in bargaining with Eichmann for the lives of doomed Jews. To turn his back was to abandon all of them. To collaborate was to give some, however few, a chance of life.
That collaboration such as Yaron’s occurred is not in question. In the course of the play, however, witnesses are wheeled on to bring more complex charges against Zionism and the early Zionist leaders. Allen believes that the roots of Yaron’s collaboration ‘lay in prewar efforts of Zionism to effect an alliance with the Nazis’. It is here that the play’s accuracy and integrity have been challenged.
[*] Jews in America Today (Al Saqi, 370 pp., £25 and £7.95, 19 February, 0 86356 124 1).
Vol. 9 No. 10 · 21 May 1987
SIR: David Lan (LRB, 2 April) disingenuously quotes Claude Lanzmann, director of the monumental film Shoah and Jim Allen, author of Perdition, as if their approach to the reconstruction of the Holocaust is somehow congruent. To be sure, both Lanzmann and Allen refer to the Holocaust today as a ‘myth’, but the meanings which they attach to this much abused word could hardly differ more. As Lan wrenches both quotations out of context, it seems only fair to examine both statements in more detail. Allen argues that his play ‘is the most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, a state which is itself racist.’ For Allen, the Holocaust is an ideological prop for the defence of the state of Israel. By crudely exposing the Holocaust as a ‘myth’ – that is, by demonstrating that Jews colluded in their own destruction – he is able to bring about a ‘lethal attack on Zionism’.
Lanzmann in the Jewish Quarterly, on the other hand, argues that if books can be written today which purport to show that the Holocaust did not occur – or, for that matter, that Jews are no longer victims of Nazism – then the Holocaust today, in Lanzmann’s phrase, ‘has all the characteristics of a mythical account’. Lan, however, conveniently avoids Lanzmann’s explanation of this statement. For Lanzmann the Holocaust has been trivialised ‘because all reality of the Holocaust is dissolving at one and the same time into both the dim distance and the stereotyped profundity of myth, without it ever having been properly transmitted.’ Perdition is a perfect example of the distorted ‘transmission’ of the Holocaust. Lanzmann’s Shoah is precisely constructed to counter such ‘myths’. Scholars as varied as Geoffrey Hartman, Saul Friedlander and Alvin Rosenfeld have written of the trivialisation of the Holocaust in contemporary Western society. The very fact that Lan can address the relative merits of Perdition and Shoah in the same breath is, I fear, ample evidence for this thesis.
SIR: I am an admiring reader of your magazine – except in its attitude towards Jewish nationalism (i.e. Zionism, in case you don’t recognise the description). Each time I receive my copy I ask myself: ‘what nasty things do they have to say about Zionism this time around?’ I am rarely disappointed.
Your approach to Zionism is so uniformly hostile as to cause me to believe that this must be an editorial decision. Why do I say this? Well, look at your last edition as an example – the article by David Lan. Here is a man who was anti-Zionist even while growing up and who, on his own admission, knows little about Zionist politics between 1939-1945. Yet he is given the opportunity to write a major article on this complicated and tortuous subject by a major literary magazine. One can only be drawn to the conclusion that he was recruited for this task because of these qualifications, not despite them. As for the probably forthcoming defence that Lan is Jewish, it is a widely-used ploy to employ Jews for anti-Zionist polemic. Anti-Zionism in the Soviet Union today is a case in point. The fact that Zionism, Jewish nationalism, is an integral part of Judaism is certainly not understood by such critics, and nowhere accepted. In fact, it is rigidly rejected. (‘To be against Zionism is not to be anti-semitic’ etc, etc.) The terrible history and the agonising decisions concerning negotiations with the Nazi regime by Zionist and non-Zionist Jews between 1939 and 1945 are nowhere reflected in Lan’s review. The fact that such activities could be morally lacerating to Jewish and Zionist leaders is not even hinted at – extensively documented though it is. It appears to be true that Zionism and Israel cannot get a fair hearing or judicious assessment in your pages. I wish it were otherwise.
David Lan writes: If Bryan Cheyette can deal with both Perdition and Shoah in one letter I don’t see why I can’t do the same in one article. Readers who refer to Allen’s and Lanzmann’s respective interviews will find that they both regard the ‘myth of the Holocaust’ as an obstacle to the transmission of the truth because, in Lanzmann’s phrase, ‘it is the property of myth … to be infinitely available to appropriation, to offer no resistance to any attempt at distortion … to be more obstinate than the facts.’ The truths they perceive, of course, differ, but no wrenching of contexts has occurred. As to Nelson’s suggestion that I am the witting tool of (yet another) anti-Zionist conspiracy, may I assure him that the London Review commissioned the article with no foreknowledge of my reaction to the works I reviewed, or of my attitude to nationalism, Jewish or otherwise.